Child's Play: 5 Lessons I Learned From Editing Children’s Books

April 1, 2019

[monalyngarcia/corbis]
[monalyngarcia/corbis]

I don’t have a degree in marketing or communications. I never practiced — or even studied — public relations until January 2018, when I was hired as a PR manager. (Full disclosure: I only manage myself and the occasional intern.) 

The truth is that I was an English major in college and spent seven years in the publishing industry, editing children’s books. But when I got my PR job I brought important skills to the role. The ability to write and edit well is a must in public relations, and working in children’s publishing meant I knew how to tell a story, and could do so succinctly.

Here are five PR lessons I learned from the world of picture books. (As a bonus, you’ll get lots of reading recommendations.)

1. Choose words wisely.

The children’s book “Dragons Love Tacos” by Adam Rubin contains only 501 words. Maurice Sendak’s classic “Where the Wild Things Are” has 336. The picture book “Ball” by Mary Sullivan uses just one word — “ball” — over and over.

As PR professionals, we’re tasked with pitching stories to the media, putting together talking points and writing press releases. None of those can be novel length — not even close. I learned to write a first draft and then slash it with a red pen. We have to make every word count.

Like picture-book authors, we also have to consider our word choices and make sure they reflect the way our audience communicates. Do the words fit our brand voice?

2. Remember journalists are like parents.

What do all parents hate? A children’s book that’s repetitive, boring or not suited to their family. What do all journalists hate? Pitches that are outdated, irrelevant or not personalized.

To earn consistent coverage for your clients, approach a journalist as you would a parent — the latter being someone who desperately needs a new bedtime story to avoid reading “Goodnight Moon” for the hundredth time. Build on what reporters already like and write about, just as you might recommend a book to a parent based on another of their child’s favorite titles.

You can take the opposite route and give journalists something fresh to cover. Or catch their attention by connecting your brand to a larger conversation: “April is National Poetry Month, and Shel Silverstein’s ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ is a perfect way to introduce poetry to kids.”

3. Use images that tell stories.

Children learn words from pictures before they can read. We’ve all seen a little one point to a book and shout, “Alligator!” even though they haven’t learned the alphabet yet.

In many media outlets today, video and photos are replacing long-form writing. We should fight for our beloved words, but we also need to accept the instant reaction that images provide.

Take inventory of your image assets. Can each photo tell a story on its own, or does it need a caption or even a full paragraph to explain it? Some picture books don’t use a single letter and still sell thousands of copies. Can your photos do the same?

4. Think of brand messages like book titles.

A cover is a book’s best marketing tool. With millions of people shopping for books online, only a thumbnail image stands between a potential purchase and continued scrolling.

The jury’s out on whether a book’s cover or its title packs the bigger punch, but we’ve already discussed photos, so let’s focus on the power of words. If your brand lacks a clear, attention-grabbing message, mission statement or slogan — a title, so to speak — media and consumers will move on.

We should be able to summarize a brand’s story in ten or fewer words that resonate with people’s needs and make them want to learn more. Like a book title, this message should appear on your website and in your social media bios, and it should inspire your writing and pitching.

In essence, it’s your brand voice and it lets you rise above the noise.

5. Make the old new again.

Have you read any vampire fiction lately? What about dystopian stories? While not picture-book fodder, those themes were huge successes for young adult books in the late 2000s. In 2019, not so much.

On the flip side, the children’s picture book “The Poky Little Puppy” — first published 77 years ago, in 1942 — remains a best-seller to this day. A book that teaches babies and toddlers about animals, colors and numbers never goes out of style. In your media pitches, look for ways to tie your clients and brands to timeless topics. 

Balancing trends with time-tested techniques helps create effective messages. Even as you strive to stay ahead of new developments, don’t be afraid to capitalize on evergreen strategies. For inspiration, take a leaf from Eric Carle’s books. His classic “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” was first published in 1969. Almost 50 years later, he gave us “Love From the Very Hungry Caterpillar,” featuring the same green bug that has influenced generations of young readers. The new book has plenty of nostalgia to make it a perennial hit.

In your PR messages, you can also find ways to share stories that resonate with audiences old and new.

The moral of this story? (Pun intended.) Read more children’s books.

Jillian Manning

Jillian Manning is PR manager at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. She loves exploring northern Michigan, getting lost in a good book and catching a Traverse City sunset.

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