Bethany Roberts' Writing for Children Workshop: Writing Childrens Books: Rejection Letters

Childrens Writing...

Writing for Children

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Famous Rejection Stories- You're in good company
Reading Between the Lines-
what a rejection letter can tell you about your writing

Did you know?  
Famous Children's Book Rejection Letters 
(or You Are in Good Company!)

Most writers say they got enough rejection letters to wallpaper a room before they sold their first story.  And even after they have sold a number of stories, most writers still get rejection letters.  So if you have been getting nothing but rejection letters in your writing career so far, remember, you have lots of company!  Here are some famous rejection stories :

  • Dr. Seuss got rejection letters, too.  Here is one:
    "too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling."

  • Here's a rejection letter for THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK:
    "The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level."

  • Madeleine L"Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME was turned down 29 times.

  • And THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT was turned down so many times, Beatrix Potter initially self-published it.

Reading Between The Lines

So what does an editor mean when she or he says "not right for our list"?  Editors often use phrases that mean a lot to them- but can be hard for a writer to interpret.  If you have ripped up your rejection letters or crumpled them into a ball out of frustration, tape them back together and smooth them out.  You really can learn a lot from reading them- calmly!

At a recent SCBWI-LA Writers' Day, Melanie Cecka, Senior Editor at Viking Children's Books, shed much light on this issue.  Here are some of her "translations" of editorese:

When an editor says...  they may mean...

On theme:

  • "Didactic" or "heavy-handed"= Lesson, message,  or moral-driven story.  

  • "Lacks staying power" or "may not endure"= May not be the kind of story a child will ask to hear or want to read again.

On plot:

  • "Slight" or "thin"= Not enough going on.  Premise seems to weak to build a story around.

  • "Predictable"= Reader knows from start to finish what to expect of the story.

  • "Too wordy" or "too long"= Story takes too long to read; young listeners may lose interest along the way.  May also indicate that descriptions are drowning out the flow of the story.

  • "Slow-paced"= Story drags, or takes too long to get where it's going.

  • "Sentimental"- May reflect an author's interest in their own childhood experiences or views.  Stories may be thinly cloaked memoirs.

  • "Quiet"= Not enough happens.  

  • "Formulaic"= Pat story, typecast or stereotyped characters, and predictable turns of event.

  • "Familiar"= Too many competing books or similar stories.

  • "One-joke book"= Story that's all about building to a punch-line,  too dependent on a gag.

  • "Not compelling enough"= Lacks emotional resonance, doesn't draw readers in or may not succeed in holding their attention.  Not memorable.

On voice:

  • "Too sophisticated" or "not child-like enough"= Voice isn't right for the age-level or experiences of the audience.  Point of view may be that of the author/adult, rather than the child.

  • "Too coy," "too cute," "too precious," or "too sweet"= May inadvertently insult readers by dummying-down to the intended age level.

  • "Doesn't engage"= Lacks tension or emotional quality that would draw the reader in and hold their interest.

  • "Not believable" or "not credible"= Reflects thoughts or ideas that appear to come from someone other than the character (usually the author/adult).  

On style:

  • "Forced,"  "contrived," or "strained"= Writing doesn't feel natural; personification may be a reach.  

  • "Stilted" or "awkward"= In picture books, often seen in rhymed verse.  In older fiction, might be the author's phrasing or dialogue.  

On character:

  • "Characters are flat,"  "one-dimensional,"  "stock," or stereotyped= Characterizations aren't believable, aren't fresh.  Author relies on standard personality types and descriptions.

  • "Not well-rounded" or "not fully fleshed out"= Characterizations lack development.  

On audience:

  • "Audience is unclear"= Subject may not be aimed at the right age or grade level.  

  • "Audience isn't big enough"= Subject matter has limited or not enough appeal.

On markets:

  • "Not right for our list"= Example, a science fiction novel pitched to an editor who publishes only non-fiction.  May also be a polite catch-all for manuscripts that just don't measure up to house standards.

  • "Better as a magazine article"= Good premise, but not strong enough to support an entire book.


  • "Just don't love it enough"= Doesn't appeal to an editor's personal tastes or area of expertise.  (May be just right for another editor!)

Try revising your manuscript using these clues, and keep them in mind while writing and submitting future stories- especially if you get similar comments from more than one editor.  Once you crack the code of "editorese," you can learn to welcome rejection letters as valuable feedback- really!




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