What we want from Orthodox children’s books

Almost always, an adult is the starting point for a child’s exposure to a book. We choose the books, we purchase the books, we pack our offspring into the minivan and herd them into the children’s section of the library. They can’t obtain books without our help, so we play a large role in their encounters with literature.

That being so, it’s interesting to reflect on the assumptions and wishes that prompt an Orthodox grownup to reach for a particular book. What do we expect from “Orthodox kidlit”? There are many specific answers to that question, but here are three underlying ideas that I suspect are present when a book is invited into your child’s world.

It’s trustworthy.

If a book purports to be Orthodox, it must meet certain standards. You would be stunned to discover it was championing heresy, of course. But there are other, more subtle expectations. You expect it to support your child’s faithfulness, to offer good theology in simple terms, to help you out as a parent. Sometimes we offer a book to our children because we hope it will do a better job explaining than we could, or will at least make a change from our own voice constantly telling them how to be good. We expect the author to be “on our side,” sharing our motivation to pass on the faith to the next generation. If you’re writing Orthodox kid lit at all, you must be a member of the team that walks each child from the baptismal font to a fruitful Christian life when they reach maturity.

IT’S ENGAGING.

To be honest, parents are constantly being let down by books. Sometimes this happens because parents and children are human beings, and what they find appealing and compelling differs. Your child might not see what you see or hear what you hear in the story. But sometimes a book lets you down by failing to present concepts or adapt packaging to meet the needs of the target age. A child’s heart can’t be engaged if you’ve failed to accommodate her developing brain.

I’ve also learned, in recent years, that we adults can frustrate children by overexplaining. They quickly perceive that we don’t see them as capable of perception and discovery. The old advice to writers, “Show, don’t tell” could be a motto for adults interacting with children. I’m thankful for a recent conversation with my friend Sarah, who spoke eloquently about the importance of approaching a child as a full human, a whole person. Drawing on this wisdom, I believe a good book brings the child into experience directly, sparing them the tiresome process of being prompted to enjoy second-hand knowledge of someone else’s transformative delight.

It’s well done.

By this I mean something other than the quality of the book’s content. Like many new things, Orthodox children’s literature as a genre began life looking a bit “home-made” and frankly unprofessional in some instances. When you begin to do something no one has done before, your early attempts will be amateur and faulty. It’s the nature of new things, and it’s an honorable kind of failure, in my view. You have to start somewhere, and you have to make all the mistakes to propel the endeavor to higher levels of achievement.

But I’d posit that the exemption for new effort has expired for this genre. Our readers and their parents have the right to expect expect high-quality illustrations, well-crafted and well-edited text, good paper, durable covers, and the like. Children learn something from every facet of their daily life, and they will notice if the “church” books always look a little shabby next to the secular books.

KEep trying harder!

With no degree programs and only the beginnings of professional development or support for creators of Orthodox children’s books, it may seem presumptive to demand excellence in this field. But still – we should demand it. Any creative process thrives on concentration and persistence. We should be willing to push ourselves, to ask hard questions of our work and welcome honest answers. There’s a temptation to settle for second best, assuming that because there aren’t many Orthodox children’s books, it’s acceptable to put out work that is “at least better than nothing.” We may unconsciously expect that with smaller publishers and a market defined by our faith group, we don’t have to meet the same high standards that would be applied if we were submitting work to Random House or Harper One.

I reject that mindset.

Orthodox publishers in the United States are growing and changing. Higher standards and the ability to be selective are the natural consequence for companies that are thriving. This is an opportunity for sacrifice, or almsgiving. We can give our first fruits to the Lord, a gift that reflects the best of our ability, a gift that is, to the extent possible to a human maker, without blemish.

Kathryn Reetzke: Orthodox KidLit and God’s Saintly Friends

A warm welcome to guest poster Kathryn Reetzke, who’s sharing some reflections on her upcoming board book, God’s Saintly Friends, illustrated by Abigail Holt.

As a mother of four little ones (6 and under), Church School Director at our small parish in Bowling Green, KY, and a part-time history professor, my passions are rooted in education. Within these roles, I am constantly seeking curriculums and educational resources to use both at home and in Church School. There are a growing number of hands-on and engaging resources for Orthodox families, making it an exciting time to be a parent and Church School teacher. I appreciate all the resources being created by the many individual websites like Orthodox Pebbles, Draw Near Designs, ByziKids, and Sparks 4 Orthodox Kids. Even with the growing number of materials, I believe there are still some gaps that can be filled with meaningful and thought-provoking printed books for kids.

GETTING STARTED

At the beginning of the pandemic shut-downs, I was asked to join an Orthodox Children’s Writers and Illustrators group by Melinda. I was curious to see what ideas were circulating in the behind-the-scenes author and illustrator world of Orthodox publishing. I didn’t realize that by seeking what was missing in the market, I would be called to write a book of my own.

The idea for the board book God’s Saintly Friends came from thinking about available Orthodox books on friendship. I was familiar with some that have characters that are friends, such as Charlie Riggle’s Catherine’s Pascha and the Philo and the Superholies series, but I wanted to think of something that also brought in historic examples of Saints who were friends (history professor hat on).

SPIRITUAL FRIENDSHIP

The pandemic also pushed me to reflect on the importance of holy friends and how we can care for each other while apart. From there I thought, surely saints like St. Perpetua and St. Felicity became friends in prison, both being young mothers and strong in their faith in Christ. I researched and got suggestions from friends about sets of Saints who were friends (such as one of my favorite stories, St. Sophrony and St. Porphryios, from illustrator Abigail Holt). I asked myself: How can I write something that gives both a historical precedence of Saints who had healthy friendships, while also teaching basic values of friendship? After writing my draft, getting editing advice, contacting my friend Abigail about artwork, and two denied submissions, I found a supportive publisher in Park End Books (Summer Kinard), who was equally excited about making this resource available to families.

I love that the availability of Orthodox toddler board books is growing, so that the littlest ones have books to look at during church and more importantly at home. I pray that this book helps parents engage with their children both about the Saints’ lives featured in the book and also about spiritual friendships. The growing experience of friendship through the lens of social media makes early childhood development of healthy friendships key to having healthy future leaders in the Church. This board book is written to appeal to a wide range of ages as the illustrations and text allow for extended discussions about the Saints with older children.

I hope you and your children, grandchildren, and/or godchildren enjoy God’s Saintly Friends together!

NOTE: You can preorder you copy of God’s Saintly Friends HERE.

ABOUT KATHRYN REETZKE

Kathryn is blessed to be a mother of four children 6 and under, an avid reader of both children’s books and adult literature, Church School Director and founder of the nursery program at Holy Apostles Orthodox Mission in Bowling Green, KY, and Adjunct Professor of History at WKU.  She also coordinates the yearly “Room in the Inn” program to help house the homeless in our sanctuary overnight during the Winter months. She has a passion for both education and almsgiving and prays her first book will bring both to our future Orthodox leaders.

Little Lost Nun in England

This review of Little Lost Nun comes from Anna-Maria. She is 10 years old, and she lives in Oxford, England. Here she is reading the book with her dog, Dodger.

Reading in the garden with Dodger

Anna-Maria writes:

Little Lost Nun is a book about feelings, actions and prayers. You can see how what the characters do relates to their feelings, and relates to what their personal experiences were and are in life.

It makes me think more about my actions and forgiving people who have done something wrong.

It makes me think about how prayers can be answered. God hears them but you can’t always tell that they are being answered.

The story is misty. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. At the same time the story is bold. All the characters are different from each other and I can imagine them very clearly.

It’s a really good book. I like it. At the end I turned the page to see if there was more. I was hoping there was.

#littlelostnun #summerofthelittlelostnun

Clever Myths and Eyewitness Accounts

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” 2 Peter 1:16

This verse is part of the Epistle reading from this morning’s liturgy for the Feast of Transfiguration, and it sparked a shower of ideas I feel are directly related to my ongoing study of Orthodox children’s literature.

If you read my post from yesterday (7 Serious Questions about Orthodox Children’s Books), you know I’m studying Orthodox children’s literature as a genre, a mission, a product, an experience – everything about it that I can learn and ponder. This research quickly touched on another ongoing quest of mine, to envision and create truly faithful, truly literary work. It’s possible the principles of this effort are fundamentally the same, no matter the age of your expected readers.

But what struck me with such force in this Bible verse is the question of clever myths and eyewitness accounts. At first glance, you’d think that was a reference to fiction and non-fiction, wouldn’t you? And that is true in a literal sense. Peter is explaining to his readers that he didn’t make up all that stuff about Christ. It happened. He was there and saw it.

Hold that thought.

TWO CATEGORIES OF CHRISTIAN FICTION

In my observation, “Christian fiction” can be divided into two categories: books about people “being Christian” and books in which the inherent Christianity of creation shines forth. These two characteristics aren’t mutually exclusive in their natures, but they don’t often appear together. There are plenty of instances in the human attempt to infuse faith in fiction in which the agenda left no room for anything to shine, not even the writing. It strikes me now that while immature literary skill is certainly a factor in such cases, lack of faith might be the greater fault.

I don’t mean that the writer is not Christian enough to write well. Not at all. I mean that the writer, perhaps unconsciously, assumes that the reader won’t see the truth, won’t be converted, unless everything is blatantly spelled out. The reader must be convinced by the writer. Persuasion must occur, and the more urgent your personal conviction, the harder it is to trust persuasion to anything but your own arguments.

PERSUASION AS FAILING FAITH

This reflects a two-fold faithlessness, in my view. First, it assumes that the reader is not intelligent enough to detect or appreciate nuance, or symbolism. When the murderer makes a point of turning off the lights so he can commit his foul deed in darkness, the reader won’t realize that spiritual darkness is also indicated. Are our readers actually so dense? Do they really need us to explain everything we’re doing? Do we need to hear them say, “I see what you did there”? I doubt it.

In fact, I believe readers bring a wealth of meaning to our words, drawing on their own thoughts and memories. The author is not the only one able or likely to infuse a text with meaning. We give birth to our stories, but their lives extend beyond us when we send them into the world. Like children, we must let them grow into the life God made for them, even when they travel beyond our horizons, even as we acknowledge we’ll never know all the people who read them, all the ways they’ll be misread, reconstructed, and understood.

Bringing the Man Downstairs

The second faithlessness of the over-explained Christian novel is the assumption that God is not everywhere present, filling all things. I’ve recently encountered fascinating scraps of the “re-enchantment” discussion swirling in theological, literary, sociological, and other circles. The primary value in the conversation, to me, is the startling reminder that God IS everywhere. Several years ago, Fr. Stephen Freeman wrote a book called Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, in which he takes on the worldview behind calling God “the man upstairs.” The man UPSTAIRS. Not the man down here with us. Not a presence in the air and earth and human life around us. The man somewhere else.

We enable a seismic shift in Christian literary art, for children and adults, when we bring God back downstairs. DO you believe God is EVERYWHERE present? Then you will be able to write Him into your fiction simply by manifesting the patterned loveliness of His works. Metaphors work because God is downstairs. Symbol is inherently, intrinsically spiritual. It’s our second language, the code of our invisible dimension, and God made it and speaks through it. With His merciful grace, sometimes we can, too. Sometimes, with sweat and prayer and those holy, euphoric bursts of inspiration, we can write the story of realization, our small visions of the miraculous reality.

And that’s why in 2 Peter 1:16, I see an affirmation of well-made Christian fiction. The father of lies will always provide us with clever myths, and his myths may masquerade as light. But fiction crafted from keen awareness of that magnificent Presence? That kind of fiction needs only symbol, finely observed, to become an eyewitness account.

7 Serious Questions about Orthodox Children’s Books

The database of Orthodox children’s books in English and currently in print now has over 200 entries. In addition, there are catechetical resources available from archdioceses and other organizations that are not included on the list because I see them as a separate genre. For the moment, I’m not studying curriculum. I’m not qualified to do so, and my primary interest is kidlit. But I qualify that with my strongly held belief that children learn from ALL books, not just the ones adults consider educational.

Research philosophy

Right now at work, I’m researching various aspects of Orthodox children’s literature. It’s a thought-provoking adventure, let me tell you. Questions arise at every turn, and there are moments when I struggle with the wild urge to know everything and fix everything immediately! But as my mama used to tell me, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. I’m not the solution to everything, and it’s important to remember that people are different. What one person perceives as a flaw is a great strength in the eyes of someone in other circumstances.

Regardless, I believe it’s important to raise and ponder each question. Orthodox children’s literature as a genre is relatively new and still inventing itself. It’s not a field in which you can earn a degree or any kind of standardized credential. It’s still subject to widely divergent opinions, amateur efforts, the absence of substantive data on its efficacy, and the urgency of love – love for the faith and its children and the urgency of their need as an underserved minority in a complex cultural landscape.

Therefore, I offer 7 questions for your consideration. There are others, but in my view, these 7 are starting points for reflection and discussion. You’ll realize quickly that not one of them has a simple answer.

7 Questions

1 – Who is the “customer” for a children’s book: the parent buying it or the child reading it?

2 – Do we hold Orthodox children’s books/curriculum to the same standards that we have for secular children’s products?

3 – Are we evolving from what you might call “informational” catechesis to experiential catechesis, or aren’t we? What’s going on with that and why?

4 – Why is fiction such a complicated thing? Are we able to conceive of children’s fiction as both Orthodox AND engaging? Can we only see or trust faith in fiction if it is OVERT?

5 – I suspect question 1 and question 4 are linked. What do you think?

6 – What do children learn from the ways we create and interact with their “church books”? What are we telling them about their faith that we may not realize we are telling them?

7 – What besides books are/should/could we be creating? What other media might also provide entry points to faithful, imaginative, loving encounters with a child’s spirit?

Share your thoughts

My research is ongoing, and I value glimpses of as many perspectives as are offered to me. If you’d like to share yours, use the Contact form and get in touch!

List of Orthodox Christian Children’s Books

I was thinking of writing an article encouraging homeschool teachers to include at least one Orthodox children’s book in regular language arts curriculum each year. This led to the idea of making a list of children’s books by grade level. And that led to my best effort at compiling a master list of Orthodox Christian children’s books written in English and currently in print.

No doubt I’ve missed some. The world is a big place, and so is the internet. It wouldn’t be hard for a little Orthodox book, or even a little publisher, to escape my notice.

This list will need constant updating if it is to become a lasting and useable resource. But it is at least a beginning.

CLICK TO SEE THE LIST.

The list is housed in a Google spreadsheet. At this writing, there are 182 entries, and I am aware of at least 6 more titles that will release before the end of 2021. That’s a lot of books!

The spreadsheet makes some attempt to include notes on what’s in the books, what they could be used for in a Sunday school or homeschool classroom, or for family reading. That part is very incomplete for the simple reason that I’ve read or even seen only a fraction of these books.

TRENDS I NOTICED

Without reading every book on the list, my insights are limited. Based simply on the covers, blurbs, and other readily available details, I noticed several things.

1 – The number and quality of Orthodox children’s books appear to have increased greatly in the last 10 or so years.

2 – Orthodox children’s literature is largely catechetical.

3 – Fiction is rare.

4 – Books of any kind for older children are rare.

5 – The quality and style of illustrations varies widely.

6 – Board books are relatively new in this market, but they are popular and more are being published.

WHAT I THINK

People want good books to support their children’s faith. The number of newer publishing houses and their offerings suggests an active effort to fill the holes for this market. The larger Orthodox publishers in the United States have expanded and improved their children’s line in the last decade. Also, with the evolution of technology and publishing resources, smaller companies can form and produce professional-quality books for niche markets in ways that were not possible in the past. I saw some books and companies I felt were a direct result of this evolution. This is encouraging. I love to see people spend fruitful effort on what matters to them.

One question kept recurring to me as I worked on the list. How many of these books would a child read spontaneously? Are these books children would choose for themselves? Are we simply producing the kind of book an adult makes you read?

On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with reading books you were told to read because you need to learn the information they contain. This is a healthy life-long discipline we should acquire as children. Every aspect of our spiritual life can sometimes require self-compulsion, and the care and love that has gone into creating the books on this list make them accessible and valuable.

That said, I freely admit I was a child best reached through her imagination. Even as an adult, I often find myself most drawn to things I’ve encountered first in fictional settings. Stories are the way I find and remember meaning.

The books I’ve written for children are all either fiction or creative non-fiction (for example, an incident from the life of Saint Ia, told imaginatively in simple language). I don’t feel qualified to write instructional non-fiction.

I say these things to be clear about my perspective. In my mind, the height of excellence in children’s literature is achieved when some great truth shines directly into a child’s heart through a beautifully crafted, genuinely engaging story. In that context, the distinction between what is and is not Christian literature fades. If you are a Christian wherever you go, you can encounter and ponder your faith in fiction as well as non-fiction.

I know not everyone is like me. I know that many child THRIVE on non-fiction reading. I believe Orthodox children need and want more of every kind of book. When you consider how many secular books a child can read in the course of a childhood, 182 Orthodox books is not many at all.

For my part of the effort, this list urges me to keep working on Orthodox-infused fiction for children. It’s a craft that takes practice. A weak story wobbling under the weight of a catechetical agenda accomplishes little. God grant me strong stories that carry something essential with love and grace.

#TeachersTalkKidLit – Jane Johansen

Hello, readers and fans of Melinda! My name is Jane Johansen, and I have known Melinda for many years as our husbands went to West Point together. Melinda and her husband are two people whose friendship we value deeply. 

When Melinda put the call out for teacher friends to help, I quickly raised my hand. I am an avid reader and love to share that passion with my students. You know those people who wake up early in the morning to work out and everyone is like, “No way, I could never do that”? You should see the looks I get when I tell my students that I get up early so that I have time to read! It is true. I treasure the quiet with a warm cup of coffee and my book in my lap every morning, possibly with a cat or two by my side.

At the beginning of each school year, the first reading assignment I give my class is to write letters to me about their personal journey with reading.  In turn, I also write a letter to them explaining that I was a late reader. I remember being stuck at the same reading level all through 1st grade until my mom found me a book that I truly connected to, Hooray for Pig, by Carla Stevens. (Flashback, I was terrified to learn how to swim.  Lake Champlain is enormous, dark, and frigid, and I was having none of it until my mom found this book.)  If you could see my copy of this book and turn the love-worn pages, you would see that it was read hundreds of times throughout my childhood.  This book makes an appearance on my textual lineage time and again. 

Connection

Connection is one of the keys to finding books that children want to read, and it is a lesson they are taught as readers from their very earliest reading instruction. Look for the connections: to yourself, to the world around you, to other books you have read, to current events…these are the invisible strings that pull readers in and keep them immersed in books. When I have my students think back and reflect on books that they loved when they were younger readers and create their own textual lineage of books, a common theme in their choices is that they felt connected to the characters in these books in some way. 

Characters

A second key is to find characters that are likeable or unlikeable, for that matter.  A character that kids can root for or against. Characters that speak out and up in unjust situations- kids are all about good versus evil and a fair and just outcome. Books like Wonder, by R.J. Polacio, or Because of Mr. Terrupt, by Rob Buyea, both with casts of characters in a common setting where they can imagine themselves being there, too. A setting where characters have space to make mistakes and are given the time to fix them in a realistic way.  Reading to understand the world from a perspective other than their own provides young readers with a wider lens on which to focus their gaze while they are lost in those pages. 

Worlds

Finally, in my experience, as readers grow in their abilities, they like to experience worlds that are different than the one they inhabit every day. Fantasy is a great way for readers to escape the mundane and possibly a genre that parents may shy away from – I know I did with my own children.  My own deeply rooted dislike of being scared kept me away from prompting my kids toward this genre. However, their teachers and librarians did a fine job of encouraging them, so they are both huge fans.  Being a fifth-grade teacher, my students are just crazy about this genre and I have had to grapple with joining the bandwagon, but I have done it.  I am just finishing up reading Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always with my class. When I started it, I was nervous and agitated that it was going to be too scary, dark, or upsetting to some of the class. However, it’s been the complete opposite reaction.  They are begging me to read more each day than what our allotted time allows for. They are diving so deep into the plot and character development they are blowing me away with their analysis.  A good point to remember is that just because you might not like a specific genre doesn’t mean you should not let your kids try it if they are curious; to each their own, as they say.

Learning to Love Reading

Throughout my years as a teacher, no matter which grade level, I have encountered anxious parents who worry about their child not “loving” reading. The advice I have given you here is parallel to what they hear from me. Keep trying a variety of genres, go to the library, talk to your school librarian, check in with your child’s friends’ parents and ask what they are reading, or, better yet, create a book club for your child with friends.

Finally, the most valuable advice I can give you is to never stop reading aloud with your child. Choose a favorite book from when you were young, or take an expedition to the library together to choose a book.  Reading aloud creates a bond between us as readers who are sharing a character’s journey. Dive in, snuggle up, and start building memories together one page at a time.

About Jane

Jane Johansen is currently a 5th grade teacher at Renbrook School in West Hartford, Connecticut. She has also taught Kindergarten and third grade; don’t ask her which is her favorite…she cannot decide. Jane enjoys spending time outdoors, gardening, hiking, running, and of course reading on her front porch. She is also a passionate nature photographer in her free time. Jane lives in Avon, Connecticut with her husband Eric and their two children Emma Kate and Eli, along with their many furry family members. 

Go for Broke: Break the Rules – Bev. Cooke

It took four years and three tries before “Street Kid, Subway Cat” was ready to send to send out. The story was based on my brother-in-law’s experience of befriending and domesticating a feral cat who lived in a New York City subway station. He named her Gidget, and we met her on a visit to my brother-in-law. Well, if you can call a middle of the night tromp over my calves and a panicked flight when I lifted my hand to pet her as “meeting” a cat – because she was the definition of “scaredy cat.”

The book about Gidget and her adventures had gone from a picture book, which felt too cloying and sentimental, to a young adult novel that was too short on both words and plot to a mid-grade novel that felt about right. I sent it to my dream publisher, took a deep breath and began to wait.

The editor emailed within the promised time, which is unheard of in the children’s literature (kid lit) market; it’s almost an unwritten rule they’ll take practically forever, but even so, she rejected it. But, again breaking unwritten rules, the editor explained her reasons. She said the book was neither one thing nor the other. It didn’t feel like a mid-grade. Some of the subject matter was too mature and it begged for more plot and conflict, or it needed to be shorter and simpler. She suggested that I either make it a picture book or a young adult. But thanks for submitting, and we’d really like to see more of your work.

I took my courage in both hands, said a quick prayer, and picked up the phone. I got through to the editor with no problem, another first in the kid lit market. Normally, editors only talk to writers whose books they’ve accepted, not to us wanna-bes. We discussed the rejection in more detail. I decided to go for broke and ask the big, forbidden question. In kid’s lit, you NEVER, EVER, EVER ask the editor to reconsider a rewritten rejection. Never. It’s one of the real, written down in stone and cast in concrete rules. You suck it up and send the story elsewhere. But, I figured, what did I have to lose? The press had already said no, and they had said they liked and wanted to see more of my work. So I asked: if I rewrote the book as a young adult, taking her suggestions, would she reconsider it? It took some persuasion, but finally, she agreed.

I sat down to the work. During the rewrite, Gidget, the inspiration for the book, came to live with us. As fearful as ever, she found a refuge under my desk by the hot air register and took up residence while I wrote about her alter ego’s adventures.

She dozed there, warm and comfy, as I broadened and deepened the story, discovered new characters and lived in that world so strongly that finishing work each day felt like more like entering a fictional world than returning to real life. I felt as though I knew Candlewax and Little Cat, the two main characters, better than I knew myself. I finished it, sent the manuscript in and began, again, to wait.

Again, within their stated response time, the editor called. Another rule in kid’s lit: editors only phone you to offer you a contract, never to reject. When I heard Ms. Editor’s voice, my hope surged, and my hand on the phone trembled – this had been a rule breaking experience so far. Was this phone call going to break another one? I could see the news flash: Editor calls to reject author’s novel! Story at 11! But while Candlewax, Little Cat and I might have been rule breakers, Ms. Editor wasn’t, at least this time: she offered me a contract. The book was released as Feral because, Ms. Editor said, she, the author and every character in it were feral rule breakers.

About Bev. Cooke

Rejection is a fact of a writer’s life, whether you’re sending out your first or 100th manuscript. Bev. Cooke knows this from personal experience but even so, she’s been lucky enough to have several things make it into the world. Her latest efforts are included in the women’s devotional, Darkness is as Light, edited by Summer Kinard and published by Park End Books. She’s working on her fourth Akathist and a fantasy novel for mid-grade Orthodox kids. She and her husband attend All Saints of Alaska parish in Victoria BC, Canada and are the
minions of Sampson, the household feline.

Rejection Letters: 5 Types and What They Mean

You work hard on your manuscript. The setting and characters are fresh in your mind, so clear that you have memories as if they are real people and places. You have the writer’s constant urge to TELL the story, to put words on paper that other eyes and hearts will see. It is so important to you that the publisher grasps what you communicated and finds it worthy.

But sometimes, that doesn’t happen.

There are many reasons why manuscripts get rejected. Sometimes, the writing isn’t good enough, but there are other more complicated realities. In a recent conversation, someone shared a comment they’d heard from a friend in the publishing industry. Not all good books are “good publishing.” For better and worse, publishing is a business. Personnel, paper, and presses all require financial support, and publishers need to publish books that sell. Publishers should absolutely take responsibility for their impact on market forces and their opportunities to influence culture. But they still can’t operate at a loss. What they can sell might not be the book you can write.

To survive as a writer (and as an adult human), you will develop emotional coping strategies. It’s my hope that your professional strategy will benefit from these perspectives on rejection letters, drawn from my experience and that of writers who kindly shared their favorite rejection letter with me for this post.

What kind of rejection letter is it?

Rejection letters come in many forms, but they seem to fall into five categories: total silence; generic, no details; personal, some details; second chance offers; and second chance rejections.

I personally have received all five types.

I also have 9 published or contracted books.

It’s important to remember that a rejection letter often tells you as much about the publisher as it does about your writing. If Charles Dickens submitted A Tale of Two Cities to a publisher of action hero graphic novels, he too would be rejected. The Bible is the only book that can truly be said to have the whole human world as its audience, and even that statement would be argued by millions. With that in mind, let’s consider the five types and what they mean.

Total Silence

Many publishers, especially the larger ones, note in their submission guidelines that they respond only if they are interested in pursuing publication. That means the vast majority of authors will never hear back. At all. The guidelines often tell you how long to wait before giving up. “If you do not hear from us in 6 months, you can assume we are not interested in publishing your book.”

So, you mark the date on your calendar that is 6 months from when you hit send, and when that date arrives with no response, you can consider yourself rejected.

This is unpleasant, but it’s a measure of the publisher’s size and of the avalanche of submissions that came in before and after yours. Some publishers that consider unagented submissions do so by adding them to a large file, where they remain unread except on those occasions when the publisher commands a staff member to dive into the large file and retrieve anything suitable for whatever project is afoot. The large file is deep and wide. The odds are not good. And the publisher does not have the time or personnel to respond to the thousands of authors whose manuscripts lie therein. Hence the policy of silence.

Generic, NO DETAILS

This type is a polite form letter. It comes from an actual human being, and it indicates that someone read at least a few sentences of your manuscript. Or the proposal. Or the entire proposal and a portion of the manuscript. They do know what you’re offering, and this is a time-saving way to say “Thank you, but no thank you” without troubling to spell out why.

Here’s an excerpt from an actual rejection letter I received from a small-to-midsize traditional publisher.

We have completed our review of the manuscript. We appreciate the time and creativity you have put into this work; however, we have decided not to accept this submission for publication, as it does not fit our current editorial needs.

This is from a Christian publisher, and you can see the writer took trouble to be kind. More often, generic rejection letters are like this one (also real).

Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, at the moment we do not have room in our publishing schedule for it. 

This is still polite, but be honest – they would have room in the schedule if they wanted to have room in the schedule.

Generic rejection letters tell me one of two things: either I misjudged the publisher’s interests (“current editorial needs”), or the writing is not strong enough or appealing enough in their view to justify the effort and expense of publishing it (“we do not have room in our publishing schedule”). Publishing schedules do fill up. Thousands of manuscripts are submitted to thousands of publishers every year. But it’s a publisher’s job to sift those thousands, searching for the gold dust hidden in the sand. Sometimes, you just don’t sparkle the way they think gold should sparkle.

Personal, Some Details

If you’re lucky, the publisher will tell you why you are being rejected. This is a gift. Read their words and take them to heart. You may disagree, but don’t fail to value the glimpse of your writing as someone in the business saw it. Almost always, you can learn from a professional who takes the time to coach you.

I’m delighted to share a sample of this type provided by a published author, who we’ll call David Taylor. David recounts the following experience which occurred while David was querying agents for a fiction manuscript. David writes:

I was querying with my second novel and having no luck when a Manhattan literary agent with an impressive list who had the first 50 pages requested a full. Two weeks later, I received a three-paragraph critical rejection that pointed out my main problem: “You’re a strong writer with a compelling story. Reading on, we were disappointed to find that you kept us at a distance.”

A three-paragraph critical rejection is amazing. It’s a mini-critique group just for you, and it’s a sign that although you are being rejected, the agent or publisher thinks you show enough promise to be worth coaching.

Think hard about the advice you’ve been offered. Will it help you achieve your goal for this manuscript, or is it simply a more detailed explanation of why you should apply elsewhere? In some cases, you can incorporate that advice and submit your revision for a second chance.

Second-Chance Offers

On occasion, a publisher will reject the manuscript in its current form but extend a second chance. They’ll explain what it would take for the book to succeed and give you the option to make those changes.

As with David’s letter above, your next step is to decide if you want the second chance. What are you being asked to do with your manuscript? Will the changes improve it, or do you feel you’re being pressured into something that doesn’t match your goals?

If you decide to try for the second chance, follow the directions. You’re asking the publisher to reconsider, so you need to prove you can be coached and that you’re capable of producing what they want.

This process can take patience and a sense of humor. My first children’s chapter book began life as a short story that I submitted as a picture book. The picture book was rejected, but the editor thought the story might work as part of a collection of short stories for children. I wrote and submitted the collection. The editor responded that the acquisitions board didn’t want a short story collection; the board wanted a chapter book of the same length with one story arc through the whole book.

I considered banging my head on the wall.

Instead, I pulled one of the stories from the collection and expanded it. That story was finally accepted for publication.

Second-Chance Rejections

A second chance doesn’t guarantee acceptance. Your revised submission may prove to the publisher that you aren’t a good fit for their market, or that you haven’t taken their direction in the way they hoped. The person who read your manuscript the first time may no longer work there, or someone else may have submitted a book they like better in the meantime.

This type of rejection is final. You had a chance, and it didn’t work out, and they don’t want to see a third version of your book. Respect that. Look for another publisher, consider self-publishing, or sit down with coffee and quiet to rework your manuscript.

If you’re fortunate, you’ll get good feedback in the final rejection letter. I recall one such letter I received about a decade ago. The editor offered a second round of criticisms, some that had not been mentioned the first time and therefore were not addressed in my revisions. The letter closed with some tough love: “I have no doubt you have another great book in you. This may not be it.”

What can we learn from rejection?

Rejection is not final. It is not the only possible opinion of your work, but neither is it worthless. Don’t let it kill you, but do let it teach you. In time, you will learn to distinguish between usable criticism that can improve your writing and rejection that simply means the publisher or editor is not your intended audience.

My friend Phoebe, a published author and established blogger, gives the best advice on submitting writing for publication. “I always keep in mind a fallback option,” she says. Decide before you submit the manuscript what else you can do with it. What’s the next publisher you will try? Where else can you use that writing – on your own blog, a friend’s blog? If you have a plan, it will remind you that rejection isn’t final. It’s the next step on your path, and you’re ready for what comes after it.

Bev. Cooke, another published friend, will be sharing a story on this blog soon about a rejection that led to something better. Rejection is only final if you let it shut you down. Don’t fear it. Take it in, break it into parts and analyze what it means and doesn’t mean, and then proceed with your plan.

Never forget that rejection is part of the writing life. Walk through a bookstore, staring at the loaded shelves, and murmur to yourself, “This author got rejected just like me, and now she’s published. This one, too. And this one. He got rejected, and he kept going. I can too.” It’s encouraging, and it’s also true.

I’d like to close with a wonderful rejection letter shared by Steve Robinson. He even sent a photo of the letter, which he framed and hung on the wall.

Steve says:

I still have my first rejection letter framed (and my first acceptance letter). The book sat at Multnomah for months going through rounds of meetings before I finally got this. I was appreciative of the “complimentary rejection” because it told me I was on the right path. Most publishers just send a “form rejection” with no input unfortunately. (It eventually got published as “Lord of the Hunt and Other Tales of Grace).

That’s how to make meaning out of rejection. Be grateful for the criticism, and read between the lines so you know when you are on the right path.