Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole

1024 584 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

A while ago I started a series in which I give you a very, very quick introduction to some of my favourite writing guides. These books will typically be aimed at authors of middle grade or YA, or they might be genre specific, focusing on writing horror, sci-fi, fantasy or mystery. This week I’m discussing an incredible guide by an incredible woman, literary agent Mary Kole. What Mary doesn’t know about children’s publishing isn’t worth knowing, so this book is one I’d recommend devouring cover to cover as soon as you can!

Best for: Middle grade and YA authors of any genre.


Chapter 1: Kidlit Market Overview

Here’s why I advocate for the shorter manuscript (and it isn’t because I’m drowning in slush and want to read less): Some middle grade readers are still finding their literary confidence. They may have recently come to middle grade after chapter books, or they may not be reading as independently as they would like.

Chapter 2: The MG and YA Mindset

In this chapter, Kole breaks down the differences between middle grade and YA readers and what they’ll be experiencing in their lives when they come to your book. She paints a vivid picture of the YA mindset:

The decisions you’re making feel like they will have ramifications forever. You feel by turns invincible and vulnerable, inconsequential and permanent. All of these experiences are ones you’re having for the very first time, and you’re packed into a group with hundreds of other teens who feel the exact same way (though they hardly ever let on). So you’re also isolated and craving community, which is why you search for a book that feels like it’s written just for you.

If that doesn’t get you excited about writing YA, nothing will!


Chapter 3: What’s the Big Idea?

Kole reassures authors that they needn’t panic if somebody else has written a book with a similar plot to theirs. It’s very common and it doesn’t matter, because your take on a story will always be unique.

What makes every story unique in today’s marketplace is execution. That’s what you bring to the table as a writer. It’s not the story itself, per se, it’s how you express it, the theme you project upon it, the characters you create, and your own unique voice.


Chapter 4: Storytelling Foundations

One of the most useful parts of this chapter is a list of ‘beginning clichés’ that Kole advises authors to avoid (or at least make completely fresh) when opening a story. When she sees them, she almost always rejects the manuscript:

    1. Waking up, especially if being snapped out of a dream
    2. Introducing friends and bullies at school
    3. Introducing family members
    4. Character’s bedroom tour
    5. An ’emo kid’ thinking about their problems
    6. Normal no more: a protagonist complaining about their boring life as a set up for a big inciting incident
    7. Moving van heading to a new town
    8. Describing oneself while looking in the mirror
    9. Summer of torture: a character complaining about spending their summer doing something they don’t want to do
    10. A protagonist worrying about being the ‘new kid’ on their first day of school
    11. Parents dying suddenly and tragically
    12. Selection day in a dystopian world


Chapter 5: Character

This chapter is pure gold (and long – it’s 80 pages) so please do track the book down and read it if you can. One of my favourite bits is a list (another one, sorry) of six things we should learn about your main character early in the story:

    • Their worldview and attitude towards life
    • At least one detail about how they interact with their world
    • At least one character objective or goal
    • At least one characterising detail that tells us something about their personality
    • At least one piece of voice that hints at their language, energy and way of noticing things
    • At least one concrete choice or action


Chapter 6: Plot

The best way to grow as a plot writer is to cut. That’s right. I know you’ve probably already written it – and I know something really interesting happens while you’re character’s waiting for the bus – but cut it anyway. Instead of writing a transition scene, you can just add a section or chapter break, ground the reader in the new location and time, and get on with the good stuff.


Chapter 7: Advanced Kidlit

The setting of a novel is often overlooked in modern kidlit, where there are so many familiar locales (tree house, school, childhood bedroom, summer camp, vampire mansion, etc.). However, it’s very fertile ground for imagery, theme, and character turning point, so you should never pass up an opportunity to develop it.

Whenever you’re crafting an environment, there are lots of mental balls to juggle. First, there are the physical details of the setting. You’ll see many examples of this at the end of this chapter. But what about the details nobody considers? Is there anything wrong with the setting that the character keeps noticing? For example, whenever I’m at a conference, I find that they keep those hotel ballrooms a few degrees below freezing. The creeping cold permeates everything I do and think about on conference days, no matter how many layers I wear.


Chapter 8: A Career in Kidlit

Spend a few hours each week browsing what’s being published today, and read as much of it as you can. The books you choose are important. Research the current landscape, don’t just go off of what you remember reading as a kid. How long are the books on contemporary shelves? What kinds of titles, covers and characters do they feature? What genres seem popular?



Take the time to work on your craft and really grown. The most common regret I hear from writers is, ‘I submitted too soon and the whole project went nowhere.’ When I reject something, my biggest reason is usually that the manuscript isn’t ‘there’ yet – the writing isn’t up to par and the idea is too small or unmarketable. Writers often craft in isolation, so they have no idea where they fit in the strata of my slush. By rejecting writers’ early efforts, agents give them valuable feedback: Focus more on your craft for now.

Hopefully you can see how valuable this book is and how much Mary Kole knows about children’s publishing, and I absolutely recommend picking up a copy and keeping it on your shelf if you write middle grade or YA fiction.

Thanks so much for reading, lovely writer! Want empowering, feel-good writing chat and fairy dust in your inbox? Plus receive a PDF of my recommended writing craft books for children’s and YA writers (including go-to genre guides and Children’s Lit MA reading list) AND £20 Wolf Credit to spend with me! Sign up today!

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes