In today’s uncertain world, many look to spirituality for answers to questions and guidance to improve life and well-being. Children are no different. As authors we have the opportunity to help children not only find the answers but learn how to ask the right questions. Books that make the body-mind-spirit connection help young people create a new sense of calm or creativity or a new reality in their lives. Parents today seek out such books in the wake of the explosion of the religious and spiritual adult market.
The genre of New Age and spiritual writing has evolved even more than most to meet the needs of readers. Today, alternative spirituality—whether “new” or “old” age, Eastern or Western—is of more interest to more people. General interest magazines are very likely to run articles on yoga or meditation or letting go.
Nicole Geiger, Publisher of Tricycle Press, says that the genre is going more mainstream. “Topics that seemed to be out there some time ago, or cutting edge in some way, aren’t so much anymore.”
N. D. Koster, Senior Editor at Mandala Publishing, says, “The genre as a whole is taken more seriously now. The term New Age carries a lot of baggage, rightly so perhaps, and the genre has now morphed into `Mind, Body and Spirit.’ I think the popularity of yoga has reinvigorated a certain segment of the population, and perhaps made people more open to spiritual ideas, and hopefully, the source material for those teachings. I’m seeing people finally getting past the physical aspects of the practice and moving on into the philosophy.”
It’s hard for any one editor, let alone any one writer, to describe exactly what type of books fall under the umbrella of mind/body/spirit or new age. For some it is paranormal—ghosts, wicca, and tarot cards—and for others it is more a matter of healing the spirit.
At Llewellyn Publications, Acquisitions Specialist Megan C. Atwood says, “Most of my line is fiction with a paranormal/New Age slant. There seems to be a shift to overall well-being that is being echoed in many of the books for teens and middle-graders right now. If a subject is overdone, it will stop selling. But, I have to say that the paranormal/ ESP/ghost genre is still going strong, which I think is wonderful.”
Many New Age books encourage the reader to take charge of the energy that drives their own lives.
“More books now are carrying the `you and I are responsible’ attitude, and less of the quickie-transformation, magic bullet/escape formulas that never worked anyhow,” says Dale Carlson of Bick Publishing House. Any writing that suggests a particular path, guru, or separative or divisive escape route doesn’t work in our view. More recently, I have been receiving more intelligent book proposals, based on an understanding that there is no authority; there is only personal struggle to understand what life is all about, and how the human brain works.”
Carlson explains, “Our purpose is to help and remind us all to understand that each one of us is responsible for the world and all human beings, that each one of us is all of us, and that we are the ones who create the violence inside ourselves with our ambitions and conflicts, the competitive instead of cooperative way we live and bring up our children. And that there is no magic tool, mantra, religion, or path to joy in living, only constant self-awareness of our conditioning, our prejudices, our fear and anger—and that if we do not change our attitudes and behavior, the human race won’t make it. It is most important that young people see this—that while they can learn technology from us, they must learn ethics and a new social morality for themselves. We continue to bequeath them violence—and it won’t do. Young people must start evaluating their lives and the purpose of life all over again.”
Bick’s titles for young adults include What Are You Doing with Your Life? Books on Living for Teens, by J. Krishnamurti; and Stop the Pain: Teen Meditations, by Dale Carlson, and The Teen Brain Book: Who and What Are You? by Dale Carlson. All are illustrated by Carol Nicklaus.
Writers aren’t the only ones who are at times perplexed by the marketplace. Editors suffer this tug of war too; will the book of their heart be good for their business?
“For a while, there were just so many affirmation and healing books,” says Koster. “Healing is good, of course; people can relate to that. Sometimes, it’s more about what still hasn’t been done well, as opposed to what’s already been done to death. Yet there is a saturation point where, as a business person, you also have to ask, `Okay, we have the opportunity to publish the best healing book ever, but can we sell it after the world has gorged itself on such-and-such other healing books for the past two years?’ Sometimes timing is everything, and at other times you just publish a book because it deserves to be published and you believe in it.”
At Tricycle Press, Nicole Geiger blurs the lines that define the genre. “We focus on childhood issues, yes, but we don’t consider them either new age or traditional in any way. We publish perhaps one such title a year. Self-esteem has been done, but there is always room for something fresh and clever. I’d like to see more emphasis on physical well-being to help address the epidemic of childhood obesity, but only from a real, certified health standpoint.”
Let go of any preconceptions you might have about the idea that anything goes in a touchy-feely new age category and a less than professional manuscript will slip in the door.
“Many people who submit to our house believe that because we are a new age publishing house, we are not professional,” says Atwood. “They expect us to accept anything that comes in because to do otherwise would be un-spiritual. Presenting your project in a professional way and selling yourself is still essential, even if you are submitting to a new age house.” She also says, “Most of my line is first-time authors. Although having a publishing credit is a plus, I read everything that comes through here and consider all projects.” Llewellyn titles for teens and tweens include Teen Goddess: How to Look, Love, and Live Like a Goddess, by Catherine Wishart; and Maria Shaw’s Star Gazer: Your Soul Searching, Dream Seeking, Make Something Happen Guide to the Future.
“Personally, I don’t need all the details in the cover letter; I just need a synopsis and a couple of paragraphs telling me up front precisely why I should care,” says Koster. “I’m looking for fresh, compelling work that doesn’t need a gimmick to sell. So, boil it down, state briefly why you believe the work is important or worthy, and make sure to review the publisher’s list so you have a better idea of the type of books we publish. For instance, Mandala doesn’t do books about Christian spirituality. It’s nothing personal; it’s just not our thing. So, always consider your audience?”
“Lately we’ve been doing a lot of derivative sidelines, along with books. So, from In a World of Gods and Goddesses came Gods and Goddesses Card Deck,” says Koster. “Please don’t send everything at once. Mandala, like most small publishers, is understaffed. As a result, some time may pass before we get an opportunity to review and respond. If you want to follow up, email is the best way.”
New age also doesn’t mean way out wacky ideas like you might imagine from a television sitcom. Today’s readers are thinking readers.
Carlson reminds writers about so-called spiritual cures: “Quickie methods don’t work. The human race has been making the same mistakes for a long time. It is not going to be changed by standing on our heads and making strange noises in foreign tongues.”
Geiger agrees. She often gets manuscripts that are unprofessional and, “are sometimes really so far out there that we do not feel they are appropriate for children or that the material entirely is inappropriate to the age group—for instance, a picture book about puberty.”
Like any genre, it’s important to study not only the market, but the individual publishers’ guidelines. Writers should study a house’s imprints and offerings carefully and be prepared to tell the editor what’s specifically different about their manuscripts. Get a good book on book proposals if you don’t know how to write one. Do not expect a publisher to educate you on how to write a book proposal.
Atwood says, “Know your genre, know your hook, know your audience. Although this is tired advice, it cannot be overstressed. Research, research, research!” She adds that writers “must know their own project inside out and the audience to whom they’re speaking. They should also know how to sell themselves effectively.” While it’s been said many times, Atwood reminds writers to keep writing. “Many times, I’ve loved the way an author writes but the project just didn’t fit. Don’t take your rejections personally, and be open to suggestions.”
At Bick Publishing, Carlson encourages writers to go the extra mile so she can see “an understanding of neuroscience and brain science that informs the manuscript. An understanding of the human brain, the human psyche, the self is what is important, not closing the eyes and holding the nose.” It’s not enough to feel a passion for the topic or even to be an expert in the area you are writing about. These are still books for children and teens. She wants to see “a synopsis and an outline so I know your intentions, three chapters so I can see your style of writing and thinking, and an author biography so I have your address. We’ve been an independent press for 10 years. I have published four first-time writers in that period.”
As Geiger says, “Writers should know how to write for children. It’s not enough to have personal experience with the subject matter. “They also need to “submit the material in a professional manner; the area of expertise should have no bearing on the format or manner of submission. Just because the topic might be called alternative, does not mean that the act of submitting the project should also be.”
“I tell writers to do their homework,” says Koster. “They should be well versed in the genre they’re writing in. It sounds obvious, yet somehow it isn’t to everyone. I’m not suggesting writers imitate other, more successful writers, only that they are familiar with what’s out there and consider what makes their work different or complementary. Also, by all means avoid fuzzy, ambiguous language and platitudes. People deserve to read uplifting work that can actually do something for them. That potential should be there, at least. It may be as simple as offering inspiration.”
Koster puts it this way: “Spirituality should not be taken cheaply. Spiritual pursuit requires work, just like any other discipline. The people who are serious about working on themselves, and the people who have done so and want to share their experiences out of the best intentions, generally convey it through the power of sincerity. That moves me! Especially when the person writes well too.”
—Susan Taylor Brown
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.