Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of It's a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World: A Writer's Guide to Surviving and Thriving in Today's Competitive Children's Book Market

by Olga Litowinsky

(Walker & Company, $22.95 hardcover, $14.95 paperback, 240 pages, April 2001)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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If you like It's a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World, you might also enjoy the Science Shelf review of Take Joy: A Book for Writers by Jane Yolen.

Though children's book writers are discovering It's a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World, "this is an excellent time to be a writer for children if you cast off old ideas." So argues author, literary agent, and former executive editor Olga Litowinsky in a compact book guaranteed to appeal to a wide audience of published children's book authors, beginning writers with a magazine byline or two, and author-wannabes who are serious about learning the craft.

Ms. Litowinsky knows her audience, because she has been every one of them and has lived through much of the history she describes. She even wrote the neophyte's obligatory picture-book rhyming-verse non-story along her way to a leading editorial position. That post disappeared in a corporate restructuring, one of the many she describes in her chapters "Mr. McGregor Buys a Suit" and "What's Up, Doc?", which close a very brief and somewhat difficult to follow introductory section on the history of children's book publishing.

The fault is not the prose but the industry itself, which, especially over the past two decades, has redefined itself with dizzying speed. Fortunately, children's writers and editors are a resilient lot and willing to do almost anything to see a book they believe in reach publication.

Determined as the protagonists of their books and passionate about their audience, they maintain -- even in today's world-wide-webbed, mega-merged industry -- the outlook of the early children's book departments where "[t]he prestige was in the front office with the 'grown-ups,' but freedom and happiness was in the back, exactly as Beatrix Potter's Tom Kitten had discovered when he was banned from mother's tea party."

Still, Ms. Litowinsky notes, writers don't get sweet carrots without learning how to plant, nurture, and harvest a garden. The book's main chapters are filled with valuable practical advice. Several chapters discuss the craft of writing, with the ones about picture books and fiction particularly strong. Other chapters discuss nuts-and-bolts issues such as editing your own work and becoming an advocate when your book reaches the market.

Ms. Litowinsky uses the device, often effective in children's nonfiction, of an obviously invented protagonist, a budding writer named Gus, whose tribulations and success provide valuable lessons. The problem with that approach is that Gus writes primarily fiction. His agent agrees to market a biography proposal, but without enthusiasm.

Other discussions of nonfiction are similarly understated. Thus the book manages to reinforce the all-too-common misimpression that the real action in children's book writing is fiction and picture books. The actual Gus would probably notice that the preponderance of published children's books is nonfiction and that fewer cottontails are trying to crawl in under that section of fence.

Most surviving and thriving writers of children's books build a foundation in nonfiction -- and love it, but Ms. Litowinsky fails to emphasize that key point in an otherwise valuable book for every-bunny.

Fred Bortz is the author of numerous published children's books on science and technology, not one of which is about rabbits. He maintains two web sites, one for children's science and the other an archive of his book reviews and columns for major metropolitan newspapers.