What’s It Like to Write Children’s Books for the Movies?

I have the best job in the world. Seriously. I get paid to watch TV and movies. Okay, not really. But kind of.

I’m a children’s book author, and a lot of the books I work on are tie-ins to movies and film. I’ve written books for The Mandalorian, Goonies, Marvel, and I even wrote a chapter book (which may never see the light of day!) for Kingdom Hearts. (And let me tell you, THAT one took A LOT of screen time!)

But what does that look like? What goes into writing one of these books—other than a lot of time in front of my TV?

When it comes to writing a book (and in particular a children’s book, which has a strict word limit) the key is to pull out all of the most essential elements of a story. For me, that means throwing myself on the couch with a notebook and watching whatever I’m working on, all the while writing down every major—and minor—event in the movie.

By the time I’m done, I’ve got several pages worth of notes. Too much, for sure, which means I’ve got to start cutting! This is the fun part. I go through everything I wrote down and decide what doesn’t REALLY have to be in the book. Sometimes it’s a side plot that I can completely ignore in the interest of word count—especially if it doesn’t do much to further the plot of the story. Sometimes (especially for kids) it’s a scene that might not be appropriate for a book. And sometimes what gets cut has nothing to do with the movie or the audience, but rather the political landscape of the world. Has an actor or actress become someone the world—or the studio—doesn’t want to associate with? And if so, can I get away with cutting them from the story, or at the very least minimizing their part? It doesn’t happen often, but it has happened, and it’s something I always have to keep in mind when I’m writing.

But of course, more than I’m looking for what to take out, I’m looking for what to leave in. I’m keeping an eye out for moments that are just ICONIC. Moments that may not move the story forward, but without which the story simply wouldn’t be the same. Take, for example, The Goonies. These days, the Truffle Shuffle is a bit iffy. Let’s be honest: it’s fat-shaming. But it’s also one of the most memorable moments in the movie, so how can it be left out? It can’t!

I’m also thinking about what the page is going to look like. Is there a moment that not only has to be there, but has to be HUGE? Can I see that moment in my mind before I even start writing? The reveal of One-Eyed Willy’s ship in The Goonies. The moment that Mando shows his face in the second season of The Mandalorian, or when Luke Skywalker is revealed to be the Jedi coming for Grogu. Even before writing, I KNEW those moments had to stand alone. To have pages (or spreads) to themselves to give them the weight and power they are due. Because part of writing is finding your most powerful moments and milking them for all they’re worth!

Once I know what has to go in, I start pacing the book out for real—figuring out which story elements will go on which pages. Sometimes it’s easy and everything flows perfectly. Other times I find that I don’t have enough moments, or I have too many and I need to cut again. Sometimes I have the right amount, but I can’t get a major reveal to sit where it needs to. (With books, the goal is to keep a reader turning the pages. That means you always set up for a reveal on the right, but don’t actually GIVE the reveal until you turn the page!)

Finally, it’s time to write. To be honest, that’s the easy part. I’ve already done all the hard work at that point. But it does mean watching again. This is the moment where I’m pulling everything together, getting exact quotes, and making sure my word count is right. It’s a lot of writing and crossing out and rewriting and editing—not to mention giving art notes for exactly what should be on the page—and then, finally . . . sending it to my editor.

And that’s it. I’m done, right? Wouldn’t that be nice? Except want to know a secret? Studio execs don’t always agree with the moments an author chose. They don’t always like the way a character is depicted. And sometimes (especially when I’m working on a movie that hasn’t released yet) the story has changed!

I spent eight years working as an in-house editor for Disney, which means I read every movie script, saw every screening, and worked on the books that went along with movie release. Ever wonder why a book might not perfectly line up with a movie? It’s because books go on-sale six weeks before a movie hits and go to the printer well before that. Which means chances are good the movie is still being finalized when the books go out. I’ve seen changes to movies happen up to two weeks before the movie releases in theaters. You’d never know it as a consumer, but behind the scenes, everything is up in the air . . . until it’s not.

So yeah, Studio Execs have to sign off on your book. And fingers crossed they do, because once that happens . . . well, that’s how we get great books!

Want to check out some of my newest? The Goonies, published by Insight Editions, releases September 14, 2021 and Season 2 of The Mandalorian, published by DisneyLucasFilm Press releases January 11, 2022.

Brooke Vitale is a published children’s book author with more than 100 books through companies including Disney, Scholastic, and PenguinRandomHouse. She is also a children’s book editor with experience at top publishing houses and a picture book reviewer. For more information, check out Brooke’s website at brookevitale.com, or follow her on Instagram @brooke.vitale or on Facebook @brookevitalebooks.

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