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Last updated on Aug 16, 2021

How to Write a Children's Book in 9 Surprisingly Simple Steps

So, you want to know how to write a children’s book? You've got the right idea in mind — children and teenagers are some of the most devoted readers out there! But you should know that writing great children's literature is no easy feat, especially if you're brand-new to the game.

Luckily, we're here to give you aspiring authors a boost. This post contains everything you need to know about writing a children's book — complete with advice from top children's book editors in the industry. Read on to learn how to write a children's book today... and potentially even become the next Roald Dahl or Beatrix Potter.

How to write a children's book:

1. Find an idea that's relatable to children

Though there's no secret recipe for commercial success, one thing that's true of children's books is that the most successful ones will please two audiences: the children, and the parents of that children. However, while adults may be the ones buying the books, kids are the ones who will actually be approving them (and treasuring them as they grow up). So children are the ones who you want to keep in mind as you write — they're the ones who will make this book worth writing. And to write a book for them, you'll need to come up with a great idea.

Uncover a universal theme

Now, children's book ideas might seem fantastical, elaborate, and original when you come across them at first. But when you strip the funny and creative dressings of a children's book down to its bare essentials, you'll see that the themes present in a children's book are entirely universal:

  • Trying green egg and ham | The value of having an open mind
  • Refusing to fight other bulls | The importance of kindness
  • A pig who's saved by a spider | The power of friendship

The best children's books are grounded upon ideas that inspire and connect with children. As children's editor Anna Bowles warns: “A lot of beginners write about children as we adults often see them: as cute and slightly comical little beings. But what children actually want is stories where they are the heroes, driving the action, facing challenges, and making choices.”

Is your idea right for kids?

To ensure that your idea is solid, go through this checklist:

  • Why do I want to tell this story?
  • What is my story about?
  • Is this idea and theme going to be relatable to children?
  • Is it unique and possibly marketable?

If you're struggling to come up with a book idea, it never hurts to recall what you liked to read at their age. You also have the best critics around: kids! Bounce ideas off children you know to see what they like. Above all, don't be afraid to switch things up. You might think your plot is set in stone, but remain open-minded to suggestions and different creative avenues.

2. Choose an age group (and know its market)

how to write a children's book
What age group are you trying to target? (Image: Ben White on Unsplash)

Before you write a single word of your children's book, you also need to determine your target audience. Children's lit ranges from baby board books alllll the way up to young adult novels, so your target age range may be anywhere from 0 to 18. It's important to know what your target audience's age range is so that you can speak directly to them. However, age isn't the only factor here! You also need to think about what your readers will expect in terms of topic, lengthy, style, and complexity.

Understanding these things enables you to "write to market," so your book will actually sell. Let's take a quick look at the main types of children's books and their target age groups. We'll also provide some well-known examples, in case you're not quite sure what these books should look like.

*Note that the age ranges below are meant to give you an idea of the general guidelines in the industry, NOT concrete restrictions. Most children (and adults) enjoy picture books beyond the age of 6, and many precocious children love YA novels. This is just to give you an idea of your primary demographic.

👶 Picture Books (ages 0-6)

In industry terms, a picture book is a book that relies on both illustrations and words to tell the story. Since picture books are meant for very early reading experiences, the word count is going to be quite low (500 words or fewer); board books for babies and toddlers are even shorter. But all picture books still need to have a strong story, so don't make the mistake of thinking they're easy to write. You can learn more in our guide to writing a picture book.

Examples of classic picture books:

  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
  • The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson

👧🏼 Early Readers (ages 6-7)

After picture books comes early reader fiction: books for children who have graduated to more-words-than-pictures, but aren't yet ready to tackle long blocks of text. The "early reader" word count ranges from 2,000 words to 5,000 words, though you’ll still get your fair share of illustrations. These early readers also usually come in series, so kids can devour one after another to build their reading skills.

Examples of early readers:

  • Elephant & Piggie by Mo Willems
  • The Animal Ark by Lucy Daniels
  • Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish
  • Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon

🧒🏻 Chapter Books (ages 7-9)

From early readers, children progress to chapter books, which we all probably remember from our earliest book reports! Chapters books are also pretty quick reads that tend to come in series, but their word count is slightly higher, around 5,000 to 10,000 words per book. You'll still see pictures in chapter books, but you'll notice they're less common and often appear as sketches rather than full color illustrations.

Examples of chapter books:

  • Junie B. Jones by Barbara Park
  • The Magic Treehouse by Mary Pope Osbourne
  • The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

👦🏽 Middle Grade (ages 9-12)

Middle grade books are for kids who want something a little more advanced in terms of both prose and story. These fully independent middle-grade readers tackle books from 30,000 to 50,000 words, with even fewer illustrations than their predecessors — though there may still be some pictures, especially to accompany chapter headings.

Examples of middle grade fiction:

  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan

👩 Young Adult (ages 12-18)

Finally, juvenile readers reach young adult books: the last stepping-stone between children’s and adult literature. The typical word count in YA falls between 50,000 to 100,000 words — in other words, the same length as any other novel. However, the subject matter will be distinctly adolescent: often to do with navigating life-changing issues and discovering one's true self.

Examples of young adult books:

  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Divergent by Veronica Roth
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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3. Use a voice that doesn’t talk down to readers

how to write a children's book
This author establishes a confident voice right away. (Image: Thought Catalog on Unsplash)

A distinctive voice will set you apart from other children's books from the onset. Your authorial voice is what is going to speak to children (and we also mean that in the literal sense, as children's books are often read out loud.)

You might be afraid that you won't be able to find your voice instantly, but don't worry! The good news is that, just as nobody has a voice like Dr. Seuss' or Roald Dahl's, nobody has your voice. And, like all other writing endeavors, it's a matter of practice and patient dedication. To discover it, dig deep to figure out what makes your words special — and where your strengths on the page lie. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you hone it.

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Use age-appropriate vocab

There are many great places to show off your grandiose knowledge of language, but a children’s book is not one of them! Children won't be impressed by four-syllable words — they'll only be confused by them. It's necessary to remember that your target audience's vocabulary is different from yours, even if you're writing middle-grade fiction or YA.

That said, you should never talk down to children. As children's editor Jenny Bowman says, “Children are smarter than you think, and context can be a beautiful teacher.”

The best way to navigate this delicate balance is to read other books for kids in your age group. This is by far the best way to get a sense of what language is suitable for them,.

Harness the power of repetition

Picture books and early readers depend on the repetition of words and phrases, so children can follow them easily. Think about books like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom: it's so popular because they repeat an interesting phrase over and over.

Repeating situations also tend to be very effective, even if they're only used as a plot device. For example, every Magic Treehouse book begins with Jack and Annie using the treehouse to travel back in time and/or to another part of the world. The setting is different in each book, but every first chapter gives kids a sense of familiar anticipation.

And if you need any more examples, just think about Dr. Seuss and the overwhelming success that he found with repetition in his prose!

Be careful with rhyme

Speaking of Dr. Seuss, reconsider rhyming in your children's book (unless you're him). It's extremely hard to rhyme well — moreover, children's editors and children's book agents will be able to spot a bad or derivative rhyme from a mile away.

That said, there are exceptions! Children's book editor Judith Paskin describes one such instance when she couldn't write if it wasn't in rhyme:

“Sometimes characters will really get inside your head and demand to talk in verse. It happened to me once when I was the one writing the children’s book, for a change.

“I instinctively resisted — after all, I should follow my own ‘good’ advice as a professional editor! But that mole did not want to talk unless he could do it in rhyme. So if you find you really can’t stop thinking in rhyming couplets, cast them down on paper, and be ruthless about making them perfect.”

4. Anchor your story with memorable characters

how to write a children's book
Definitely one of the better-known children's characters. (Image: Mary GrandPré)

Think about the most iconic children's book characters that you've read. Names such as Matilda, Pippi Longstocking, Harry Potter, and The Cat in the Hat might jump to mind. How did their authors create such timeless characters?

Your protagonist is a few years older than your reader

Well, Jenny Bowman says that there's a golden rule for every children's book character. It goes a little something like this:

“Children always want to read stories about other children who are a little bit older than themselves, who are participating in life experiences that mirror their own.”

So, for example:

  • An 8-year-old protagonist (think Ramona Quimby) will attract a readership that’s around 5-7 years old; and
  • An 11-year-old protagonist (think Harry Potter) will appeal to readers from the age of 9.

This goes back to the importance of knowing your target market. Slightly older characters provide role models and exciting adventures that intrigue younger audiences — like how kids often look up to their older siblings. Of course, the experiences of these characters should not be so different that they lose their relatability: Ramona still appeals to 7-year-olds because being in third grade is pretty similar to being in second.

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Even kids characters need strengths and flaws

Next, don't think that writing a children's book gives you permission to create less-developed characters. A truly great children's book character will come with their own fully realized strengths, weaknesses, conflicts, and motivations that make them compelling to their readers. Children want to connect to characters who they recognize. To help you get started creating memorable characters, we have some additional resources for you:

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Reedsy’s Character Profile Template

A story is only as strong as its characters. Fill this out to develop yours.

Bland is bad

We'll leave you with one last tip, which is to avoid making your characters so relatable that they're just bland. In the words of children's editor Brian Saliba: “Relatable doesn't have to mean identical. Challenge the status quo and subvert the default settings.” It's also worth remembering to provide representation in all forms. If you'd like to learn more about diversity in children's book literature, go here.

5. Write a messy first draft, then rewrite it 

how to write a children's book
Aim for this level of absorption. (Image: Stephanie Yaich on Unsplash)

Now it's time to put it all together and get your story finally down on paper! Here are some tips to guide you as you write your children's book:

Don't be too precious about your first draft

There's a reason why people call first versions a 'rough draft' — one of the most paralyzing things for authors is the need to make a manuscript perfect from a get-go. Think of Michelangelo, chiseling statues out of marble: he didn't start by sculpting a life-like head, then an exquisitely rendered shoulder, and so on. The first stage would simply be to hack away most of the marble to create the vague shape of his design.

As a writer, you should think of your children's book as your very own "David" — the fun details, characterizations, jokes, and themes will come later. Your job at the start is just to draft a manuscript that vaguely resembles the book you have in your imagination.

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Things to focus on in your rewrites

Once you've vomited up a shonky first draft, now is the time to crack out all your fine writing tools and finesse all the elements of your story. You'll rearrange, rewrite, or simply throw out a lot of your manuscript at this point — all in service of honing your story. Here are some things you may wish to focus on in your re-writes.

  1. Write about what you want, but make it relevant and appropriate. For instance, a child's book might want to explore the theme of betrayal, but the story would have to be a backstabbing best friend or sibling, not an unfaithful partner.
  2. Thoughtfully explore the theme(s) you’ve chosen. Your book will have at least one central theme/message, and probably more if it's a longer book for an older age group. Carefully intertwine these themes with the story; don't hit readers over the head with it.
  3. Prioritize visuals while writing. Children's books are a heavily visual medium, so you want to bear that in mind while writing. Try and include varied and interesting looking settings, to give your illustrator more room to play. If your whole book takes place in one room, you won't be getting the most out of your artwork.
  4. Entertain the adults too. This is a bonus tip, and certainly not one to prioritize over entertaining the kids. But if you can slip a pun or (appropriate!) cultural reference in for the adults who do all the book-buying and reading aloud, all the better.
  5. Read liberally in your genre. If you're struggling with your story, it may help to gather inspiration from the best children's books of all time.

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Now, if you've managed to emerge from the sweat and tears with a manuscript you actually like, congratulations! Let’s see what you might need to do with that first draft.

6. Edit, edit, and edit

how to write a children's book
Take note: this is what "good feedback" looks like. (Image: Ben White on Unsplash)

If your book is only 1,000 words (or less), why would you need to edit it? Answer: because you only have 1,000 words, and every single one of them needs to count. Here are the most important things to know when editing a children's book.

Be brutal in your self-edit

The first thing you'll want to do is perform a self-edit on your children's book. That guide is actually perfect for middle grade and YA authors, who have more complex plots, characters, and themes. However, if you're editing a picture book or early reader book, you really only have to do one thing: cut it down to the bare essentials.

“But my book is so short! Do I really need to cut it down?” In short (no pun intended), yes. Your children's book may be short — but that's not the same as every detail being ESSENTIAL. Kids have short attention spans, and even one irrelevant detail can derail the story for them.

If you already have a short manuscript, the best way to do this kind of edit is to simply remove lines one by one. Each time, ask yourself: “Does the story still make sense without this line?” And if so, you can delete it.

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Share with other readers

To perfect your children's book, share it with friends, family, and children’s writing communities (such as Children’s Book Authors on Facebook or a writing group in your area). Make sure that actual children are included in your test readers, especially children of your target age group.

Kids are usually pretty honest, so their feedback will be the most valuable you receive. Incorporate their suggestions are much as possible, and then send out your book for more rounds of feedback! Only once you have thumbs-ups from all your young beta readers should you begin to think about publishing.

When in doubt, hire a pro

If you've gotten feedback, self-edited extensively, and still feel your children's book isn't quite there, consider hiring a professional children's editor. Their years of high-profile experience will both improve your storytelling and make sure that your book is ready for the market.

Fortunately, we have the best children's editors right here on Reedsy, many whom have worked with major authors like Daisy Meadows (author of the Rainbow Magic series) and R.L. Stine!

Free course: How to Write a YA Book that Sells

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7. Pick your layout

A big consideration when moving into the design phase of making your children’s book is the layout you’d like for your book. There’s a lot of variety in the market, though you’ll find that many books for kids under seven years old are often:

  • 5” x 8”
  • 8.5” x 8.5”
  • 7” x 10” 
  • or 8” x 10”

 Since these trim sizes are so diverse, it's important to have a rough idea of the shape and size you want before you start adding illustrations to your book.

Infographic: Some examples of standard children's book sizes.
Some examples of standard children's book sizes.

 

Here are the layout options you’ll have to weigh up:

  • Portrait (vertical) layout. Rectangular pages with the shortest edge running along the bottom of each page. This layout might lend itself well to any book where the characters are particularly tall, or where action takes place up high.
  • Landscape (horizontal) layout. Rectangular pages with the longest edge running down the bottom of the page. This layout is great for portraying — you guessed it — landscapes. If your characters are going on an adventure across a fantastical looking land, landscape orientation can allow you more freedom to show that world off.
  • Square: Square pages are a versatile layout which lends itself to a whole variety of compositions.

You will also want to consider whether you want your illustrations to be single sides, with facing text, or whether you’d like to do double page spreads — or a bit of both! If you aren’t certain, an illustrator will be able to advise you.

Example of a double page spread by illustrator Hayley Moore
An example of a double page spread by illustrator Hayley Moore

 

Consider tactile elements

Of course, the fun doesn’t stop here when it comes to kids' books. As well as different sizes and layouts, books for early readers can also include interactive elements. These will be more expensive to produce and may provide expert help, so you should decide early on if you want to include touches like pop-ups, sensory elements (think fuzzy textures or cut outs).

Interactive books by Jo Garden
Tactile book design by illustrator Jo Garden

 

One final consideration is whether you want your book to be a board book, or a standard paperback or hardback. Board books are more common for the very young market, as they’re more tactile and easier for little hands to hold. You’ll want to know early on if this is an option you’d like to pursue as it will affect other elements of the design

8. Team up with an illustrator, or go it alone

Now it’s time for the exciting part — getting your book illustrated! Unless you’re very confident in your artistic abilities, it’s best to turn to the pros at this point, but we’ll share some advice here for both possibilities.

If you are going to be hiring a pro, you can find more more in-depth information in our handy guide on how to hire a children’s book illustrator, but we’ll cover some of the basics here.

Identify the visual style for your book

What style do you think best captures the mood and world of your story? Perhaps your book is for very young readers, who will enjoy bright, bold, and graphic illustrations. Perhaps you’re aiming at a slightly older audience, who’ll appreciate whimsical characters and a more muted color palette. Whether you’re doing your own illustrations or teaming up with a professional, it’s important to gather a range of references before you start, to make sure you have ample inspiration and “mentor texts” to refer back to.

Artwork by Claudie C Bergeron
Artwork by Claudie C Bergeron

 

Browse through your favorite kids books, or the portfolios of some professionals, and identify what you like — and, perhaps just as importantly, anything you definitely don’t like. This post on 20 children’s book illustrators will be a helpful jumping off point in finding visual references and the vocabulary to describe what you’re looking for.

Make sure your text is illustration-ready

If you have a particular vision for how your book should be illustrated, it’s important to leave notes on your text to help an illustrator figure that out. You can leave page-by-page illustration notes for your artist, describing what you envision on your page, or leave them a little more creative freedom by only breaking down key images, and allowing them to do the rest.

Illustration by Gillian Sore
Illustration by Gillian Sore

 

Look for artists whose work already aligns with your preferences

While some artists might welcome a challenge, and enjoy trying out a new style, the best way to guarantee results that you like is to find an artist whose style already matches your vision fairly closely — rather than asking them to fit a square peg into a round hole.

The best way to figure out if this is the case is to take a look at their portfolio. Browsing the Reedsy marketplace, you’ll find experienced cover artists who have already shared examples of their work, along with reviews from previous clients. This will give you a better sense of who they are as an artist and what you can expect from a collaboration.

Know what’s included in your deal

While using a different interior illustrator and cover designer is the norm in some genres, kids’ books generally get judged by their cover, so make it cohesive. Make sure you’re clear with your illustrator if you’d also like a cover illustration for your project, and factor that into your budget.

It’s also worth noting that, while some illustrators will also be happy to work on the overall layout of your book (fonts, text placement, etc), this isn’t always the case. Establish early on whether your artist is going to be designing the entire book, or whether you’ll also need to hire a professional for these elements.

If you’re DIY-ing your images, check the requirements

You can, of course, always do your own illustrations — but bear in mind you’ll need high quality scans to recreate them in your book and meet industry standards. You will also need to check whether your POD service has any particular requirements for image resolution or file size, so you can be certain your images will come out just as intended.

9. Choose your perfect print service

There are a lot of options available for book printing, and it can be overwhelming trying to figure out who to go with. We’ve already put together some tips for kid’s book authors which you should check out in our guide to the cost of publishing a children’s book, but to summarize:

  • Authors of kid’s novels, which are largely text based, should favor print on demand services like KDP, Lulu, or Blurb. These services provide the lowest risk, as you won’t need to pay for big bulk orders in advance.
  • Authors of picture books may want to consider offset printing services like PrintNinja or IAPC, which offer cheaper cost-per-volume but also require a greater upfront cost.

How expensive your book is to print, and which service you ultimately choose, will depend on a number of factors, including size, use of color, and paper type. The more specialized services like PrintNinja offer even more advanced print options like pop-up and board books, but bear in mind these will be charged at a premium compared to simpler formats.


And there you have it! Once you've completed these steps, you'll have a completed children's book ready for publication. Make sure to check out the rest of our guide for more information on how to get your work out into the world.

– Originally published on Apr 10, 2020

6 responses

Olga says:

10/02/2019 – 10:53

Where can I listen to my target audience if the kids around me don't speak English?

↪️ Reedsy replied:

11/02/2019 – 09:08

Thanks to the internet, that's not so much of a problem anymore. Social media and online communities can make it a lot easier to find your ideal audience. Check out this post we wrote about target markets from children's books: https://blog.reedsy.com/childrens-books-target-markets/

Jeff Dearman says:

08/05/2019 – 12:28

There's also newer illustrators looking to get their foot in the door who might be willing to help for relatively cheap compared to the more establish artists the more establish artists will want a lot more $$$$ , so look around. if youre on college campus or recent grad and know some illustrators or a friend or family member who does great art. ask them . Offer like $100-300 for black and white story boards and maybe a couple colored cover designs or what not and give them full authority and ownership over the art and development of the characters. Once the work is done maybe offer them a bonus if they do good work. There's plenty of newer illustrators with extremely good talent who are looking for opportunities.

Jeff Dearman says:

08/05/2019 – 12:28

You can also go to places like the New England film board and or other boards or even reddit and put out a post saying you're looking for an illustrator interested in getting material for their portfolio and offer them the ability to develop the characters etc. and such and offer lke a couple hundred bucks for sketches/character storyboards. - also state you'll put them into a writers' contract and split any royalties once the time comes if the book is susccessfl and write out an agreement you both sign. and agree to.

Penelope Smith says:

24/08/2019 – 04:32

Writing a children's book does seem like it could be tricky. I liked that you pointed out that you should look at that an illustrator past work. Also, it seems like a good thing to consider asking them to draw a sample page for the book. After all, you would want to check they draw in a style you like.

Sjsingh says:

20/11/2019 – 14:04

"pug"book writer Sharma is said a sardaarni, she is not a "Kaur", Kaur can be said as sardaarni. And what a mockery she has done for tying pug, real sardaarni never can dare to do that. Pug is very respectful in Sikhs and many other cast too, and she has made it joke, she has done very wrong to the sentiments and feelings of many Indians. And you have any humanity you should Apologize for this heart breaking act , Publisher has done not less than you. Have you ever thought , write a book on tying a saari or lungi in same style and illustration used in "pug"?

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