How to Write a Children's Book: an Author's Guide
So you want to write a children’s book? That’s great. You’re going to be reaching some of the most important readers out there: children and teenagers.
However, you shouldn’t underestimate the size of the task in front of you. A children’s book is sometimes mistakenly seen as an “easy” book to write. In fact, the opposite is true. You’ll need to nail all the essential elements like your voice, structure, plot, and characterization… with fewer pages.
In this post, we ask some of our top children’s book editors for their tips on how to write a story that sells. But first, let’s get an overview of the children’s book market, so that you know just who you’re writing for.
An introduction to the children’s book market
"The children's publishing industry deems a book successful based upon sales data, but if you want to know which books work, just look for Scotch tape. Look for the books with the weird stains on the pages, with frayed covers, torn-and-taped pages — the books that have been read so many times that they are completely falling apart. These are the hallmarks of a successful children's book." — Brian Saliba, children's editor
Before you write a word of your book, you need to figure out your target audience. You can’t expect a five-year old kid, for instance, to give a preteen’s book the time of day — and vice versa! Literary agents in particular will discard any book that’s not demographic-friendly, which is why children's editor Anna Bowles advises you to tailor every aspect of your book to your age band. This includes:
- Plot complexity
Let’s take a closer look at each of the major categories in the children’s book market.
Picture books (Ages 5-7)
It’s important to note that not all books with pictures are picture books. In industry terms, a picture book is a book that relies equally on illustrations and words to tell the story. Since picture books are meant to be a child’s first reading experience, the word count is going to be very low (500 words or fewer).
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. This classic example of a picture book tells a simple but wistful story in the space of 32 pages — the typical length of a picture book.
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. Another old favorite, this picture book uses clever rhyme and whimsical illustrations to capture the hearts of children everywhere.
Early readers (Ages 6-10)
In between picture books and middle-grade fiction is early reader fiction: books for children who have graduated picture books but aren’t ready to tackle strings of long paragraphs yet. The word count ranges from 2,000 words to 5,000 words — but you’ll still get a fair share of illustrations.
The Animal Ark by Lucy Daniels. A popular series of 94 books, Animal Ark is a great example of early reader fiction: charming, cute, and eye-catchingly illustrated.
Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon. One of the most beloved children’s series, Horrid Henry hilariously introduces readers to themes of minor rebellion and scenarios of sloppy, slimy, sludgy, gloppy glop.
Middle Grade (Ages 8-12)
The signs of a truly independent reader become much clearer in middle-grade fiction. The word count is now 30,000 to 50,000 words and illustrations start falling off the cliff entirely. This is where popular chapter books (such as Boxcar Children and The Magic Treehouse) flourish. To mirror the reader’s development, middle-grade fiction moreover presents slightly more nuanced themes.
Matilda by Roald Dahl. Along with Dahl’s other books, Matilda captures readers’ imaginations by dealing with the most popular themes of middle-grade fiction: rebellion, adults as villains, and family.
Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison. As readers grow up, books like Angus evoke the awkwardness that comes with primary school romances.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan. Like Angus, this blockbuster series targets the older end of the MG spectrum — offering readers a greater sense of peril than, say, Diary of Wimpy Kid, which also belongs in the Middle Grade category.
Young Adult (Ages 12 and up)
Now our reader has reached YA: the last stepping-stone between children’s fiction and adult literature. Generally, word count in YA fiction falls between 50,000 to 100,000 words. Since the genre targets teenagers, the subjects are noticeably more mature: instead of a day of adventure, the protagonist in YA itches for real escape.
Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Evoking all the angst and sweetness of teenage love, this uber-popular novel launched a trend of realistic YA fiction.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Published in 2008, this literary juggernaut exemplifies YA’s ability to explore darker themes, tackling such adult matters as dystopia, oppression, and totalitarianism.
Now that you have a sense of your sandbox, let’s get to writing the thing!
The Four Cardinal Laws of Writing Children's Books
Writing a great children’s book is a bit like building the ultimate Lego city: it’ll take lots of patience, and the foundation needs to be rock-solid. We turned to some of today’s top children’s book editors and asked them what they wish that authors knew.
Create memorable characters
Easier said than done, you might think: it’s no mean feat to conjure out of thin air such iconic characters as Lyra Belacqua from The Golden Compass, Pippi Longstocking, and The Cat in the Hat.
But it might be simpler than you think. For children's editor Jenny Bowman, there is one golden rule when it comes to creating children’s characters. It goes a little something like this:
“Children 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.”
This means that:
- An eight-year old protagonist (think Ramona Quimby) will attract a readership that’s around five- to seven-years old.
- An eleven-year old protagonist (think Harry Potter) will appeal to readers starting from the age of nine.
Beyond this, bear in mind that the basic formula for a great character doesn’t differ much from adult fiction: you’re coming up with characters, not caricatures.
According to children's editor Brian Saliba:
"In an effort to create characters and settings that they hope will be familiar and relatable to kids, aspiring authors often end up with stories about nondescript little boys and girls living in an unspecified town and dealing with everyday problems. And more often than not, those stories are just plain boring. Children recognize and relate to emotions expressed by characters, and relatability is important, but relatable doesn't have to mean identical. Challenge the status quo and subvert the default settings. If you are writing a story about a little boy who wants to grow up to be a doctor, ask yourself: What would happen if the little boy was a robot?
That said, relatable characters also need relatable storylines, which brings us to our next point.
Tell an engaging story
This tip might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many authors forget that children’s fiction needs to be for children. “A lot of beginners write about children as we adults often see them; as cute and slightly comical little beings,” says children's editor Anna Bowles. “What children actually want is stories where they are the heroes, driving the action, facing challenges and making choices.”
A big part of what will make a children’s story have a lasting impact is the theme of the book. Every so often, ask yourself why you’re writing this book. What do you want your book to teach children? What does the protagonist learn about himself or herself by the end? In Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur learns about friendship. Faith Sunderly in The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge discovers the nature of truth.
Here are a few more of Bowles’ tips for handling theme in children’s books:
- You can go for almost anything — provided it’s relevant to the readership. For instance, you could write about betrayal. But it would be a backstabbing best friend, rather than an unfaithful husband.
- Fully explore the theme you’ve chosen. Generally, your book will have one main theme.
- Lay your subject out simply, but not simplistically. Don’t assume that kids are too young to understand the theme, particularly if there’s a moral dimension involved.
Tell an engaging story
Hone a voice
For authors who are worried about finding a “voice,” you can relax: you don’t need to come out with a writing style like Roald Dahl’s from the onset.
“I tell authors to focus a little less on language and much more on age-appropriate themes in those first drafts,” says Bowman. “I wouldn’t say that a specific writing style needs to be developed to speak to a certain age group.”
However, there are certain things about voice that you should keep in mind as you’re writing. Let’s touch base with them so that you don’t start off on the wrong foot.
Take note of your vocabulary
There are many wonderful places to show off your grandiose knowledge of language — but a children’s book isn’t one of them! It’s a good rule of thumb to remember that your target audience’s everyday vocabulary is vastly different from yours.
That said, you shouldn’t go overboard and make children feel as though you’re speaking down to them. “My biggest pet peeve is getting a manuscript where the author has clearly dumbed-down the language to fit what they feel is appropriate for an age group,” says Bowman. “By all means, use big words! Children are smarter than you think, and context can be a beautiful teacher.”
Ultimately, it’s best to pick a register and stick with it. To tighten your vocabulary and make sure it’s consistent, test your book on children when you have your first draft.
To rhyme or not to rhyme
Unless you’re Dr. Seuss, you might want to re-think using verse in your book. Bad rhymes can ruin what might otherwise have been a fantastic story.
However, children's editor Judith Paskin says that this doesn’t mean that you have to chant to yourself, “Mustn’t write in rhyme… mustn’t write in rhyme,” every time you put pen to paper.
“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.”
If you emerge from the sweat and tears with a manuscript that you like, congratulations! Let’s see what you might need to do with that first draft now.
Do you need an illustrator for your book?
Illustrations are perhaps the most obvious difference between children’s books from adult literature, but whether you actually need an illustrator depends on your situation. Are you:
- Writing a picture book?
- Self-publishing your book?
If you answered “no” to either question, you can skip this step. Authors who plan to publish traditionally don’t need to find an illustrator themselves: your publisher will call in one of their own.
However, if you’re planning to self-publish a picture book, you will need to find a professional illustrator. (Unless you lead a double life as a Eric Carle, don’t try to illustrate your book yourself — that’ll usually turn out badly if you’ve never before done design work in your life!)
How to find an illustrator for your book
Before you start the process of finding an illustrator for your children's book, heed the words of Brian Saliba. He advises you to look to the age group you're targeting in order to determine the interaction of images and text in your book:
- "Books designed to be read to children can feature elaborate illustrations that will hold the child's attention while the adult is reading. The illustrations can feature details not explicitly referenced in or described by the text--fun little details that add color or humor."
- "Authors writing early read-alone books or books designed to be read with children should be careful about how words and images interact. When learning readers are stumped on a word or phrase, they instinctively examine the accompanying illustration for context clues."
There are a couple of trustworthy places to find great designers and illustrators who cater specifically to children’s books. The Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators can point you towards a number of publishing resources, including children’s book illustrators. You can also look on marketplaces such as Reedsy, which houses hundreds of professional designers who have illustrated for the largest publishers in the industry.
Identifying the right professional is a bit trickier. Your book is such a big project that you want to make sure you find the perfect collaborator for it. Here are a few tips to get you one step closer to that point.
- Study their portfolio. Every illustrator has a unique style. Your job is to find one that matches your writing — and the best way to do this is by looking at the designer’s past work. Check out what genres they prefer and what kind of books they usually illustrate. If you can picture their artwork alongside your writing, you might have hit the jackpot.
- Ask questions. Designers love answering questions about their work. If you have questions about their inspirations, their design process, or their collaboration method, ask them before you decide to work with them.
- Establish your budget and the number of illustrations you’ll need. For your own benefit, have a clear sense of your budget before you go into the search. Designers’ fees will vary and you’ll want to ensure that you’re both playing in the same ballpark. Mismatched expectations will quickly derail the project.
Do you need an editor for your book?
Some children’s book authors fall into the trap of thinking, “Oh, my book only has 1,000 words — I don’t need an editor.” But that’s precisely the struggle: you only have 1,000 words to reach out to children, which is why you need to make each of them count.
To perfect your written work, consider sharing it with friends, family, and children’s writing communities (such as Children’s Book Authors on Facebook or a writing group in your area). You should also test your book on your target audience: children. Kids are brutally honest, so their feedback will be very valuable.
If you think that you need a specialist touch, you might want to hire a professional editor. Their decades of experience will improve your storytelling and make sure that your book is ready for the market. You can find out the cost of hiring a professional children’s book editor here.
Taking the next step
Once you’re happy with your book, it’s time to take the last step and put it out there for children to read. You can dive deep into the process in this extensive guide to publishing a children’s book.
If you’re planning to self-publish, you’ll want to start thinking about marketing. Here’s a free 10-day course that provides marketing strategies to help you promote your children’s book before, during, and after its launch.
Most of all, never lose sight of your goal. The journey to writing a successful children’s book might be hard, but it’ll be worth it when you picture your book in the hands of young readers everywhere.
Are you writing a children's book right now? Do you have any more questions for our professional editors? Leave them in the comment box below and we'll answer right away!