How to Write a Children's Book: An Author's Guide
So, you want to know how to write a children’s book? That’s awesome — 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, including advice from our top children's book editors and the five essential steps you'll need to follow. Read on to learn how to write a children's book today... and hopefully become the next Roald Dahl or Beatrix Potter!
1. Understand the market for your children's book
Before you write a single word of your children's book, you 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.
If you know what kind of children's book you want to write, you probably know who's going to be reading it — elementary schoolers, for example. 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 be general guidelines, 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.
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
2. Create well-rounded and memorable characters
It’s no small task to conjure iconic children's characters like Pippi Longstocking and The Cat in the Hat. But it might be easier than you think! According to children's editor Jenny Bowman, there's a golden rule when it comes to creating children’s characters. 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.
- An 11-year-old protagonist (think Harry Potter) will appeal to readers from the age of 9.
Slightly older characters provide role models and exciting adventures that really 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.
What else do great children's characters need?
The basic tenets of all great characters are pretty much the same, no matter what your target demographic. Your characters, especially your main character(s), should be well-rounded and realistically motivated, with strengths, weaknesses, and quirks to make them stand out.
“But what if I'm only writing a picture book?” you ask. Doesn't matter — you still need to create relatable and three-dimensional characters. Not only will it bolster your storytelling, it'll also boost your fanbase, because kids love strong characters! Plus, if when you end up writing more books featuring the same cast, you'll be extremely grateful that you didn't phone in their personalities.
We'll leave you with one last tip, which is to avoid making your characters so relatable that they're just bland. As children's editor Brian Saliba says, “Relatable doesn't have to mean identical. Challenge the status quo and subvert the default settings.” Strive for unique characters who will speak to kids in their own way, not the way you think is the most universal.
Need some help fleshing out your characters? Check out this sweet character profile template to get started.
3. Tell a kid-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.”
Indeed, the adults may be the ones buying the books, but the kids are the ones who have to approve them. So when deciding what your story should be about — and when revising it to be better (see "editing" below) — think about what conflicts and themes kids will particularly appreciate.
If you have trouble, try to recall what you liked to read at their age. Bounce ideas off kids you know to see what they like. And 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.
More tips for writing children's stories:
- Write about what you want, but make it relevant and appropriate. For instance, might want to explore the theme of betrayal in a children's book — but the story would have to be a backstabbing best friend or sibling, not an unfaithful partner.
- 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.
- 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.
Another bonus tip: If you're struggling with your story, it might help to gather inspiration from the best children's books of all time.
4. Hone your narrative voice
For authors worried about finding their exact “voice,” relax: you don’t need to burst out of the gate with a perfectly formed and totally singular style. Bowman even notes, “I wouldn’t say that a specific writing style needs to be developed to speak to a certain age group... it's really more about themes.”
That said, you should still keep voice in mind when writing a children's book, for a few important reasons we've listed below.
There are many great places to show off your grandiose knowledge of language, but a children’s book is not one of them. Always remember that your target audience's vocabulary is different from yours, even if you're writing middle-grade fiction or YA.
That doesn't mean you should talk down to your audience. “Children are smarter than you think,” says Bowman, “and context can be a beautiful teacher.” But if you need more specific guidance re: vocabulary, 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.
Picture books and early readers depend on the repetition of words and phrases, so children can follow them easily. Think about books like Green Eggs and Ham and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom: these books are 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.
As you hone your voice, try to include repetition to help children settle into your story. But don't repeat too much — just enough to clue your readers into what's happening.
To rhyme or not to rhyme?
Unless you’re Dr. Seuss, reconsider rhyming in your children's book. Bad rhymes can ruin what might otherwise be a fantastic story, and can even come across as derivative. However, children's editor Judith Paskin says that if the rhymes come to you naturally, feel free to try them out.
“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.”
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.
5. Edit carefully, based on kids' feedback
If your book is only 1,000 words (or less), why would you need to edit it? Answer: because you only have a 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.
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 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! Click the link above to learn more.
6. Find the right illustrator
Think back to your favorite childhood books: which do you remember more vividly, the prose or the pictures? Needless to say, if you want your book to become a bestseller, its illustrations need to be just as iconic as those classics — which means you need the perfect illustrator to do the job.
If you're planning to go through a traditional publisher, you can skip this part, as your publisher will probably pick an illustrator for you. However, if you're self-publishing your children's book — especially if it's a picture book — you'll need to find a professional illustrator ASAP.
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 study your target age group even more, in order to understand what your book's illustrations should accomplish:
- “Books designed to be read to children should feature elaborate illustrations that will hold the child's attention while the adult is reading. The illustrations may include details not explicitly referenced in or described by the text — fun little details that add color or humor.”
- “Early read-alone books or books designed to be read with children should be careful about how words and images interact. This is because, when learning readers are stumped on a word or phrase, they examine the accompanying illustration for context clues — so don't include anything that could confuse them.”
Even knowing what you need, finding and identifying the right person to do the job can be tricky. Your book is such a big project that you shouldn't settle for anything less than perfect! Here are a few tips to get you closer to that point.
- Study each portfolio carefully. The best way to evaluate an illustrator is to simply look over their past work. See which genres they've illustrated, and for what age group — ideally, look for someone who's worked in your precise demographic.
- Ask detailed questions. Designers love answering questions about their work. If you have questions about their inspiration, their process, or their preferred style of collaboration, ask them before you make a deal.
- Establish your budget and work plan. Have a clear sense of your budget and how much illustrative work you want commission, and always be upfront with illustrators about what you can afford. (You may have to adjust your expectations as you receive quotes, depending on how many illustrations you want and how detailed they'll be.)
7. Publish your children's book
Once you’re happy with your book, it’s time to put it out there for kids to read and enjoy! 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 also 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. Also consider submitting your book to Reedsy Discovery, where thousands of indie readers can discover your work!
And no matter where you are in the process — just getting started, neck-deep in story development, or right on the brink of your launch — always remember why you're doing this in the first place. Writing a children’s book might be an uphill climb, but it’ll be more than worth it when you can finally get your book in the hands of young readers everywhere. ❤️
Got any more questions about how to write a children's book? Leave them in the comments below and we'll answer right away!