How to write a children's book
In spite of dire predictions about the death of print material, books are still selling. Especially children’s books. In fact, the market for children’s books is probably healthier than the publishing industry as a whole. With a good, solid idea and an understanding of today’s kids, you’re well on your way to writing a successful book.
Do your research
If you’re choosing writing for children because you think it will be easier than writing for adults, think again. Targeting a young audience with the right themes and the appropriate vocabulary can be more challenging than you might think.
Start by reading children’s books in the age group and subject matter that interest you. Consult the children’s librarian, your child’s school, or the many lists available online. Look at award-winning books such as Newberry and Caldecott. Read the books on best-seller lists.
Next, find out which publishers produce the books that interest you. Study their guidelines to learn specifically what they’re looking for.
Know your reader
The number one rule is to be familiar with the youth of the twenty-first century. Standards that applied to this genre even a decade ago are hopelessly out of date.
Today’s child may be attempting to cope with death, divorce, disease, family members with addictions, terrorist threats, war, and any number of mature topics. An insightful approach to any of these issues can give the child tools to deal with whatever life throws his or her way.
And you need not tackle your topic directly. For example, if a child's sibling has been sent overseas by the military, the story can just be about having a sibling that is temporarily sent away for any reason, not necessarily the military. The child will easily relate the two without being given the explicit connection. This approach also allows the parent to talk to the child about how the story is similar to their situation.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’re well aware that children are maturing much earlier than in the past. This means that sensitive subjects can be introduced at an earlier age. Certain age groupings do exist, but they are not carved in stone. Find out how individual publishers break down the categories. Look also for specific word counts for each age group.
A broad grouping of categories/ages is as follows: picture books, easy readers, transition books, middle readers, “tweens,” and young adult. Specific age designations will vary.
At one time, acceptable topics for children’s books were very limited. An author had to be careful not to offend the child’s sensitive nature. Times have changed. Children are exposed on a daily basis to almost every imaginable life style, crime, and horror. Well-crafted literature can approach these conflicts in a constructive way.
In the broadest sense, the words you choose should be appropriate to the age level and maturity of the reader. But don’t be afraid to use big words. Children who read usually enjoy learning new words. Challenge, but don’t frustrate, the reader.
Some books are written specifically for readers who are performing below grade level. The idea is to choose a subject appropriate to the older child, but present the ideas with a simplified vocabulary. Consult word lists for help with this kind of writing.
Telling the story
Every successful story has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. This may seem obvious, but many beginning writers overlook this important detail. Capture your young reader’s interest on the first page. Make the story develop logically, and end with a satisfying conclusion.
You need interesting characters, compelling conflict, and realistic motivations. Events in the story shouldn’t just happen randomly. They need to grow out of a problem that a character must solve. The solution must fit skills and attitudes possessed by that character. One conflict is not enough. Just when your character seems about to conquer all, throw another obstacle in his or her path. The outcome must be the result of the hero/heroine’s actions. Resist the temptation to allow too much help from a friendly adult or an older sibling.
The most logical character in a children’s story is a child. But characters can be anything from people, animals, or imaginary creatures to inanimate objects. Your reader should be able to relate to your main character. Your lead character should not be perfect. Give him or her strengths and weaknesses. The strengths may be hidden, waiting for a dramatic situation to draw them out.
Children should be the leading characters. If your story calls for a grandmother or a police officer, make sure the adult is just interacting with the child. Don’t let the adult in the story talk down to the child (unless that’s part of the conflict). Older children generally prefer to read about those somewhat older than themselves, not younger.
Secondary characters do not have to be developed completely. Use a mannerism or a physical characteristic to identify a minor player. This is one case where stereotypes can be useful.
Don’t forget to have a villain. Conflict usually results between people (but not always). Be sure the reader relates to the hero, not the villain.
The setting should fit the story. If you are dealing with realistic, everyday themes, set the story in a recognizable place. Obvious choices may be a doctor’s office, a park, or a mall. Make the setting believable. Keep it in the background so it doesn’t overpower the story. If you invent an imaginary setting, plan it carefully. You need to establish the “rules” of your imaginary planet and stick with them.
Many of the same rules apply for factual writing. The main things to keep in mind are to make the subject interesting and to explain it on an appropriate level. Study children’s textbooks for appropriate content.
Children’s books are almost synonymous with illustrations. Especially books for very young children. Generally, though, the publisher takes the responsibility for contracting with an artist, rather than using the author’s drawings.
Finish the manuscript
You may not be the next Dr. Seuss or J.K. Rowling, but if you’re persistent you may establish a niche for yourself in the children’s book writing world. All your wonderful ideas and stunning prose will be wasted if you don’t follow through. Believe in yourself and keep writing.