So, you wanna be a children's book writer? Awesome! Writing a children's book is one of the most rewarding and enriching experiences imaginable. But first, let me start off by saying that if you dream of writing for children because you see it as a route to fame and riches, it's time we had a little talk: That's probably not going to happen. Sure, it might happen -- J.K. Rowling's done quite nicely, thank you. But the vast majority of children's writers do it for love, not money. They have a passion for sharing ideas and connecting with young readers that means more than wealth or recognition. If you have that passion, than all the lonely hours of writing and the occasional rejection letter are just small prices to pay for the opportunity to create something wonderful and (hopefully) lasting.
Additionally, anyone who tells you that you can knock out a children's book, send it off to a paying publisher and see your book on the shelves in a couple of months isn't being truthful. You'll have peaks and valleys on your journey that will require patience and perseverance. Contrary to what you may have been told, writing children's books is not easier than writing for adults. Yes, kids' books are shorter, but that just makes things more challenging. The author Mem Fox put it best: “Writing a picture book is like writing 'War and Peace' in haiku.”
There are two kinds of writers – those who say “I've written my story. Where do I send it?' and those who say “I've written my first draft. How do I make the plot smoother, the dialogue better and the characters more believable?” Can you guess which author invariably succeeds? Writing is an art. Mastering it offers the same challenges and rewards of mastering the violin, or skiing or painting. Take your time, sharpen your skill, learn to love the journey. Publishing will always be out there but, if you really want to make it, worry more about being a skilled writer. The rest will take care of itself. With that being said, lets take a look at ten tips that will help you along your writing adventure.
Choose Your Age Group
The world of children's literature is divided along age lines. Become familiar with the standard categories and read from each of them. Before long you'll find yourself gravitating toward one or two of these. That's how you'll know which age group you're best suited for.
Here are the categories, along with some classic books to check out:
Now, head to the library or bookstore, and pick out five books to read in the age group that most interests you. After reading these books, make notes below on what you liked, what you didn't, and why or why not you think you can write for this age group as well. (If, after reading five books, you don't feel connected to that age group, choose another one!)
Choose a Relatable Theme
Does it have wide appeal? Is it from a child’s point of view – or at least about an issue that’s important to a child’s world? (So, you might want to rethink your story about the middle-aged grocer who is sad their lettuce isn’t selling - kids don’t understand the 9-5 gig, man!). If a child relates to your story and sees themselves in it, they’ll want to read it over and over.
Make a Clear Beginning, Middle, and an End
A story about a little girl who sees a snail, fills a bucket with sand then goes to bed at night is not a story, it’s your child’s day. And while I’m sure she had a lovely day, it just doesn’t make for a compelling story…well, to anyone other than her grandmother. The truth is, ending a story is even harder than starting one.
Don’t Let Your Story Be Preachy
Your story should be subtle enough to convey a message without the moral being “in your face.” Kids can smell morals. And they smell like Brussels sprouts. Additionally, don’t talk down. Today the stories told in children’s books are sophisticated and creative, encouraging readers to imagine a world or situation they’d never thought about before. While you should not write a story so complex that it is hard for children to follow, you also should not write a story so simple that it bores them. Instead, use rich language that will spawn learning and curiosity. A story will be more entertaining and worthwhile if it challenges your readers to think and ask questions.
Show, Don’t Tell
Writing picture books looks deceptively simple—after all, how hard can it be to write a 32-page story of about 700 words? (Most picture books are between 500 and 1000 words). In fact, though, it is this very economy of words that challenges a writer most. The craft of writing picture books involves telling your story in as few — and using the most potent — words possible (don’t get me started on why rhyme makes this even harder!) Keep it short and keep it “to the point.”
Make Your Story Different
Sure, your son’s 1st grade class loved your story. Heck, you got a standing ovation! (By the way, first graders will enjoy almost anything that gets them out of math). But is your story different enough from what is already out there to compel a publisher to invest thousands of dollars publishing, marketing and selling it? When writing a children’s book, it is easy to get wrapped up in clichés such as talking animals and fairy princesses. While you want to address popular subjects and trends in your book, you still want to make your tale different from the hundreds of other children’s books available. Foster originality by thinking back to your childhood and remembering the thoughts and feelings you had when your imagination ran free – what type of book would you have liked to read?
Develop Your Idea
Let's begin with a simple test to determine what, exactly, you feel passionate about. Once we have that, you can start polishing a story idea. You walk into a bookstore with a large magazine selection. Where do you go first? Crafts magazines? Photography? Sports? Cooking? Your answer (unless you head right to Playboy or High Times) has given you a tremendous starting point for your first story. Start with your passion and writing will seem much, much easier! Combine this passion with what we've just learned about age groups and you might start seeing a clear picture of your first manuscript. A middle grade story about a young photographer? A chapter book about a boy who dreams of being a famous chef? A picture book about a little girl who idolizes race car drivers and wants to be one? It's all up to you!
Keep Imagery in Mind
An important factor in children’s book is the imagery used alongside the text. Will your book use real photographs, or will an illustrator draw all of the images? Whichever option you choose, you want to make sure the images are high-quality. Consider connecting with local artists or connecting with other children’s book authors to enlist an illustrator to create custom drawings for your story.
Read A lot
In order to learn how to write a children’s book, you have to know what a good children’s book looks like. Don’t just read, though—read critically. Identify the moving parts of the story and try to pinpoint the moments that make you laugh, make you cry, make you roll your eyes; analyze how the author does it. All writers learn by example at first, and these published books will be your best teachers.
You should also make a point of seeking out good books for children. Good is a subjective term, and we could debate what qualifies a good book until we’re dead, but what I mean here is find books that move kids and move you because they get it right. You may learn something about craft from a mediocre book (i.e. what not to do), but you will learn more from quality books.
Be Able to Sum Up Your Story in a Short Sentence
Marketers often refer to this as the “elevator pitch,” and it’s challenging. While creating your story, think about how you’ll relate the message in 30 seconds. For example, this book helps school children learn ways to avoid bullying, or this book teaches young children about respecting other cultures. While writing, continue to ask if you’re on message. It’s hard to admit that we didn’t create the message until the story was almost finalized. Classic cart-before-the-horse approach. Then it took some time to sum it up. And that means more story revisions and even more time!
So, there you have it! Ten tips to writing a children’s book that kids for decades to come will hopefully cherish and enjoy. If you enjoy reading my posts, please be sure to subscribe to my blog, I post new articles weekly. Don’t forget to check out my book titles, including my children’s book A World of Imagination on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and most major online retailers. Additionally, I have another children’s book in the works so, stay tuned for some teasers! Have a great writing week everyone!