Kidlit: Writing for Young Children

Fiction How-to
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by Victoria Passey

Stories are where many of us first learn to use our imagination and think outside ourselves. We learn to empathize, experiment, and build connections through the power of words. According to Jim Trelease, author of best-selling Read-Aloud Handbook, several studies have shown that children can begin to enjoy reading while they are still in utero, associating the familiar sounds and tones of being read to with comfort and security. It’s no wonder there’s such a large emphasis on reading in school and so many authors dream of seeing their books on display at the Scholastic Book Fair.

So what do you need to know if you are one of the authors who dreams of writing for children? Read on to find out!

 

At a Glance

Unlike books for adults, books for children are primarily categorized by age range rather than genre or author. The age range of children’s books is anywhere from birth up to ten years old, with many categories and divisions in between.

Board Books: Board books are written for the youngest of readers (birth to four years old) and have a distinct, sturdy, cardboard construction for children to handle, play with, and chew on as much as they want without ruining the book.

And because they are meant for children to handle, board books are short and use simple grammar. The average length is about eight pages and one hundred words or fewer. They have short stories, colorful pictures, and often “touch and feel” elements to stimulate a child’s sense of touch with different textures and cutouts. Common themes include simple concepts and events in a young child’s life (such as a bedtime routine or an introduction to colors and shapes).

As far as publishing goes, board books are difficult to make a living by, but they can be great on a smaller scale (such as a personalized book for your family and friends). Board books are expensive to produce, which makes them harder to pitch to traditional publishers and harder to self-publish. Board books for the youngest of audiences also need to go through extensive testing to ensure they’re safe for kids to put their mouths on, which also adds to a higher price point.

Most board books actually start off as picture books and are reformatted after proven sales. If you want to make it big in board books, try picture books first.

Examples of great board books include the following (from New York Magazine’s article The 15 Best Board Books for Babies, According to Booksellers):

Picture Books: Picture books are similar to board books—combining a story with pictures—but are longer, more complex, and made for adults and children to read together. This allows for more freedom in storytelling and grammatical style than with board books because picture books are generally meant for adults to read aloud and don’t require children to know all the words. The age range for picture books is also wider because of this (birth to eight years).

The genres for picture books are split down the same line most books are: fiction and nonfiction. Fiction picture books are what most people envision when they think of a picture book; there’s a focus on narrative, characters, and a colorful world created by the author. However, nonfiction picture books, also known as “concept” books, are a steadily growing market in the publishing world. Nonfiction picture books focus on teaching children about the world around them and helping them understand different aspects of life.

The word count for picture books varies widely between fiction and nonfiction, but they all run about the same length—32 pages. Fiction picture books are, on average, 500 to 1000 words long. Nonfiction picture books are much longer, with word counts as high as 3,000 words, but most nonfiction picture books run closer to 1,000 to 2,000 words.

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, picture books are where your relationship with your illustrator becomes vital. Illustrations are becoming increasingly important as the average word count of picture books decreases. In traditional publishing, it will be the publisher’s job to find and hire your illustrator, so it’s important you don’t already have an illustrator when you pitch your story (unless you are your own illustrator, of course). In self-publishing, finding and hiring the right illustrator will be one of your most important jobs.

Examples of great picture books include the following (from the Scholastic article Teacher Picks: Top 25 Picture Books):

Early Readers: Early readers bridge the transition between books read to children and books read by children. They’re meant for children, ages five to seven, who are starting to get the hang of reading independently but may still need help. This creates the tricky dual purpose of writing a book with a story and style children can follow on their own but that adults won’t hate helping children read.

The language, grammar, and word count of early readers are tightly controlled by publishers and reading levels. Depending on the publisher’s guidelines on reading levels, early readers can range from 200 to 3,500 words. Two great resources about reading levels are the Scholastic articles “Learn About Leveled Reading” and “Guided Reading Resource Chart.”

Reading levels are so vital to early readers it can be hard to break into the industry; in fact, most early readers are written in-house by publishing staff because of each publisher’s precise guidelines for word count, sentence structure, and vocabulary. Early readers are also educational in nature, and so it’s not the most lucrative market. However, if you’re determined, you could be the one to create that unforgettable character who takes the early reader world by storm (take Pete the cat, for instance).

Another thing to note about early readers is that this is where we really start to see a division between “boy books” and “girl books.” The value of this division is hotly debated, but it’s an increasing factor in what boys and girls will choose to read as they grow older; after all, readers like to see themselves represented in what they read, and one of the easiest ways to do that is through gender.

Examples of great early readers include the following (from Scholastic’s article 12 Books for Early Readers That Rock):

  • Books popular with girls:
    • Fancy Nancy: Too Many Tutus  by Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (Amazon, IndieBound)
    • Penny and Her Marble  by Kevin Henkes (Amazon, IndieBound)
    • Ballet Cat: Dance! Dance! Underpants!  by Bob Shea (Amazon, IndieBound)
  • Books popular with boys:

Chapter Books: Chapter books finalize the transition early readers start and are written entirely for children to read to themselves. By this time, children have a good grasp of reading, and it gets stronger as they transition through chapter books, which is why chapter books are published on two levels: early and older.

Early chapter books are for children ages 6 to 7 and run 5,000 to 20,000 words in length (about 48 to 64 pages). Older chapter books are for children ages 8 to 10 and run 20,000 to 35,000 words in length (about 80 or more pages). Remember that as the age range for the book goes up, the age of your book’s protagonist should as well—it’s a good rule of thumb that most children want to read about a protagonist who is their age or a bit older.

There’s a lot of overlap between the older age group for chapter books and the middle-grade age group (8 to 13 years old). We won’t go into middle grade here, but you can learn all about it in our article “Coming of Age: Writing for MG, YA, NA.”

Like early readers, the language and grammar of chapter books are still controlled by publishers and reading levels, but it’s a bit less strict. While chapter books on the younger end of the spectrum are less complex, all chapter books focus on action, dialogue, and characters. Older chapter books actually have a full three-act story structure with an age-appropriate character arc.

The market for chapter books is more open than for early readers, but both types face many of the same challenges. An important thing to note is that most successful early readers and chapter books are published serially, with dozens of books following the same set of characters through a variety of scenarios. This is because each early reader or chapter book has a spine so thin it’s hard to distinguish it on a bookshelf as a standalone book.

Chapter books are also like early readers in that they tend to be divided between “boy books” and “girl books.” This is even more pronounced here as readers are older and have developed stronger preferences and opinions.

Examples of great chapter books include:

Write It Right

Once you’ve chosen a children’s-book category, here are a few things to keep in mind as you start writing:

  1. Don’t Dumb It Down: Just because your audience is very young, it doesn’t mean they want to read stories devoid of plot and meaning. Stories for children should contain the same elements other stories do—plot, theme, action, suspense, and a climax. An important point to remember is that just because the grammatical structure of your writing should be simple, it doesn’t mean your story needs to be.
  2. Give It a Heart: Across the different categories and genres of children’s books, there’s at least one thing they all have in common, and that’s heart. “Heart” boils down to each story having a deep, emotional core beyond the surface meaning of its plot. Even nonfiction children’s books should have an emotional core that connects the reader to the content and makes it relatable. Heart makes a good story great, and it does the heavy work of teaching a child something about the emotional realities of life. So make sure your story has a heart before you call it finished.
  3. Know the Right Time to Rhyme: It can be tempting to write rhyming books for children—after all, there are lots of children’s books that rhyme (Dr. Seuss, anyone?). However, a well-written book that rhymes is an enormous undertaking that can easily be ruined by rhymes that are cheap, forced, or don’t perfectly match the meter (or rhythm) of your book. Additionally, publishing a rhyming book restricts your market because rhyme is nearly impossible to translate into another language—this is why publishers, more often than not, prefer nonrhyming submissions. Before you focus on writing a rhyming story, focus on writing a good story. 
  4. Know Your Goals: Writing for children probably isn’t the path for you if your primary goal is to get rich quick. Making a solid income from children’s books has many challenges, whether you go the traditional or self-publishing route. However, if your primary goal is to educate, inspire, entertain, or anything that isn’t focused solely on money-making, you have a much greater chance of finding success and satisfaction. A great resource for the realities of self-publishing children’s books is “The Rewards and Challenges of Self-Publishing Children’s Books: Q&A with Four Authors.”
  5. Remember You’re Not Alone: It can be easy to forget that writing isn’t a solo journey, but there are so many great resources and communities for children’s-book writers. One great example is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)—an organization for children’s-book writers and illustrators that hosts events, shares resources, and more! Find these resources and communities and you’ll go far.
  6. Follow the Rules: The children’s-book market is unique in that the reader isn’t the one doing the purchasing and publishing. While it’s children who will read your book, it’s adults who will buy it—and adults are extremely particular when it comes to what they buy for their kids. There’s a lot of freedom and creativity in writing for children, but remember to keep it within the bounds of word count, reading level, and the subject-matter guidelines for your chosen category.

These are just a few tips to get you started. To learn about writing for the next age groups (middle grade, young adult, and new adult), read our article “Coming of Age: Writing for MG, YA, NA.” 

Do This Now

Get yourself in a younger mindset by giving the following a try:

  1. Read books in your chosen category. Read the most popular, best-selling books that are out right now, as well as the classics you grew up with. To dial into the market, you need to dial into what’s popular with children today. (What topics are they interested in? What kind of language? What kinds of illustrations?)
  2. Listen to your audience. It’s children, parents, and teachers who make up your audience, and understanding them is key to writing a book that will find a readership. Try to find organic ways to speak with and listen to these groups. Do you have children of your own? Or a friend or family member who does? Do you know anyone who teaches elementary school? Really dialing into your audience is a great way to identify gaps and trends in the market.
  3. Watch children’s YouTube and TV shows. Finding out what’s popular with the age group you’re writing for is another great way to understand what’s popular today, especially if you don’t have the connections described in #2 above. Children’s YouTube is exploding as a platform, and it’s a great way to do quick, free market research. 
  4. Find your ideal reader. Going back to the above tip about speaking with and listening to your audience, you can also use those same connections for feedback on your story as you’re writing it. Try to find yourself as many readers as you can in the genre and category you’re writing in. Knowing what your audience (children, parents, and teachers) wants and needs and aligning your book with those wants and needs, will help your book soar into the marketplace. 

Your turn: Got a great tip on the children’s-book industry? Share it with us! Got a favorite children’s book to recommend? We would love to know what you (and your kids) are reading right now.

And if you liked this article, please share it!

Additional Resources:


Victoria Passey is an intern with Eschler Editing. She is studying English at Brigham Young University-Idaho and has been working as an editor since 2016. She currently lives in Idaho with her husband and their three cats.

 

 

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