In childhood, books are presented to us as entire new worlds with characters just like ourselves. A good children’s book reflects what we feel or what excites us at a young age and how we view the world around us. Just like the imaginations of children, children’s books are full of fantastical ideas, wonderful creatures, and silly misadventures. They can teach or be funny or both because there are virtually no limits to what can be done (pop-up books, ebooks, etc.) Writing for children is limited only by your heart and imagination. There are, of course, convention rules and then getting your book into the hands of your readers, but first the creative details.
The world of children’s literature is divided into interests and age groups, and sometimes by gender. But the most successful children’s books are inclusive and for everyone (so even adults can love children’s books) and will entertain everyone with great stories, characters, imagery, and colors that they can understand and love.
If you want to learn how to write a children’s book, this article will introduce you to the many potential ways to write one and will have a look at age groups as well. The categories here are only meant as an overview of what is out there – by no means should you feel bound to convention. However, you must remember that you will have to appeal to audiences (and potentially agents or publishers), but above all, you will need to write a really great children’s book. That is your main focus when writing books for such discerning readers!
Age or reading level
The first thing that must be considered is your target audience. It’s best to have a clear idea of this, so you are clear about how you will communicate your story. A board book for toddlers is vastly different than a chapter book for fourth graders. As children grow, age, or their reading skills grow into various subgenres; there is an infinite amount of possibilities for writing a children’s book, so you should be aware of your target age group.
Books by age level
up to 12 months
Board books with bright colors. Babies can work on turning the pages but will likely end up chewing them instead. No words are needed.
Picture books with basic words and simple images. “Dog,” “shirt,” and so on. They’re probably still going to chew on it.
Simple stories are sometimes the best stories. Small conflicts (for example, My Truck is Stuck! by Kevin Lewis and Daniel Kirk) and vivid, simplified imagery will keep your target audience entertained. Rhymes and silly language go a long way.
Responsive stories (for example, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems) where children can respond to a character are engaging and lively. You’re introducing children to the imaginative world of books, so cute, fun characters and soft forms of action are a big selling point.
Kindergarten is generally when things really start changing. By the age of five, kids can recognize letters in the alphabet and the sounds they make, and they can make up rhyme words, read (recognize) simple words. They can tell stories (maybe this started earlier), and most importantly, can hopefully recognize that reading a book is a great source of fun.
By the early grade school years, children are becoming familiar with spelling and are increasing their recognition of words with an ability to sound them out phonetically and use context to understand them.
Their vocabulary is increasing rapidly and frequently unexpectedly, and they are starting to make connections from books to understanding the world around them. As they become more empowered with reading, they make more effort to do it on their own.
Here you might see a departure from picture books into chapter books.
This age bracket is moving into more text and fewer pictures. They are beginning to learn about grammatical structures and basic word devices and starting to explore different genres, and finding personal freedom in reading. They can recognize characterization, setting, and plot and can identify themes, ideas, and some subtleties in text. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl is an example of a book this age might enjoy.
Middle School and High School
Texts are still plenty silly and adventurous but can start getting more complex with mature issues emerging. Young adult books begin to focus on characters and interpersonal relationships and their connections to the plot. Teens recognize literary devices and can identify themes and issues. Humor is still a favorite – sarcasm and wit are always popular with teens and pre-teens.
Writing for age levels
Of course, every child develops differently, and so the lines between age levels and reading levels are always going to be blurry. Here is a general outline for what you might write for a certain target audience, but accept that there are always going to be exceptions to the rule.
Until the age of two, children are interested in visual and tactile books like board books that can be dropped, thrown, and chewed on when it is not entertaining. Your first children’s book was probably the same as now: a picture book with bright, colorful pictures with very few words (and made entirely from non-toxic materials).
Think of The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Sometimes the books will have basic tactile activities like sliding panels or textures for touching. The word length is a maximum of 500 words for toddlers and 300 for babies.
For preschoolers, books are made of board (like pop-up books) or heavy paper pages that will take much heavy handling. Stories should be short and as entertaining as possible.
These stories can relate directly to the child’s life, such as Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney or be wildly playful like Fox and Socks by Dr. Seuss. Areas of interest are vehicles, animals, rhymes, and simple, cute, and fun stories with no more than 1000 words.
Things get really fun here. Anything goes, as long as that anything is entertaining to rapidly developing readers. Children will start wanting to read on their own, so be sure to use a lot of amazing illustrations or images and keep the books to about 3000 words. You can go up to 5000, but that’s probably going to be too many words.
6 to 9 years old is a bit of the wild west when writing for children. Their imaginations are ready for ignition and have no limit, and you get to write for that imagination. Children are brutally honest when they like or don’t like something, and so you’re going to take big risks when writing for this age!
Young readers will start reading chapter books and will still be engaged by great imagery. Some will be moving into Chapter Books (which is, as you guess, books with chapters), and their interests and styles will vary greatly. If you want to write for this range but you’re not sure what to write, allow your imagination to run as far away as it can for an idea. Be audacious and original. The kids will appreciate it. Word count is less than 10,000.
So you’re up to the challenge of writing for older children. You’ll never run out of things to write about with middle-grade books. Personalities are intensifying, interests are expanding, and parents are becoming less cool.
Writing for this group explores a lot of interpersonal relationships or one’s relationship to the world. Pre-teens are emerging as true individuals and want to better understand the world around them. They appreciate humor, sarcasm, and wit and want to be challenged by identifying themes and ideas that they can relate to. Plots must be engaging and well-paced to suit their attention and interests. As a writer, the bigger risk you take, the more your reader will appreciate it. Word counts can range from 30,000 up to 60,000 words.
This category can certainly be combined with the next, but since teens develop so much from year to year, they are a widely diverse group with widely varying interests. Young teens are 12-15 years old and are reaching into broader subjects.
They are feeding their minds with as much information as they can get, led by their emerging interests, and young teens grow more discerning in the types of things they like to read. There is no one set area to write for at this age, but the word count should stay less than 70,000 words. Science fiction or fantasy can push it a bit more but should remain well under 100,000 words.
This category has produced a great deal of entertainment in recent decades. Many of Hollywood’s biggest films have been adapted from Young Adult (YA) novels, as they have one of the largest amounts of readership on the market. It’s not just young adults reading YA – adults are actually the largest market for these books.
It has transformed the publishing industry entirely in recent years, with most agents and publishing houses seeking new Young Adult novels in every genre imaginable. Word counts are still under 70,000 words, with sci-fi/fantasy coming in under 100,000. There is a constant demand for Young Adult novels, so if you want to write a children’s book, you might consider this avenue for possible success.
How to Write a Children’s Book (section II)
Taking reading and age levels into consideration, what will you write?
When writing children’s books, be sure to research what is currently out there and what is popular. Be sure to understand your audience. The favorite book you had as a child might still be on the list, but the chances are that it’s been bumped down by something else from the past few years. Keep an open mind and look for fresh perspectives. Follow agents and publishers on Twitter to see what they’re looking for or where their interests lead them. Every bit of research you do can will pay off later.
If you don’t have any good children’s book ideas, consider looking at nature for inspiration. Nature so often provides inspiration for children’s books, from Charlotte’s Web to Winnie the Pooh. Children have long adored animal characters.
If you’ve approached writing your children’s book with a story idea that you have already created, then congratulations! You’ve already accomplished a huge goal. Now you will need to decide what age group you are writing for. If you know this already, it is essential to know the writing conventions for that age group. You should have a good understanding of what will work with children in that age range. As always, the more imaginative, innovative, and fun – the better.
Just like every book that has ever been written, you will need to write the first draft. Don’t spend too much time trying to pick the right word or find the perfect expression. Just write down the story you want to tell from start to finish. The magic can come later.
Once you have the first draft completed – the bare structure – you can start to fine-tune or configure pieces of it. Think of it as a wire sculpture; once you have the general shape, you can always go back and change individual parts later. What about the tone of your story. Is it soothing or intense? These factors can have a lot of weight on word choice and characterization.
4. Finding an Illustrator
Finding an illustrator will depend on which age group you are writing for. If you are writing for anyone under 8, you’re probably going to need a children’s book illustrator of some sort. Unless, of course, you have the talent yourself. For any book for young readers, illustrations or images of some type are going to be the key to your success—the more poignant and expressive, the better.
Depending on if you will go the traditional publishing route or self-publish your work, you are still going to need an illustrator to make your words really come to life.
If you are writing for young readers, you’re definitely going to need that illustrator. It will be entirely up to you what kind of style and illustrations are needed to complement your work. There are many websites online where you might find an illustrator for hire, or you might know someone who is willing to collaborate with you for deferred payment if your material is good.
You are best to find the right illustrator for your work so that you will be happy with the final product. After all, with self-publishing, you are assuming all the risk of the success of your book on its own. If you have to invest your money in an illustrator, make sure it’s a good fit.
If you wish to do the research to approach a traditional publisher, that is also a possibility though it is a very competitive market. But don’t let that deter you. Agents and publishers are always looking for good new material, so that is what you should write.
Some agents and publishers want to see a completed book proposal. That is, the text and illustrations are presented as a package, ready for publication. Some publishing houses that specialize in children’s books will have their own illustrators on board, and one will be selected to adapt your text if your manuscript is chosen.
You don’t have to find an agent to represent your book, but it is much easier to get your name onto the desk of a major publishing house if you are represented. Because they are inundated with submissions, many publishers only take submissions through agents. This doesn’t always apply to smaller publishers, though, which you might also consider exploring as well.
It is absolutely worth your time to try all available routes to increase your chances of success.
5. Get an Editor
Your work is great, but you are human. Children’s book editors will really give your work a critical look with useful feedback. Sometimes our moms or best friends are not those people, even though they wish us the best of success. It’s possible that you will need to hire a professional editor to give you some critical feedback on your work. Don’t underestimate the skills of a professional editor – they will tell you precisely what you need to do to give your book the best shot at success.
6. Find an Agent or Publisher
If you want to publish your book in the traditional way, you have two routes to take. If you want to go with smaller publishing houses, you might consider writing a query letter to them yourself. Chances are, if they are a small publishing company, you will need to present them with a completed project because they are not likely to have illustrators on staff. To approach smaller publishing companies, you can write a query package and present the illustrations yourself.
If you want to approach one of the larger publishing houses (Random House, Scholastic), you must have representation from a literary agent. When an agent represents you, it tells the publishing company that someone has been impressed by your work enough to represent it on your behalf.
Often, these publishing companies know these agents well and have worked with them before. They know that when an agent brings them something that it is worth taking seriously.
That’s not to say you have to have an agent! That’s just how the cookie crumbles in the industry.
Self Publishing (it’s the new way to publish)
As mentioned before, if you are going to take this route, you will need to recruit or hire your own illustrator. You probably don’t need an illustrator if you are writing for teens unless you’re writing a graphic novel. And you’re still going to need a cover for your book.
Aside from needing to find an illustrator, you will need to seek out your publishing and marketing options.
Many platforms can be used for self-publishing your work. Every major book distributor in the world has online platforms, and many can be joined for little to no cost. If you are going to publish yourself, it is worth your time to research every major bookseller online and find out how you can add your title.
With some time, research, and diligence with upload formats, you can have your work available to the world in very little time. However, it should be advised that having a professional editor look at your work before you publish will be worth your time and effort.
If you are going to self-publish, then getting your book onto these platforms is only the first step. The second step, arguably as essential as writing the book itself, is marketing your product. If people don’t know about your book, they can’t buy it.
You can’t count on online vendors to market your book for you – you have to be a tireless foot soldier who is out there finding creative ways to get your book in front of people. It’s a big job, and professionals can be hired online to help you out (often at a very affordable cost).
To write a really great children’s book, you should start with a really great idea. Many ideas are tried and true, such as animal characters, opposites, misadventures, misunderstandings, flat tires, and an endless supply of small conflicts that can be overcome.
If you’re writing for the older kids, it’s best to understand the world in which they live and have some insight into their perspectives. Kids are clever, and they’re going to sniff out anything insincere or unoriginal. They want books that are thrilling and where they can see some part of themselves in a character or world or wish to see themselves there.
Learn what has worked in the past and what is still missing from the marketplace. Seek out your own avenue for success, and use any feedback you can get to evolve into a better writer.
Most importantly, be ready to work tirelessly to make sure your children’s book is adored for years to come.