So, you dream of writing a children’s book. And not only do you believe you have a premise that will entertain, bring laughter and joy, or make an impact on developing minds, you have a passion for reaching kids. What better mission to embark on?
I say go for it! But before you send off your manuscript to an acquisitions editor, be aware that the genre has its own set of nuances that make it distinct from higher reading levels. How your characters think and talk, the resolution to the conflict, the format of your book proposal, and your marketing strategy are a few examples. This article isn’t broad enough to address all of the differences, but I can share three tips to jumpstart your foray into the wilds of childhood.
1. Know Your Audience
Unlike adult fiction, children’s fiction is broken into multiple age groups, with each carrying its own word count limits and vocabulary: board books (0–2 years), young and old picture books (ages 2–4 and 4–8), early readers (5–7 years), chapter books (6–8 years), middle grade (8–13 years), young adult (13–17 years), and new adult (16+ years). Can you picture the child who will pick up your book? Can you accurately portray your protagonist’s maturity level? Answering these questions is vital to engaging your audience.
Too often, writers default to emphasizing a lesson. Having taught elementary school for over twenty years, I’ve observed how quickly students discard lectures disguised as narrative. Another annoying trend is when a child acts like an adult. Kids need to see the characters getting into the same trouble as they do on a daily basis, like the boy in No, David! by David Shannon or the bird in Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Williams. Otherwise they’ll be groaning too loudly to hear the moral.
Even though I’m over fifty, I felt confident writing my YA novel Inside the Ten-Foot Line because I’d spent a lot of time with teens through coaching, my children’s friends, high school events, and church. And when my bestselling Meghan Rose series released years ago, it revolved around characters the same ages as the two children living in my home. Soon, my first picture book debuts with End Game Press. Since I have the advantage of working at an elementary school, I understand how children speak, the social and emotional issues they face, and what motivates them.
Notice a pattern here? When I write for kids, I constantly tap into my experience with that age group to make my characters’ language and behavior more authentic. I also always have a particular reader in mind.
If your day job doesn’t involve kids, take heart! You can volunteer for youth activities at your church, people watch at a store, or jot notes the next time your relatives visit with their young family. Turn on the television and watch popular kid cartoons and movies. Or check out books from your library geared toward your target audience. The interactions and research will help you capture the right tone.
2. Focus on a Big Idea
In Writing and Selling Children’s Books in the Christian Market, Doug Peterson explains that once he settles on a broad, overarching theme, he can then generate an abundance of related possibilities that become the framework for his project and keep his goals on track. Since he’s been on the team for Veggie Tales, he’s done a lot of building! Think of all the Christian values that franchise has tackled. Overcoming fear. Forgiveness. Dealing with peer pressure. Honesty. Gratitude. And more.
When I contributed to Pockets Magazine, they provided monthly guidelines that featured a theme, such as courage, kindness, or holidays. For example, when I brainstormed submissions for peace, I came up with two items: a short story called “Peace by Piece” about a boy who gets paired with a disagreeable classmate for an assignment, and a poem called “Just Make Peace” about solving a problem with a neighbor. Its final stanza was another play on words:
They did make peace,
despite the fact
Zach made a small mistake.
He thought his mom said, “Just make PEAS”
and served them with some steak!
The big idea also enables writers to hit (and stay within) the designated word count for their target audiences. When someone asks me to critique a picture book manuscript, the first mistake I look for is words that could be shown in the illustrations instead of the text. Anything nonessential like that needs to be cut.
Before you draft your book, breeze through the writer’s guidelines for children’s magazines. You can use the themes and supporting questions they pose as inspiration to flesh out your premise.
3. Study Children’s Fiction Specifically
My final point is the same advice I would apply to adult fiction: familiarize yourself with the craft. Any solid story will employ literary devices and plot structure. But realize that, although fiction for kids and adults share similarities, the genres are far from being twins. Madeline L’Engle famously highlighted this truth when she said, “If the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
On social media platforms and at conferences, I often run across people who’ve published a children’s book. With one glance I can tell whether I’d add the title to my classroom’s library or not. Anything that sounds preachy is out in a heartbeat. Likewise, I toss books with clunky rhymes, stilted dialogue, rambling scenes, and issues too mature for my students to process. Those authors may be enamored with writing for children, but they haven’t done their homework.
When I first dove into children’s fiction, I wrote what I enjoyed, without paying attention to the industry. Case in point: Pockets’ annual story contest. After several years of rejection, I started poring over previous winners and other stories the magazine accepted. Then I tweaked my ideas to fit their style. Soon, although my entries didn’t win, Pockets requested them for publication. Eventually, I won the contest. More importantly, I learned how to delight kids in that age group.
Overwhelmed and need a plan? Try following these suggestions:
- Choose the right resources. If you have a tight budget, browse reputable websites that cater to children’s writers. Almost an Author has articles on picture books, middle grade, and young adult. The Institute for Children’s Literature has a podcast with more information. And a simple online search will lead you to other tips.
- Invest in Master Classes from Write 2 Ignite. Still reasonably priced, you can find Kidlit conferences at End Game Press. And if a contest offers feedback on your entry, it’ll be worth the fee to get an honest opinion.
- Treat books like mentor texts. The cheapest and perhaps most effective method of mastering the craft is to head to your local bookstore or library and stock up on the genre you’re interested in writing. Take thorough notes. Some authors type out dozens of picture books word-for-word to gain a feel for the flow.
You Can Do It!
Most people I talk to light up at the thought of writing for children. Perhaps because they remember exploring new worlds from the comfort of their pillow forts. When a story first swept them off their feet, it planted a seed that whispered, “Pay it back.”
So, what are you waiting for?
Evaluate your heart. If you long to touch the lives of children, don’t let fear keep you from pursuing that. Although the genre requires time and practice, you can begin attuning yourself to the whims of your audience by discovering who they are, what problems they might be struggling with, and how they expect you to package your ideas.
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?