Writing for Children
Writing for children is often seen as a very specific form of writing: a completely separate genre. However, this is not strictly true. Writing for children is different in some ways: the length of the text, for example, and the use of illustrations. However, in other ways it is very similar to any other form of creative writing.
The best writers of books for children have often not set out to write a children’s book. It has simply been either just what happened, or the best way to express their ideas (see box).
The voices of experts
“I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”
Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are
“The third way … consists in writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say: just as a composer might write a Dead March not because there was a public funeral in view but because certain musical ideas that had occurred to him went best into that form.”
C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia stories.
This page provides some tips and ideas about how to write a compelling book for children. It mostly applies to fiction, but some of the ideas will also work for non-fiction.
Finding Your Idea—and Making It Unique
Children’s book editor Matthew John Fox suggests that one of the main reasons why children’s book ideas are rejected is because they have already been written.
To avoid this, he suggests that you should choose your best idea, and summarise it in a single phrase. You can then either search Amazon, or simply Google your phrase together with the words ‘children’s book’. This will show you what other books are out there on a similar theme.
You can then use this information to tweak your idea, and make it unique.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing if there are other, similar, books already out there. It shows that there is a market for your idea. You just have to make sure that your idea has something unique about it.
For example, you might change your main character, or write from a different perspective, or set your story in a different time period or geographical location. You need to able to articulate clearly what your book can add.
Deciding on Your Audience
Maurice Sendak may have just ‘happened’ to write a book for children, but this doesn’t necessarily work for most writers.
Instead, it is generally recommended to decide on the age of your target audience, because this has implications for the content, language and length of your book.
You can write a children’s book of any genre, for any age group—you just have to target it right.
Books for younger children generally have fewer words, and more pictures. Indeed, you do not actually need many words to make a strong story.
Stories minus words
Some of the best picture books have almost no words. They tell the story through the pictures, and perhaps a little dialogue.
Very good examples of this include Goodnight Gorilla and Jez Alborough’s series of books about Bobo, the little chimpanzee.
The absolute maximum number of words for a picture book is 1000 words—and fewer is likely to be better. Once you get onto chapter books for readers aged seven and above, the number of words increases, but you should still be aiming to keep it below about 10,000 until you get onto teenage fiction.
Generally speaking, you need a good main character or two: someone whom your readers will care about. This will keep them reading to find out what happens to those characters.
You need to consider your characters’ genders and ages. This may be affected by (and affect) your audience (see box).
A matter of gender
Children’s books often have two (or more) main characters, and usually at least one boy and one girl. This seems likely to be so that they appeal to a wider audience.
Books that are only about boys are generally aimed at boys, and vice versa.
It is a generalisation, but many boys prefer to read about boys, and many girls about girls. This is, oddly enough, often particularly true of younger children, who are trying to work out gender norms from what they see around them.
However, good strong characters, and good stories, transcend these gender norms and preferences. You can also get round any gender issues by using non-human characters, such as animals, aliens or even machines—though even these are often given genders in stories.
When choosing the ages of your characters, remember that most children like to read about characters who are older than them. For example, books aimed at children aged five to eight years, generally contain characters who are 10 or 11 years old.
Plotting Your Story
Generally speaking, children want and need you to get to the point quickly.
They don’t want back-stories, or lots of detailed description. To be fair, this is also true of many adults—but it’s especially true of children.
A top tip, then is just to launch straight into your story. Make sure that the main problem or action is introduced early—preferably on the first page.
Your plot then revolves around how your main characters solve the problem, usually overcoming a series of obstacles.
The key here is to get the right number of obstacles, of the right level of difficulty—and find a way for your characters to overcome them. This may be through the intervention of someone or something, or they may simply solve the problems themselves.
Choosing Your Words
Choice of words is key in children’s books. You have to pitch them at the right level—simple enough to understand without a dictionary, but complex enough to be interesting.
Many children’s books use repetition of phrases, ideas or sounds (through rhyme) as a way of creating interest (see box). This technique is also good for creating continuity, and makes the book more memorable.
Repetition in children’s books
We all like repetition. It helps us to remember ideas and images.
Many picture books use repeated phrases, ideas or sounds, often building them up through the book. Examples include:
- Dr Seuss’s fabulous use of both rhyme and building up longer phrases.
- Popular board books for very young children such as ‘That’s not my…’, which build on a repeated phrase (“That’s not my lion/mermaid/unicorn/whatever”) before changing it on the very last page to “THAT’s my …”.
- Martin Waddell’s picture books often include a single phrase repeated in such as way as to create both humour and pathos. For example, in Owl Babies, three little owls are left alone. The two oldest try to rationalise the situation, a sentence at a time. However, each time they have both said something, the littlest owl just says, ”I want my mummy!”.
Books for older children often repeat ideas. For example, the first seven books in the Rainbow Fairies series (aimed at girls aged about 5 to 8) are about the seven fairies of the rainbow. Each one has to solve a slightly different, but related problem, with the help of two little girls. In each set of seven books in the series, there is a common problem (for example, a party that all seven fairies are helping to organise), and a common theme for the fairies, such as colours, jewels, or pets.
It is also important to choose your title carefully. Using repeated sounds such as alliteration or assonance are good (for example, The Cat in the Hat, or George’s Marvellous Medicine). You want something exciting in the title: a reason to read on.
For example, we know straight away, just from the title, that the Cat in the Hat is not going to be your average cat. No cats wear hats. Or consider another Dr Seuss classic, Green Eggs and Ham: who ever heard of green eggs?
Design and Illustration
The design, layout and pictures are crucial in a children’s book.
They cannot be afterthoughts. They have to be an essential part of the concept.
That said, they also need professional input. If you are writing a children’s book, you may have an idea about the illustrations and layout. However, it is a good idea to work with a professional illustrator and/or designer to develop your ideas. They will be able to take your ideas, and really make them work.
You will also need to work with an editor.
Of course you should revise your work yourself. You should particularly cut down the length as much as possible, and cut out any long or involved phrases. However, you will also need an editor.
It is a good idea to choose an experienced editor, who has previously published successful children’s books. Don’t be tempted to skip this stage, or think that you know best about your story. An editor’s input is invaluable.
The most important aspect of any writing, including writing for children, is just to keep going.
Children’s author Sarah Webb advises that the main difference between published and unpublished authors is persistence and resilience. Keep writing, and keep pushing towards publication.