The 5 Most Unexpected Things About Writing a Children’s Book
by Desiree Villena
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Whoever you are, chances are high that you can fondly look back on certain children’s books from your early years. If you’re reading this now, you may be a reader who was so enchanted that you actually want to write a children’s book of your own. Congratulations! You’re going to play a part in encouraging and educating the next generation of readers.
That said, writing for children brings obstacles and rewards in equal share. Children’s literature is often thought of as “easy” to write, but writing a children’s book is actually a complex (though enjoyable) journey that requires as much effort as other genres. This post will make sure that this genre is no mystery to you by unveiling five of the most unexpected things you’ll realize in the course of writing a children’s book.
1. Your book’s scope may be different than you think
The first unexpected thing about writing a children’s book is the breadth of subcategories and age groups that you can write for. You will need a keen awareness of your target audience — after all, a board book for toddlers will look very different from a middle-grade bestseller.
Additionally, everything is fresh, new, and exciting in a child’s world, which tends to make them picky readers. You have to make your book seem like the most interesting thing that they can get their hands on. However, you will also need to grab the attention of adults, as they’ll be the people actually buying your book.
This might seem overwhelming, but with the right info, you can easily manage. Here are the main categories of children’s books to know so you can cater your story to the correct audience:
- Board books are for children aged 0-3. Needless to say, you’ll want to include simple language and bright colors. These books usually have a durable surface to withstand biting, throwing, etc.
- Picture books are for ages 3-6 and tend to be 500-1,000 words in length. They’re chock full of pictures, but that doesn’t mean they’re no-brainers to write! On the contrary, with so few words to tell your story, you need every sentence to count.
- Early readers are for children aged 6-7. They range from 2,000-5,000 words and are designed to help young elementary school children learn to read on their own, though you’ll still want a healthy number of illustrations.
- Chapter books are for ages 7-9. They can be 5,000-10,000 words and often serve as a child’s first opportunity to narrow down which genres they really enjoy! From children’s classics to slice-of-life adventures, this is where kids’ books start to focus more on story.
- Middle grade books, for kids aged 9-12, make a big jump in length and sophistication — these books can be 30,000-50,000 words, are much meatier in prose and story, and often involve darker themes.
- Young adult books are for ages 12-18, and can be up to 100,000 words with complex stories and advanced themes. In other words, well-written YA books are basically at the same level as adult books, presenting profound and genuine stories to their readers.
2. Children’s books are not always faster to write
The next unexpected thing about writing a children’s book is the sheer size of the project. Besides demographic considerations, there’s a lot that goes into writing (and illustrating) a children’s book.
Indeed, one of the great challenges is that it needs to tell a gripping story and (ideally) teach something while also taking up less physical space. We’ve all had the experience of writing an essay and then struggling to cut it down; as a children’s author, you will be doing this with a whole book. To help with this task, it’s important to find the perfect children’s book editor for you. They’ll keep your word count concise yet effective, getting your key points across even in minimal space.
If you want to include pictures in your book (particularly for middle grade books and below), then hiring an illustrator will also be high on your priority list. This is best done in coordination with your editor, as the text that you end up with will affect your illustrations. However, don’t include your own sketches if you’re planning to hire an illustrator or go through a publisher, as your eventual artist will have their own ideas — and they’re the expert, after all.
While children’s books are widely considered to be faster to write, most people don’t expect or account for the additional time and costs involved. But don’t worry, because in this case, the larger task definitely reaps a fulfilling reward.
3. Good protagonists follow a formula
Many of the most popular children’s books can be identified by their well-loved protagonists — think Harry Potter, Matilda, or Tracy Beaker. However, it may surprise you to know that there is a common formula to creating beloved children’s characters.
This is simply that children love to read stories about other children who are a) a bit older than themselves, and b) going through similar things. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter is eleven years old and attracts a readership of around nine — and though these readers won’t be going to Hogwarts anytime soon, they are experiencing a time of increased independence and are eager to strike out on their own, just like Harry and his friends.
To be sure, don’t worry too much about your fantasy or sci-fi characters being “unrelatable.” You can absolutely still explore human themes like family values and ethics, while giving your characters magical abilities like moving objects with their minds. As long as you link your story back to a theme or lesson that’s grounded in reality, feel free to make your story as fantastical as you like. (And don’t hold back on account of the publishing industry, either — many authors self-publish their children’s books precisely so they can tell the story that they want to tell.)
4.Children can spot poorly written characters
Speaking of characters, this might sound obvious, but you need to make your characters and their conversations believable. Think of it this way: a child trying to imagine how you talk at work would inevitably miss the mark. Likewise, you need to get to know your target audience a little better — if you haven’t already — in order to write a realistic, interesting conversation between the young characters in your book.
This might mean volunteering to be a children’s reader at a library or helping out at your local school. If your friends and family have children, ask them to read your book too. With their seal of approval, you’ll know that you’re on the right track to making your target audience feel listened to and accurately represented.
5. Your book will last for generations
While there are many unusual challenges that come with writing a children’s book, the best unexpected thing is undoubtedly the lasting impact that your writing will have. Again, we all have a book (or several) that made us fall in love with reading as a child; many people cherish their favorite childhood books and return to read them often even into adulthood, eventually handing them down through generations of family.
This is a huge reason why some of the best children’s books, like E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Katherine Peterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, are still popular after decades. Adults love those books too! So, if you expect your book to only last for one generation of readers then you are very happily mistaken — and with any luck, this news will encourage you to finally get working on a children’s book of your very own.
About Desiree Villena
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. She’s very passionate about helping authors reach their dreams, and enjoys reading and writing short stories in her spare time.