The 5 Most Unexpected Things About Writing a Children’s Book

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.

Autumn Picture Books for Preschoolers

Hello colorful leaves, pumpkin-spiced everything, and cooler weather! Autumn has arrived, and I can’t stop thinking about making up a batch of hot apple cider and cozying up under a blanket to read a good book. These days, to make that happen, I have to invite my preschooler in under the blanket and read his books, not mine. It’s a different experience. No getting lost in another world for an hour or two by myself. Instead, it’s rapid fire reading of children’s books that we’ve read a hundred times. Of course, that’s okay. The contentment of being together is enough to make these moments special all on their own. I am content to be by his side as he explores new worlds through books. But, if you’re like me, you’re probably ready to read something new for a change. Here are a few fall-themed book suggestions to help you and your little one transition into the autumn season.

Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn

Apples and Pumpkins

Biscuit Visits the Pumpkin Patch

Autumn in the Forest (Lift-a-Flap Surprise)

We’re Going on a Leaf Hunt

Hello, World! How Do Apples Grow?

The Busy Little Squirrel (Classic Board Books)

Awesome Autumn: All Kinds of Fall Facts and Fun (Season Facts and Fun)

You’re My Little Pumpkin Pie

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Review: Finding Wild


Finding Wild
by Megan Wagner Lloyd
Pictures by Abigail Halpin
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers (May 10, 2016)
Ages 3-7

My Rating: 4 Stars

Review:

Living in the city certainly has its perks – a short commute and access to cultural and social events, just to name a few. But, whenever I’ve lived in a city, as I do now, I’ve always had a deep yearning to keep the natural world as a part of my life. Whether it’s attempting to grow a garden in the backyard or getting out of the city every now and then, a connection to nature keeps me sane. If that connection goes unattended for too long, things get ugly. There have been times when I’ve had to make do with buying a couple of houseplants to satisfy that calling. Finding Wild by Megan Wagner Lloyd with pictures by Abigail Halpin spoke to that part of me that understands finding wild in the hidden places.

Finding Wild opens with two simple questions. “What is wild? And where can you find it?” Readers follow two children as they explore their world from top to bottom and discover that nature is everywhere, even on the urban streets where it appears, at first, to only have concrete buildings that block the sky.

In this thoughtful, quiet exploration of nature, the author and illustrator take us on a journey through the many facets of the living world, including its gentleness, its roughness, its beauty and its tenacity.

Finding Wild is Megan Wagner Lloyd’s first book. I look forward to reading more from her, as this debut, in this nature-loving girl’s opinion, is a solid introduction to a concept that’s important for all children to understand. Nature is everywhere. You just have to look.

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Review: Hello, My Name is Octicorn


Hello, My Name Is Octicorn
Created by Kevin Diller and Justin Lowe
Additional illustrations by Binny Talib
Published by Balzer + Bray (May 17, 2016)
Ages 4-6

My rating: 4 Stars

Review:

As the title and cover suggest, Hello, My Name Is Octicorn is a humorous take on what it’s like to be different.

Octicorn speaks directly to the reader – asking questions, telling the story of how he came to be the only Octicorn in the world, and letting the reader in on why it’s sometimes difficult to be a half unicorn, half octopus.

In a friendly way, Octicorn also tells the reader what he likes to do. One could almost imagine Octicorn as a young child introducing himself to another young person his age.

With its likable character, Hello, My Name Is Octicorn is a lighthearted approach to the concept of being different from the crowd. It would make a fun, interactive introduction to kindness and not judging a person based on their looks. The suggested age range is 4-6 years, but I can see this being read to much younger children because of its simplicity and engaging character.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

 

 

Review: RAIN!


Rain!
by Linda Ashman
Illustrated by Christian Robinson
Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (March 5, 2013)
Ages 4-7

My Rating: 4 Stars

Review:
On a rainy morning in the city, a young boy’s excitement and an old man’s grumpiness go head to head in Linda Ashman’s Rain!, illustrated by Christian Robinson.

Rain! is about the power of attitude and its contagiousness. To the old man, the rain is misery – the reason he has to put on galoshes and an overcoat to go get his cup of black coffee. To the young boy, it is an opportunity to pretend he is a frog – the reason he gets to jump in puddles on the way to get his hot cocoa and cookies.

The two characters’ journeys to the Rain or Shine Cafe show us how each affects the people they come in contact with. When they finally meet each other, the fireworks fly. The old man turns his grumpiness on the boy, who is simply trying to do a kindness for him. When the boy turns grumpy in front of the old man’s eyes, he sees what he has done. Rather than letting his grumpiness influence the boy, he opens up and lets the boy’s cheerfulness change him instead.

Christian Robinson’s colorful illustrations shine, providing a glimpse of how every one of us can both sway others with our mood and be swayed in return.

An accessible, fun-to-look-at introduction to the power of attitude!

Other work from prolific children’s book author Linda Ashman:

Recent work by Christian Robinson:

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Celebrating the 20th Annual National Poetry Month (Giveaway!)

April is National Poetry Month, a celebration of the writing craft that often speaks most directly to the heart and soul of life.

Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful. – Rita Dove

There are plenty of ways for children and parents (and aunts and uncles!) to take part in the celebration – from reading and writing poetry together to attending local readings and events. And don’t forget, April 21st is Poem in Your Pocket Day!

Here are just a few books of poetry that you might like to try reading with your kids.


Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems
Selected by Paul B. Janeczko
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Published by Candlewick (March 11, 2014)
Ages 6-9


Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons
by Jon J. Muth
Published by Scholastic Press (February 25, 2014)
Ages 4-8


A Child’s Garden of Verses
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Originally published in 1885
Reissue Edition published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (February 1, 1999)
Illustrated by Tasha Tudor


The Random House Book of Poetry for Children
Selected by Jack Prelutsky
Illustrated by Arnold Lobel
Published by Random House (September 12, 1983)
Ages 7 and up


Poetry for Young People: Robert Frost
Edited by Gary D. Schmidt
Illustrated by Henri Sorensen
Published by Sterling Children’s Books, New edition (March 4, 2014)
Ages 8 and up


Poems to Learn by Heart
by Caroline Kennedy
Paintings by Jon J. Muth
Published by Disney-Hyperion (March 26, 2013)

Giveaway! [Update: this giveaway has ended. Stay tuned for more giveaways in future posts]
Some books are too good not to be shared, so I’m giving away 2 copies of Poems to Learn by Heart through an Amazon giveaway. Click here for your chance to win. Good luck everyone!

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Review: Twenty Yawns


Twenty Yawns
by Jane Smiley
Illustrated by Lauren Castillo
Published by Two Lions, an imprint of Amazon Publishing (April 1, 2016)
Ages 3-7

My Rating: 4 Stars

Review:
Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Jane Smiley will have her first children’s book, Twenty Yawns, released at the beginning of next month. The bedtime tale is illustrated by Lauren Castillo, author and illustrator of Nana in the City, a 2015 Caldecott Honor Book. With its engaging story and warm, inviting illustrations, Twenty Yawns is a worthy addition to the nighttime arsenal of soothing bedtime stories.

We meet Lucy as she’s digging a big hole at the beach. We then travel with her as she spends a fun-filled, sunny day playing with her mom and dad and other kids by the ocean. When the day is done and it’s time for bed, Lucy’s mom starts to read a bedtime story, but after such an exhausting day she falls asleep before the story is finished – leaving Lucy wide awake. The dark, quiet house makes it even harder for Lucy to fall asleep, so she gets up to find her bear, Molasses. As she’s carrying Molasses back to bed, she looks back to see her other stuffed animals looking lonely. She drags them all to bed, and with big yawns from the stuffed animals, the moon and Lucy herself, she finally falls fast asleep.

Castillo employs soft, boldly outlined illustrations to set the tone throughout the story. With an impeccable use of color, she transitions the mood from the bright beach to the sleepy bedroom and from sleepy bedroom to spooky bedroom and back again.

Smiley’s text holds its own – painting a picture of a little girl enjoying an exciting day, then struggling to fall asleep because of the quiet, “mysterious” atmosphere that descends upon a house at night. From the opening line to the very end, you could read the story without the illustrations and still see the scene in your mind’s eye.

The combined strength of the illustrations and storytelling, plus its gentle tone, makes Twenty Yawns an excellent choice for exploring the theme of nighttime fright with a child. And it’s enjoyable to read.

Diversity in children’s books is a hot topic right now, and rightfully so. The We Need Diverse Books™ organization makes the case that all children should be able to find books that allow them to see themselves in the story. The fundamental story in Twenty Yawns could be any child, but the illustrator, writer and publisher have done a great service for our culture at-large by simply making the family in the story bi-racial. Kudos!

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Interested in Lauren Castillo’s work? Here are links to some of her other books:


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Review: The Almost Terrible Playdate


The Almost Terrible Playdate
by Richard Torrey
Published by Doubleday Books for Young Readers (February 16, 2016)
Ages 3 – 7

My Rating: 3 Stars

Review:
The Almost Terrible Playdate starts with an oft asked question among children, “What do you want to play?” Two friends begin formulating ideas about their own ideal pretend play, and as they do they inevitably disagree on what to do. In imaginative thought bubbles we see the girl wanting to be characters that are the most important and powerful, and we see the boy wanting to dominate his stories. Typical behavior for both kids and some adults. Aren’t we all the main character in our own minds? After retreating to separate play areas, the two friends, thanks to curiosity, organically manage to compromise. Who says one story can’t have a ballerina, a circus, a dragon, a race car and a zoo?

The conflict in The Almost Terrible Playdate is cleverly portrayed on the cover with opposing crayon illustrations in opposing colors – a technique that is carried throughout the story. The cover art and the entire story are very accessible. It’s easy for even the youngest ages to understand what is happening from the illustrations. For parents, it may even seem like they’re looking at a slice of their own children’s play experiences. It is a humorous view of two children riding the emotional wave from stubbornness and selfishness to curiosity to compromise.

The reason I am giving an average 3 out of 5 star rating is because it is heavily gender stereotyped. Does it ring true that the girl wants things like Queens, ballerinas and ponies in her story? Does it ring true that the boy wants dinosaurs and race cars in his story? Of course it does. And that’s partially what makes the book accessible. But which comes first – the boy who likes cars and the girl who likes ponies or the images and messages that they receive from parents, TV and books about what they are supposed to like? The conflict in the story would have been just as poignant had the girl wanted to be an astronaut and the boy wanted to be a zoo keeper. With so many gender neutral combinations that would work just as well to tell the tale, there was a lot of room here to push the envelope. While the story provides a realistic view into the world of pretend play and offers a way for teachers and parents to easily introduce kids to the concept of cooperation, it’s a bit too conventional for my taste.

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Review: By Mouse & Frog


By Mouse & Frog
by Deborah Freedman
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers (April 14, 2015)
Age 3-5

My Rating: 4 Stars

Review:
What happens when two friends or two siblings are complete opposites? How do they relate? When one is quiet and careful and the other is rambunctious and unfettered, it’s not always easy for them to get along, but sometimes opposites come together to create a real friendship.

One morning, Mouse wakes up and starts writing a story. As Mouse begins, Frog bounces onto the scene, wanting to help. Frog wildly adds kings and dragons and melting ice cream to Mouse’s story, which had barely begun. When it all turns to chaos, it is just too much for Mouse. Mouse explodes and shouts at Frog. Frog is hurt, but they manage a truce. Mouse begins the story again. This time Mouse finally gets to the part where Frog is part of the story, but that’s not enough for Frog. Frog aches to add elements to the story. Mouse obliges, but makes suggestions to keep things a little more down-to-earth. Together they create a colorful, magical story they are both happy with.

By Mouse & Frog explores themes like cooperation and mutual respect in a way that is natural. The dialogue between Frog and Mouse sounds a lot like how real children talk when they’re playing together, yet in a structured story. Anyone with multiple children will see their most wild, free-spirited child in Frog and their most subdued, restrained child in Mouse. The text is subtly humorous, and the illustrations are soft and endearing. Mouse and Frog are the kind of relatable, charming characters that would be good in a series (think Frog and Toad for younger kids), but unless the author has plans for this, we’ll just have to be content with this delightful story about two friends learning to play nicely with each other in order to create a masterpiece.

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Review: Be a Friend


Be a Friend
by Salina Yoon
Published by Bloomsbury (January 5, 2016)
Ages 3-6

My Rating: 5 Stars

Review:
The cover of Be a Friend wears its heart on its sleeve, so to speak. The heart of the story is clearly about a friendship between a regular-looking girl and boy who is a little bit different. The intriguing part is that the boy is so outwardly offbeat. I couldn’t help but wonder how a mime would get along in the world of chatty children and rough-and-tumble play.

Dennis doesn’t speak. To express himself, he acts out scenes. While the other children show-and-tell, Dennis puts on his wordless show. When the other children climb a tree, Dennis stands tall and lets a bird rest on his branches. Because Dennis is silent and a bit different, the other children barely see him and he is lonely. One day, when Dennis kicks an imaginary ball, it is caught by a girl named Joy. Even though Joy talks to the other kids and likes to play in the tree like the other kids, she also understands Dennis and becomes his friend by miming with him. Eventually, Joy’s friendship and understanding opens the eyes of the other children – they see and play with Dennis, too.

Every time I read this book, I fall in love with the illustrations a little bit more. I love how Joy is quietly noticing Dennis all along. I love how the red heart Dennis wears on his black-and-white striped shirt suddenly appears pinned on Joy’s dress after a few spreads of them miming together. And, I love how the expressions on Dennis’ face are spot on.

There will always be children who are a bit different from their peers. They may not fit in as well because they’re quiet or they look different or they come from a different culture or economic background. While sometimes it’s not easy to understand others who are different, it is a great kindness to simply try – to look at another person and see their humanity inside.

Dennis isn’t a monster, he’s a regular boy with a different way of expressing himself. Because another child looked and accepted him for who he is, he was spared from loneliness and the rest of the world got to see and appreciate his uniqueness.

Be a Friend is a hopeful book. And, I hope it makes its way into the hands of many children.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.