Writing children’s books: How hard could it be? The truth is that because the typical children’s book ranges from thirty-two pages (picture books) to eighty pages (middle readers), it can actually be more challenging to write. Why? Because there is less content with which to communicate, meaning every word counts. Our discussion today includes the basics of writing for children: creating story and character arcs in a smaller spaces; why eye-catching, complimentary artwork is so important; why to avoid rhyming; and much, much more!
Stephanie: Today we’re going to talk about writing for children and why it probably isn’t as easy as many people think it is to create a really good book for children.
Angela: Exactly. I think people look at the shorter format and like the simplicity and say, “Well, it’s just a children’s book. How hard can it be?”
Stephanie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Angela: But I think that simplicity and shorter format actually make it more difficult because you have to condense everything that goes into a good book into a smaller amount of words and pages.
Stephanie: Right. I mean, you’re talking about, what, 50 to 500 words is typical depending on what level you’re writing for, what age group. You’ve got to fit all of that in. Your word choice has to be very careful. One of our editors, Reba, had written an article for us on the Editor’s Corner and she points out it’s important to remember that kids are smart and they are discerning. They have opinions. They are very picky about what they read and what they have read to them. It’s important not to think of kids as unsophisticated because they have very definite opinions about what they like and mostly it’s gonna be pretty close to what adults like, too.
Angela: Well, that’s true. They don’t wanna be talked down to. They wanna feel like they’re getting new and interesting ideas but it’s still something that they can understand and digest.
Stephanie: Right. There’s so much to talk about here that really is important. One thing that I always think about is the vocabulary that’s used, the level of vocabulary.
Stephanie: I’m just talking about this one because it’s the one that always seems to pop up for me primarily because I see a lot of kids’ books that either write down, that’s where you get that level of condescension. If you’re writing for 10-year-olds, you should not be using language that’s appropriate for five-year-olds.
Stephanie: You do wanna bring in a few words that are challenging for the age group, but not so challenging that they’re like, “What in the world is going on? I don’t understand this at all.”
Angela: Exactly. I think, too, that’s another big place where the artwork can help if it’s throwing in a bigger word here and there. The kids can look at the pictures. It helps them figure out what’s going on without having to ask an adult for help. I think that’s one of the biggest things for me about kids’ books is being able to give- Obviously not for a baby, but for an older kid, you know, being able to hand off a book and have them go and read it, it gives them a sense of accomplishment.
Angela: It’s a pretty big deal to finish an entire book on your own for the first time.
Stephanie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Even when they’re mostly memorizing rather than reading. But whenever my daughter had a favorite book that one of her grandparents gave her and the illustrations really helped her to remember what was going on.
Stephanie: She could actually pretty closely recite it when she was looking at the book. She could almost tell you, word for word, what it said by looking at the picture. That was really helpful, and then that helps her learn words, too.
Angela: Well, it boosts self-esteem, too, and it makes them wanna continue reading because they feel confident. They feel like they can handle it.
Stephanie: Right. Again, beyond vocabulary, as Angela pointed out, you really still have all the same elements, a good children’s book has all the same elements that any other book does. We talked about this, I think, with romance a few podcasts ago where the elements of a good book are the elements of a good book no matter what kind of book you’re writing.
Angela: Yeah, I mean-
Stephanie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Angela: I was gonna say I think that’s where a big part of people get confused if they are gonna write a children’s book. You’re still having to create a story arc and character arcs, changes, goals, and challenges even in the small space of a baby board book.
Angela: I think in one of our articles we used “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
Stephanie: Yes, yes.
Angela: It is a really short book but it still has that beautiful, simple arc of you start off in one place and you end up in a completely different place.
Stephanie: Yes, absolutely. That’s a favorite with my kids. Well, it was when they were younger. They’re outgrowing now, but that is absolutely a great one. Beautiful artwork and very simple, like you said. You’ve got a very clear story arc. He’s got his challenge that he works through and everything. Reba, in her article, has this enumerated very well. She has a nice formula. She provides the formula. You introduce the character in a particular place and with a problem. Something changes, creating tension. A complication arises, and then the crisis or conflict is resolved. It’s really that simple.
Angela: Well, and it’s funny. You used the word “simple.” I think of-
Stephanie: Right, it’s short and sweet, I guess is really more appropriate.
Angela: Well, putting that into that shorter format, I mean, it’s really hard. You’re almost paring a story down to its just most basic form.
Angela: But then you have to have the basic form and still make it interesting and still use good descriptive prose. I almost, in a way, feel like children’s book writing is actually more difficult than just writing fiction for adults. Do you feel that way?
Stephanie: You know, I really do. I’ve admitted this to you before, that I am far more comfortable even editing adult books than children’s books. I really enjoy children’s books, but when it comes to really analyzing them, you have more experience in this than I do. I have been in the academic setting for so long I am far more comfortable reading and analyzing a book written for academics than I am for children.
Angela: I don’t think that I actually understood the complexity of it until, first of all, I became a parent of a great bookworm.
Angela: When I had the challenge of having to find really decent books, but then also I somehow ended up doing a lot of children’s book editing over the past couple years. It’s become my niche. Just reading through and figuring out what works and what doesn’t and why, it’s definitely given me a new appreciation for the task ahead of a children’s book writer.
Stephanie: Yes, absolutely. That’s why when I see a children’s book come in, I always do the assigning of the edits. I know the strengths and weaknesses and specialties of all of our editors.
Stephanie: Part of it, I think, is even when I was a kid I didn’t read a lot of the early children’s books for whatever reason. I jumped in. I was always reading books that were technically above my level or above my grade level.
Angela: That does not surprise me about you. I totally believe that.
Stephanie: Right? I get to rediscover children’s books a lot with my kids, and that is always challenging when I sit there and read a book to my kids and I’m like, “Why don’t I like this book?” There are so many books that a lot of people fell in love with the story of when they were children because maybe the way it was told to them, but I sit there and go, “As a story, there’s something wrong. There’s something missing.”
Angela: Well, it’s like anything that becomes a classic. You’ve got the really good stuff that becomes timeless. I almost think of things like the Grinch. My parents were even reading that when they were younger. Now my own kid is watching it and reading it. But then you’ve got the most disposable stuff that almost feels like copies of the good stuff but not as well-written.
Angela: There’s so much slush to dredge through to find the really good stuff.
Stephanie: Yeah. You know, kids’ books, because they are so short for the young kids, it’s easy in the store to flip through them and go, “Nope, I am not taking that home.” But sometimes they slip through. I get a book home and I’m reading it and I’m like, “What were they thinking?” There’s one that I have, honestly, the words are so big and they are so fancy and it’s a pretty book to look at but it’s not an easy book to read.
Angela: Yeah, yeah.
Stephanie: You know, even if parents are reading to their children and with their children, there still needs to be a certain ease in the language. You don’t wanna be rotating the book all the way around. You don’t wanna have the words be in a tiny font. Keep in mind, kids are reading this with their parents. Maybe the parents are reading it out loud, but the kids are looking at it, too. That is part of how they learn to read. You wanna make sure even in designing your book and having your book illustrated, make sure the font is large enough, the words small enough, I’m talking length of words here, for the audience and appropriate for your audience. Again, I just come back to reiterating things that we keep talking about because these are the things I tend to see a lot in books that I edit that make me say to the author, “You need to rethink this a little bit.”
Angela: Right. Well, I think, too, if you’re sitting there reading with your child neither you or your child want to break that kind of magic that you get into when you’re getting into a really good book. If you’re having to explain every few words, if you’re having to, I guess, even explain the artwork or trip over sentences that you’re trying to read aloud, I’ve had that a lot when I used to read out loud to my son, it does break that magic and it pulls you out of the story and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Stephanie: Yeah, that goes back to read your work aloud.
Angela: Yes, yes.
Stephanie: So many people don’t read their work aloud, but with kids’ books it is especially important because that book is going to get read aloud.
Stephanie: You know, a lot of kids who are just learning, they read aloud. I mean, heck, I even know adults who still whisper as they read.
Angela: I was gonna say-
Stephanie: That’s how it works for them.
Angela: Yeah, I will admit to having done that a time or- Actually, I do it specifically with tricky words, like a new word I haven’t heard before. It helps me to sound it out. That is very true. Very true.
Stephanie: I do it with academic work.
Angela: Okay, that makes me feel better.
Stephanie: I really do.
Angela: I feel like I’m revealing this deep, dark secret.
Stephanie: Yeah, that whenever it’s not an easy sentence to read, the more complex it is, the more I need to read it. Think about that for your kids. Sometimes you need quiet to concentrate. Sometimes you don’t get quiet so you have to speak out loud. That’s what kids do when they’re learning to read. They speak out loud.
Angela: Well, I think that’s where rhyme scheme comes in for me in a children’s book. I think rhyme scheme is that one thing that can make or break it.
Stephanie: Oh, so important.
Angela: I think people assume you have to put rhyme into a kids’ book. That’s just completely not true.
Stephanie: Absolutely, yeah.
Angela: But if you do it, you have to do it precisely. You’ve gotta have syllable counts equal out. There’s gotta be a rhythm and a flow to it so that when it is read out loud, it’s got almost a tempo to it.
Stephanie: Yes, absolutely.
Angela: Any kind of tripping over the words or where it’s such a loose rhyme that it doesn’t even really make sense, it just takes you out of that story.
Stephanie: I think you have to make sure to establish your pattern, too, because that way, even if you have- Sometimes you’re gonna have a word that you really wanna use or it’s gonna be just a little awkward. That’s why you have to spend a lot of time. You have to make sure you’ve established your rhythm ahead of time before so that there is no doubt in the reader’s mind and they don’t trip over it.
Stephanie: You know?
Stephanie: Three of my favorite authors when I was a kid were Dr. Seuss, Ogden Nash, and Shel Silverstein.
Angela: Oh, yeah, master writers.
Stephanie: They are all rhyming but they really, really fitted in. You’ve got Dr. Seuss, for example, a hugely popular book in our household is “The ABC Book.” It’s just “ABC,” it’s Dr. Seuss’ ABC. You’ve got this very clear rhythm and you finally get to say “Big F, little f, FFF. Four fluffy feathers on a fiffer-Feff-feff.” It’s a completely made-up word, “fiffer-Feffer-feff,” but it fits the rhyme. Everybody knows exactly how to pronounce it because of the way that it fits into that rhyme.
Angela: And it makes kids giggle, which that is the draw. The younger ages, if you can make them laugh, they will keep coming back every time.
Stephanie: All of them, Nash and Seuss and Silverstein, they present an appeal to children’s love of the absurd.
Angela: That’s right.
Stephanie: That’s what I always like to think of, their love of the absurd whether it’s just something just a little different from normal life that adds that little bit of magic that kids have in their lives. Reba made a very good point in her article, which was let go of your adult mind. Get out of your adult mind and turn to your inner child when you’re writing for children.
Angela: Well, I think, too, there’s two points to that. Number one is spending time around kids.
Angela: Don’t assume that you know what they’re thinking or how they are, because I will tell you it changes from generation to generation. When you were a kid, it’s totally different now. It just is. That’s just how things go. But I think in this case, beta readers could be incredibly fun because they are gonna be very blunt as a kid. A kid will not sugarcoat what they think about your text. They will probably have all sorts of ideas that you never even thought of.
Stephanie: Yeah. I think it’s a good idea, too, pay attention to how they’re reacting. They may wander off before you’re two pages in or halfway through. That’s a sure sign that you need to change something.
Angela: Oh, yeah. Yeah. My favorite thing, I think, when I was reading to my son was getting through. If you can get them through that first paragraph and then you notice their eyes get wide and they’re sitting up a little bit more and they’re hooked in and they don’t want you to stop reading, they want you to keep going because they have to know what happens. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 50-chapter book or if it’s a board book or whatever. It’s still got that hook and it drew them in and now they’re there. They have to finish it.
Stephanie: Right. Yeah, and it’ll be different for every kid, but I think sitting with a reading circle or something. I always like this, go to the library and watch the librarians who read to kids. Notice the kinds of books that they pick out, too. That can help you if you’re trying to figure out what to write about. Go to the kids section and look at the books that are there, too, but I really like that interaction because you can see how the kids react when you’re not the one doing the reading.
Angela: Well, I think that’s a big difference, too, between kids writing and adult writing is that interaction. Even after they’ve walked away from it, the ideas keep growing in their minds. You’ll hear about it days later and I love that about kids’ books. They can spark those new ideas.
Stephanie: Right. You know, one thing that we mentioned earlier, don’t be condescending. Kids’ books can teach a lesson just like any book can, but you don’t wanna focus too much on the lesson. There’s one book that my children absolutely love and it’s terrible, I can’t remember the name of it. I think it’s maybe, “Good Night, Little Dragon.”
Stephanie: But it’s wonderful. These little baby dragons are getting ready for bedtime. You’re going through the nighttime routine. You wanna talk about a perfect way to get my children cleaning up at night? My daughter loves dragons. Dragons are the in-thing. We get this book and after we read this and she memorized it, sometimes we would remind her to pick up and wouldn’t quite work. But then we say, “Before they go to bed, little dragons,” and then she would finish the line and she would pop up and she would start cleaning. There’s the association, too.
Angela: It’s a subtle message. You know, you’re talking about teaching a lesson, it’s not like the book says, “By the way, kids, you need to make sure you do this, this, and this.”
Angela: It’s almost like learning through example. The kids latch onto these characters that they fall in love with and they wanna emulate that.
Stephanie: Exactly. She’s a little dragon when she picks up her toys. She’s breathing fire and roaring, but she’s picking up her toys.
Angela: Exactly, which is all we needed in the first place.
Stephanie: Yes. Then when she starts reading it, like you said, her eyes get wide and she has to finish. She has to finish reciting the book or reading the book because it is so exciting to her.
Angela: Exactly. It doesn’t talk down to her and it doesn’t preach to her.
Angela: In her mind, it’s entertaining. She doesn’t realize all that she’s learning.
Stephanie: Exactly. Again, she is a little dragon in her mind. Of course, at this age, she is a dragon, she’s a cat, she’s a dog. Who knows what she is? It varies from minute to minute. Books stir up her imagination and let her become whoever she want to be.
Angela: Yes, exactly what you just said. That is exactly right.
Stephanie: Now I feel like I can’t get any better than that.
Angela: Yeah, I don’t know how you top that. That was basically the entire thing I love about children’s books in this little- Yeah, one sentence. It was beautiful.
Stephanie: I don’t think I could do that again if I tried. I think unless you have anything else to add, then, we’ll leave it there.
Angela: That sounds good to me.
Stephanie: Okay, in the meantime, if you have any questions, feel free again to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and next time we are going to be discussing writer’s block and some strategies for dealing with it. Join us then, but until then keep writing.