How to Write Children’s Books
Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.
—Richard McKenna, author
When faced with the enormous task of writing a novel, some would-be authors choose instead to create a children’s book. After all, how hard could it be? It’s just a children’s book.
But consider for a moment the power of a children’s book, namely its ability to turn an ordinary idea into something magical and memorable. Winnie the Pooh, Charlotte’s Web, Anne of Green Gables, The Giving Tree . . . Books define our childhoods, make us feel less alone, and dare us to believe in the beauty of imagination.
Why should books for children require any less attention to the craft of writing than books for adults? The answer is that they shouldn’t. In fact, 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.
In a previous Editor’s Corner article, we discussed the process of writing a book. Although it might come as a surprise to you, writing for children is no different than writing for adults. The steps are still the same:
- Define your purpose.
- Determine the audience you’re trying to reach.
- Brainstorm ideas.
- Draft the first incarnation of the story.
- Rinse and repeat.
The process doesn’t change because of the word count. One thing that is different, however, is that children’s books almost always contain some amount of artwork. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, for instance, is chock-full of images that capture the wildness of the main character, Max, and the monsters he encounters. The Scholastic 1998 edition of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, in contrast, contains only simple sketches by Mary GrandPré at the beginning of each chapter to summarize the main point of the chapter and give readers something pretty to look at. No matter the amount of art involved, however, writers need to ensure that the art works in concert with the text to strike the right tone for the book, both complementing and adding to the story.
Another concern particular to children’s books is vocabulary. In previous Editor’s Corner articles, we talked about readability and reading level. Nowhere are those more important than in children’s books, which should challenge young readers without making the process so difficult as to turn the reader off entirely. For example, the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series by Kathryn Lasky is aimed at children ages 9–12 but intersperses more challenging terms such as rapturously and usurp in simpler text. This gives children a chance to expand their understanding of language while keeping them from feeling like they are being talked down to—one guaranteed way to make them step away from a book.
Lastly, a few words about story arc: Though creating an arc in the limited space of a children’s book can be difficult, it is still necessary. As with adult novels, when moving the characters from the beginning of their journey to the conclusion, authors must evaluate which details are important and which should be left out. For example, consider Eric Carle’s best-selling The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The intended audience is ages 1–3, and the book contains twenty-six pages. Because of its short format, the story arc is simple and uncomplicated, and it contains no filler whatsoever:
- The caterpillar hatches.
- It is hungry.
- It eats and eats.
- It eats so much that it feels sick.
- It spins its cocoon.
- It emerges as a butterfly.
Ultimately, a book for children is never just a children’s book, and it takes a very special writer to speak to children in a way that is both authentic and inspiring. Dr. Frank Serafini, professor of literacy education and children’s literature at Arizona State University, believes “There is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who have not found the right book.” Maybe you are the one to write it.