What You Need to Know before Writing a Children’s Book
Writing in general can be a tough business; writing for children is even tougher. As you explore writing children’s books, you enter a different world, one filled with book formats—from board books to young adult novels—and a whole different set of rules to follow and restrictions to know for each. The rules for writing books for younger children are different from the rules for writing books for middle graders or young adults.
If you’re writing a children’s book, it pays to be familiar with how the publishing industry classifies them. These classifications are not arbitrary but are based on reading and interest levels of each age group. If you break the recommended guidelines, chances are your book will not be understood and received well by your audience. Guidelines for age groups will determine average number of pages, number of images, and the overall word count. The below outlined differences make your decision of which age group you are planning to write for very important, as every subsequent decision will depend on the type of book you choose to write.
Board books: 0–3
Board books are the “baby” of the children’s book family. Board books are often marketed as infant, toddler, or baby books. They are meant to be read (and played with) by infants ages 0 to 3 and are designed as such. Many of these books teach early learning concepts like the alphabet, numbers, or colors. Lullabies, nursery rhymes, finger plays, or wordless books are typical for this format. The illustrations in board books emphasize bright, colorful imagery to engage tots.
Picture books: 3–7
Recommended word lengths vary slightly, but fall into the 400– to 900–word range. At this time, children typically enter the emergent reader and early reader stages. The number of pages in a picture book is normally a multiple of 8: in other words, 16, 24, 32, 40, or 48 pages. However, the standard picture book length is 32 pages. Picture books cover an almost endless array of topics and are written in different styles. They require simple, linear plots, i.e., no sub plots or complicated narrative twists. They also require one main character who embodies the child’s feelings, concerns, and point of view (usually a child or animal character; however, an adult protagonist that children can sympathize with can work).
Early readers: 5–8
Recommended word length ranges from 3,000 to 5,000 words. These are short books, usually with a lot of illustrations. Easy readers have very simple and somewhat predictable storylines, controlled vocabulary, and are grammatically simple. The story is told mainly through dialogue and action with very little description of characters or setting. In terms of subject matter, easy readers cover themes and topics that children can easily relate to, such as family, friends, pets, school, holidays, sports, being left out, first day of school, etc. Much in the same fashion as picture storybooks, easy readers have color illustrations on every page or double page that are included merely to hold the child’s interest.
Chapter Books: 6–9
Chapter books are for children who are now reading independently. These books contain more complex sentences and plot development, but paragraphs are still short (2 to 4 sentences). They also tend to be character-driven stories. In terms of word length, the average range is 4,000 to 12,000 words. Chapter books may or may not be illustrated; when they are illustrated, the illustrations are black and white.
Middle Grade: 8-12
These books are also sometimes marketed as “tween” or “pre-teen” books. The vast majority of published middle grade fiction novels have 35,000 to 45,000 words, but you’ll see longer word counts for fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction middle grade novels. On the other hand, word count for non-fiction middle grade novels varies a lot, from as short as 5,000 words to as long as 100,000 words.
Young Adult: 12+
These novels can be anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 words long, although YA novels in the paranormal, fantasy, sci-fi, or historical genres can be longer, sometimes as long as 120,000 words. The content and plots of young adult novels can be quite sophisticated; however, these books always address themes and issues relevant to contemporary teens (self-discovery, dating and sexuality, coming-of-age, death, substance abuse, school violence, etc.).
You’ve probably heard the famous saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” This phrase is especially true when talking about the importance of illustrations in books. Though the words of your storyline are important, illustrations are like the glue that can help hold the attention of the reader. When it comes to illustrating your children’s book, there are four important guidelines to follow.
Every illustration needs to have some certainty: something that is clear and easy to read. You and a child need to know at a glance what is happening in an image, that something happened before, and that something will happen after.
Every illustration needs to have some uncertainty, too, some tension that leads the reader to turn the page, stay engaged, and wonder “what happens next?”
Unique and special
Readers need to identify with the main character, really feel the main character’s uniqueness and be able to cheer for them. Some ways to do this are by giving characters open, expressive faces, interesting clothing, and items that reveal characteristics.
Readers need to feel connections and love in our lives. In children’s books, they need to feel personally connected to the illustrations and love the character.
In children’s books, you have to show some arc, some character growth, and some reason to have invested in the character. If a character goes from uncertain to certain, grumpy to grateful, lost to found, that needs to be conveyed in images.
If you do not have a manuscript but are planning on writing a children’s story, it may be a good idea to read through several children’s stories and identify the above elements within each story. Doing this, you can see how other writers have used these elements to create strong stories children love.
Do you ever imagine yourself writing for kids? Contact us today to connect with an editor, learn about publishing, or just ask questions!