Most writers I know, in fact, most people I know, think about writing a children’s book at some point in their careers. Sometimes they remember how much they loved books from childhood. Sometimes they see how books can open doors for kids and help them think in new ways. Sometimes they know that the right book at the right time can help a lonely child feel less alone.
In my (decade plus) years of teaching “Writing Children’s Books” through Gotham Writers’ Workshop, I’ve worked with hundreds of students. Most are delightful people, and many are talented writers, but when each new class begins, I know I will encounter many of the same misconceptions I saw in the last class and that a lot of my time will be spent helping students avoid or correct the same mistakes.
If you want to write a children’s book, consider the following misconceptions and their corrections before you begin.
Misconception: “I haven’t read a children’s book in years, but they’re short and simple, right? How hard can it be to write one?”
The truth is children’s books are no easier to write than books for adults. Books for older children demand all the elements that books for adults do: strong characterizations, fresh exciting plots, lots of action and clear, precise language, as well as the ability to see the world through a child’s eyes, mind and heart.
Picture books may be short, and they may appear deceptively simple, but they are one of the most difficult forms to master. Well-written picture books are works of art that demand an intuitive sense of child appeal, and like poetry, a firm command of language.
Because the kind of book that would appeal to a 3-year-old is vastly different from one that appeals to a 10-year-old or a 14-year-old, books for children and teens come in many formats. It’s crucial to understand the field of children’s books, to know the various categories and formats and to read widely in the category you’re targeting.
Would your story work best as a picture book, an easy reader, an early chapter book or a middle-grade novel? Knowing the conventions and requirements of each format before you begin will save time when it comes to revising. Although these categories are fluid and the age levels are indicative rather than definitive, these are the standards devised and currently used by the publishing industry, librarians, educators and reviewers.
These are the major categories.
Baby/Toddler Books (ages 0-3)
As a child’s first books, these come in all shapes and sizes, but usually have very few words per page. Unless you are an artist or have a brilliant idea that hasn’t been produced before, this market is hard to crack.
Picture Books (ages 2-8)
Text and pictures work together to tell a story. Picture books appear deceptively simple, but the best ones are beautifully compact works of art that work on many levels and help children grow emotionally and psychologically. A few picture books have no words at all, allowing the pictures to tell the story, and most are no longer than 1,000 words. Most picture books are 32 pages long, including the cover pages.
EZ Readers (ages 4-7)
Aimed at beginning readers, these books have limited vocabulary, large typeface, simple sentence structure, repetition and pictures that give clues to the words to help children learn to read alone.
Chapter Books (ages 6-9)
A little longer and more difficult than easy readers, these bridge the gap between easy readers and middle-grade novels by telling the story primarily through prose rather than pictures.
Middle-Grade Books (ages 8-12)
Written for kids whose reading skills are competent, these novels vary in length, subject matter and style, but they should have all the attributes of novels for adults. The biggest difference is that the main characters are usually children. Realistic fiction, fantasy, mysteries and historical fiction are all popular with middle grade readers.
Young Adult (ages 13-18)
Contemporary books for YA readers are sophisticated in style and subject matter and deal with the problems, questions and issues that concern teens in our times.