Misconception: “Conflict? Suspense? Tension? I know mystery stories and crime novels need those things, but children’s books? You’re telling me The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Cat in the Hat have conflict and suspense?”
Yup. And that’s why kids have been happily turning those pages for decades. Peter is in conflict with Farmer MacGregor, and also at times with his mom, and with himself. The suspense and tension come from wondering if Peter will be caught stealing vegetables from Farmer MacGregor’s garden and “put into a pie like his father.”
In the Cat in the Hat, the conflict is between the cat and the two children, and the suspense comes from watching the cat wreak havoc on the children’s home and wondering how they‘ll ever get the mess cleaned up before Mom comes back.
Cute animals and rhyming verse may play a part in your tale, but they don’t take the place of a real story complete with suspense, tension and an actual plot.
Readers need characters they care about and reasons to worry about them. That’s what keeps them turning pages. Conflict provides the reasons to worry. Give your characters problems, get them into trouble, then have them set about solving their problems and getting out of trouble.
In books for kids, it’s important to hook your readers right away by introducing the central conflict early in the story and then to keep them hooked by showing your character struggling throughout the story to solve the problem and/or achieve the goal.
It’s also important to avoid a deux-ex-machina in the form of a parent, teacher or helpful adult who steps in to save the day. The main character should solve the problem, even if that character is a 3-year-old child or a teeny-tiny mouse.
Creating strong characters, finding the right voice, coming up with a workable plot – these are not easy tasks, and the road from initial conception to a publishable story is usually long, winding, full of potholes and pitfalls. But when I hear from a child that he or she loved a book and wants to read more, or that one of my books has made any child feel less alone, I know that the journey is more than worth it.
Tips for children’s book writers
If you want to write an awesome, amazing, splendid, really good children’s book, let the rumpus begin.
- Read widely in the format and age level you hope to engage.
- Spend time with kids close to the age you hope to write for. Talk to them about their lives, their families, relationships, hopes, dreams, frustrations and accomplishments.
- To get a sense of which POV would work best for you and a sense of the voices of your characters, try the following exercise: Write a scene with two or more child characters, using either first person or third-person limited POV. Rewrite the scene from the other character’s first or third person POV.
- Give an old story a new twist by choosing an antagonist as your viewpoint character as in The True Story of the Big Bad Wolf by John Scieszka or modernizing an old tale as in The Principal’s New Clothes by Stephanie Clamenson, or The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skane Catlin.
- For picture books, think visually. You don’t need to be an artist (your publisher will find an artist if they buy your text), but you do need to plan your story so the pictures work with the text to tell the story. You might even try designing a story in which the pictures tell a different story from the text, as in Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins, or Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggie Rathbone. 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. Many people think that because picture books they are so short, they must be easy, but in reality the picture book is one of the most difficult forms to master.
Margaret Meacham has written 11 books for children and young adults, including Oyster Moon and A Fairy’s Guide to Understanding Humans. She teaches Children’s Book Writing at Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
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