So you want to write for children? Well, let me tell you one thing before you start: writing for children takes as much skill as writing for adults…even if you are doing picture books! You still need to plan and test out your ideas before you begin.
Babies and Pre-Fives
So let’s look at books for kids in more detail. Let’s start at the beginning…books for babies and pre-fives.
For babies, these tend to be picture books that are made from cloth or from board to endure the wear and tear (and teething) that a baby or very small child will bring. They are fun, colourful, have few words and simple pictures or designs. They may have a tactile feel to them – patches of fun fur or other material that the child can touch – or added elements such as pull-out or moving pieces or even a toy. The idea is to appeal to the young child and keep their interest.
For pre-fives, the books may have rhymes, onomatopoeia, alliteration or repetitive phrases with colourful pictures and a storyline you can follow from beginning to end.
The stories are fun and often have moral outcomes (see TheGruffalo, Begu or Charlie and Lola) or the character may have a quest to go on (Where the Wild Things Are). These books will use more sophisticated language than the baby books, but will still be simple enough for a young child to understand.
You might not think it, but all picture books – even for babies – need a strong theme or storyline. Baby and picture books should have more pictures than words or at least half of it is pictures. Every word counts. Most picture books have no more than 1000 words (no more than 100 to 200 words per page); many have only a fraction of that, so make sure you don’t waste words. Think: is that word necessary? Am I being too wordy? Is there a better word I can use?
No matter what age group you are writing for, your story has to flow, it should be original and something that will capture the imagination of not just an audience at home, but abroad too. If it’s good enough to be published here, it will be good enough to get translated for other countries too, so keep this in mind.
Pace your story over the pages, coming to some sort of issue about three-quarters of the way in that is resolved by the end (look at the story of the three little pigs, you think the wolf is going to get them, the tension builds and then it’s resolved at the end when he can’t blow down the brick house, the pigs are safe).
Be mindful that if you are putting rhyming text in your book, it may not be appealing to publishers who want to sell it abroad because rhymes can’t be easily translated. However, that shouldn’t put you off doing a rhyming book…if it’s truly good it’ll still get published.
When I write, I always visualise the scene I’m writing as if it’s happening right in front of me and you should be visualising what’s happening with your story as your write it to ensure the story flows, even for books that have few words.
In relation to the pictures, unless you are doing them yourself, it is the publisher who organises getting an artist to create the pictures. Sometimes you have no control over how it looks and sometimes you get to collaborate with the artist. It depends on the publisher.
My advice to you is that unless you are trained in illustration or have a high level of artistic skill, you don’t do your own illustrations. This is because publishers may like your text, but not your illustrations. You don’t want to give them any excuse for rejecting your book. There are huge financial costs when publishing a picture book, so the publisher will not take any risks.
You may, however, want to send your publisher some notes on how you see the scene developing visually. This will give them a good idea of what you were thinking as you were writing and give them something to give the illustrator.
Books for older kids come in basically three age categories: 5-7, 6-9 or 7-9/8-12. You’ll often see them grouped together in bookshops under these age groups or similar.
If you are writing for children, you have to be careful about what you write about and how you write it. Depending on the age group, you may want to stay away from certain subjects. For instance, subjects such as death and divorce are not appropriate for a picture book or younger kids, but you could place them in a novel for much older children. Also, violence and swearing will be seen as a no-no for young kids, but might be okay for young adults.
If you are tackling difficult subjects such as death, divorce, single parents, abandoned children etc, you’ll want to ensure this is done with tact and is appropriate to the reader’s age. Authors such as Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo have done this really well in their novels.
Again your story should be original and capture the imagination of your audience. The words should flow, there should be a smooth rhythm to the text – read it out loud and see that it works. If you stumble over words, so will your reader. Layer it up. What I mean by this is that your storyline shouldn’t just be a flat story. Give it some other elements, give your character a personality (with likes and dislikes) and a background, and add in some friends and foes. Make them rounded individuals with a great story and you can’t go wrong.
We’ve all heard that a story should be a beginning, middle and end. Give it a great beginning to draw the reader in. Start in the middle of an action – even if it’s just your character sitting at the kitchen table eating cornflakes – and then take the story through to some sort of problem or crises. At the end there should be some sort of resolution to leave the reader feeling there’s been a happy ending.
This is the category for kids aged 12 – 18 and basically there’s no real restriction on subject matter for this age group. The advice for writing for this age group is the same as for younger kids, but I would advise you to read a few young adult books to see what works.