One author’s guide to writing a children’s book that will actually get published
There are some people who will tell you that writing a children’s book is really easy. I mean – they’re shorter than books for adults, right?
Reader – if you meet one of these people, you should give them a stern talking to and a whole lot of finger-wagging.
Writing books for children isn’t an easy way out. In fact, there are a whole host of new things you have to consider when writing for children that wouldn’t cross the mind of an adult novelist.
How do I know? Well, I’ve been writing books for children and young adults since I was just a kid myself. When I began, I thought it was going to be easy, too. Three dead books, over fifty rejections and fourteen years later – I realised that it was a whole lot harder than it looks.
Then, I sat down and I followed a set of rules to write a book for Young Adults called ‘Outside’. I sent it to an agent, who offered me representation within forty-four minutes of receiving it. And in January 2019, it was published in the UK by Penguin.
It is hard. But you’ve got this. And this blog is going to tell you exactly what you need to write a book that children (and publishers) will love.
And even though it’s going to be a difficult ride, I think you’re secretly going to love every minute of it – just like I did.
So – where do you start?
1. Know the children’s book market
‘Children’ isn’t a very defined audience.
Within that category, you have babies and toddlers, all the way through to teenagers thinking about university.
Children’s books are as rich and diverse as children are themselves, so it’s absolutely essential that you know exactly what kind of children you are writing for.
The market tends to shift every few years, but in general, the categories within children’s books look a bit like this:
Picture Books (0 – 5 years) Between 300 – 1000 words, depending on who the book is aimed at (babies 300, toddlers 500, pre-schoolers 1000).
Early Readers (5 – 7 years) Less than 10,000 words. These books can be illustrated and are divided up into chapters.
Lower Middle Grade (7 – 9) Between 10,000 – 30,000, depending on the reading age they are best suited for. The lower the reading age, the lower the word count.
Middle Grade (9 – 11) Between 30,000 and 60,000. There is a bit more room in Middle Grade to push the boundaries of wordcount and theme, within reason.
Teen (12+) Usually around 60,000, but there are books in this category as low as 40,000 and as high as 90,000!
YA / Crossover (14+) Over 60,000 words. Fantasy books in this category can push the wordcount to more like 90,000, but usually around 60,000 – 70,000 is the magic number.
As you can see, books for younger children are much shorter. To write picture books, you don’t have to rhyme, or even know an illustrator (in fact, some agents prefer writers to submit text minus any artwork, as they find it easier to match these later). You do need to be able to tell a story that will make adults and babies feel all the feels though, within a very short word count. If you ask me, writing picture books might well be the hardest of all of these to perfect – and is one of the most competitive, too.
Between ages 7 and 11, the reading ages start to shift. You might have an 8-year-old reading a book written for an 11-year-old, and that is okay! At this point, it’s worth thinking about things in terms of ‘Reading Age’ rather than actual age. Early Readers are for children who are just learning to read, and Lower Middle-Grade tends to be lighter, funny reads.
Middle-Grade books are booming at the moment and are often read for pleasure by adults, too (myself included). They can be darker and you can push the wordcount a bit further. You can perhaps take a few more risks, providing the heart of the book is with the characters (more on that later).
Then we have Young Adult (YA) fiction. I like to think of this as two categories: Teen and Young Adult / Crossover. Teen fiction tends to focus on topics affecting teenagers around 12-13 years old. They are lighter, sometimes funny books. Young Adult or Crossover fiction can be anything where the protagonist is under 18. They can be romances set in a school, or dark, chilling tales.
Whatever age you choose to write for, ensure you know that market back-to-front. Which leads me to tip number two:
2. Read contemporary children’s books
The best way to know your market is to read everything you can that fits into it. Yes, adults can read children’s books for pleasure. Some of the most delicious and astounding books I have read have been for children.
Don’t fall into the trap of re-reading the books you enjoyed as a child. The market is constantly evolving and what was publishable ‘way back then’ may not be marketable now. Keep your eye on books that are coming out this year, particularly debuts (as you’ll hopefully be one of those yourself soon!)
When you are reading, make notes on things like sentence structure, characters and plot arcs. Is the language simple or sophisticated? What age are the characters? And what twists and turns appear in the story? This will help you no end when it comes to write your own.
3. Come up with an astoundingly unique idea
So, now we come to your own book (woohoo!). And I have some bad news, I’m afraid (boooo).
The world of children’s books is incredibly competitive and only the absolute best books stand a chance of getting published.
But that’s okay. Because you can make your story into one of those books using this blog post. And it starts with an astounding idea that will make an agent stop scrolling and forget to breathe.
Think of your favourite stories. You can usually sum them up in one, hooky line, can’t you? Something like:
“Death narrates as a girl steals books in WW2 Munich, as her foster parents conceal a Jewish fist-fighter in their home.” – The Book Thief
“A girl has been trapped Inside her whole life, until one day she finds a hole in the wall.” – Okay, so that’s my book, but you get the idea.
Your concept needs stakes. It needs to be different. It needs to pique interest. Nothing else will work for this market.
Okay, so you have your amazing concept that will hook an agent, then a publisher, then eventually a reader.
Want to keep them? Then you’ll need to create characters that children can relate to.
The first rule for this is to think about their ages in relation to the categories we outlined above. Usually, children like to read about characters a couple of years older than them. In Young Adult fiction, I usually make my characters between 15 and 17.
90% of books for children have children as their central protagonists. The other 10% is usually made up of animals and magical beings, but they will nearly always speak and act like children in that age group. They are hardly ever adults.
The next thing is to think about the qualities that children of that age look for in a protagonist. Usually, this is bravery (although this doesn’t mean all characters need to be sword-fighters – there are many different kinds of bravery). Usually they are kind (although not always to everyone all the time). And usually they are quirky in some way – they have some interest or ideals that colour their world and make them interesting.
This is a funny Lower Middle-Grade book, and the main character is a boy who suffers with anxiety. Whenever he gets anxious, he turns into an animal. And with his brother in hospital and the school play coming up, there is a lot to worry about.
Although Charlie has something going on that I would hope most children can’t relate to (eg: turning into a pigeon), there’s an awful lot about him that readers want to root for. His anxiety is one – and the book does a lot to normalise this and teach the reader how to deal with it. He’s also a classic ‘good guy’ – always one to attempt to smooth things over with his bully, and worry about his brother. He is brave, kind and quirky.
In terms of secondary characters, this book is great at busting stereotypes, and that’s really something to keep in mind when writing (more on this later). You’ve got a smart, scientific friend, as well as those who provide some comic relief. You’ve got an antagonist bully, who we understand. And other grown-up antagonists such as grumpy teachers, and parents who have the ability to be ‘disappointed’.
In short, these are all characters that children around 8 years old will relate to and enjoy reading about (As well as grown-up writers who have the mind of an 8-year-old, too!).
It’s worth spending time getting to know your characters using something like this Ultimate Character Builder (downloadable via email). This worksheet asks hundreds of questions about your character that forces you to think of answers.
Something else I quite like to do (mainly because it is wonderfully fun procrastination) is to use personality tests. Try getting into the mindset of your characters – including secondary characters – and taking the House and Patronus quizzes on Pottermore, for example. You might find out that your protagonist is a Slytherin with a rare winged Patronus, which might affect the way they behave in your plot. Another great tool can be found at 16 Personalities. This asks you a lot of questions and gives you a Myers-Briggs personality type at the end, with pages and pages of information about how that person would react to things like relationships, family and difficult situations.
When it comes to plotting a children’s book, it is useful to keep one bit of advice in mind at all times:
Plot is driven by character. Never the other way around.
If your characters are at the centre of your story, then you need to ensure that they are the ones driving it forwards. If you shoehorn them into a twist that goes against everything that your character stands for, then readers will be left cold.
There are a number of ways you can plot a book, including methods like the Snowflake Method or using this guide on writing a plot outline. For me, I like to start with something my character wants. This can be simple, like perhaps they are looking forward to an upcoming school trip. Or it can be much bigger than that – like perhaps they want to keep their family safe from being picked for The Hunger Games.
Next, you throw something in their path that means they can’t have what they want. They get framed for something they didn’t do at school and are banned from the school trip. Their sister is picked for The Hunger Games and they must volunteer as tribute to protect her from almost certain death.
What comes next is a series of incidents that raises action and keeps your character on their journey. They try to sneak onto the school bus, but end up on the wrong one, going instead to France. They get off the bus for a wee and it drives off without them. They try to buy a baguette with their lunch money, but it gets eaten by a dog (which they are afraid of) etc etc.
Within this middle point are highs and lows. They meet friends and helpers along the way – usually children their own age, or animals. There might even be other grown-up helpers or antagonists (think about Haymitch and Crane in The Hunger Games).
Usually around the mid-point of the story, what your character wants has now changed. The boy on the school trip now wants to find a way to go home. Katniss in The Hunger Games wants to stay alive.
This all leads up to the climax of the story – where all the issues you have dropped in before come to a head. There is usually a small battle to be won first – perhaps that is getting over the fear of dogs to save a friend in France, or it is beating the other Careers in order to stay alive in The Hunger Games. Then there is a small dip in action before the big beast is slayed – maybe that is as simple as finally asking for help to go home in France, or it is tricking the makers of The Hunger Games so that they can live.
To finish off, we have the resolution. This is where you tie up the questions you set up earlier in the story and resolve differences between characters. Maybe we see the boy return from France and ask his parents for a pet dog. Or Katniss returning home to her family as victor (whilst also leaving something unresolved here with a larger antagonist for book two in the series).
Okay, so you now have the bones of an exciting story down. Excellent. Now – we need to talk about the way you are going to tell this story.
The first thing to do is consider what point of view you are going to choose, and then stick to it entirely. The most popular ones in children’s books are either third person (He/She/They), or first person (I/We). You do tend to find books for younger readers tend to be third person, and teen and YA are usually first person – but this isn’t a rule. Try writing a scene using both and see which one feels more natural for you and this story.
It’s worth noting that children’s books in second person (You) are few and far between. This is because it’s a difficult thing to do well, and to relate to as a reader. But nothing is ever out of bounds in the world of children’s books, so if you are confident about using this POV, then go for it.
Whatever POV you choose, you must, must, MUST have a captivating voice. By ‘Voice’, we mean the way the story is being told – the language and sentence structure used to tell it. In first person, we need to believe that the person telling the story IS a child. In third person, we need that to a lesser degree, but we still need that sense that we are close to a character and understand who they are through their language.
Let’s take first person as an example to start with, because it’s a bit easier. A first-person voice can contain any one of the following things to make it a bit different:
An accent or dialect (eg: Southern American).
Short, matter-of-fact sentences, or long lines with little or no punctuation.
Complex language, or simple words.
A ‘Frame of Reference’ for understanding the world. For example, if your character loves painting, then you would expect their language to be a fountain of colour, using terms that painters would love.
When creating your voice, it is worth making a note of all the things that might influence the way your character speaks. So, think about where in the world they come from, and the different words they will use. Think about their age. Think about their personalities. Think about their passions and interests. And use all of this to create a voice that is unique to them.
This becomes a bit harder when writing in third person. You can use some of this to colour the voice of the narrator, which can be particularly important when writing for younger children, who need to be reading ‘simple’ words along with the protagonists. You can also give the narrator their own voice altogether, as done in The Book Thief and Charlie Changes into a Chicken.
Whatever you choose to do, ensure that it is striking and work on it until it feels like ‘you’. It took me around four books to realise what is ‘me’ about my writing – I think sometimes it is one of those things that you need to write to realise! You can find out more about finding your voice here.
7. Use settings and experiences kids will recognise
So, now we come on to the setting of your book. There are no real rules here when it comes to setting. Books like ‘The House With Chicken Legs’ is set all over the world, within a rickety old house with the legs of a chicken. But even in this book, there are still things included that children will recognise as similar to their own experiences. A feeling of loneliness from travelling all the time. A parental figure. A feeling of being bored when trapped inside the house.
With contemporary children’s books, the settings tend to be focused on home, school and other familiar places, such as parks and after-school clubs. If you are writing a book set in the real modern world, then you will probably need to include a school in there somewhere. Some authors do this really well, but I personally hate writing schools. If you’re like me, then setting a book in the summer holidays, or having protagonists who are over sixteen can sometimes be a way around this.
For fantasy writers, it’s worth thinking about things like education and home-life when you are world-building, too. Your character may well be going on a huge quest that will take them to the ends of the earth, with no time for school. But even The Hunger Games had lessons in flashback.
As I’ve said before, there are no rules here as such. Children’s books can take you to all corners of experiences. But ensure you think about your settings and how a child reader will recognise them. And if you choose to include things like school, then ensure you get that experience right!
8. Write and rewrite
Okay, so now we’re getting to the part where you have to put pen to paper. You’ll read a lot of articles all over the internet that will tell you rules here like “write every day” and “don’t look back on your first draft”.
But I don’t want to tell you any of those. Because honestly – writing a book is something every writer does differently, and that’s rather wonderful. Try writing every day, but if you can’t because you have your own kids to worry about, then that is perfectly fine. And maybe try not to spend years perfecting scenes before you get on to the next one (only because you will probably have to delete it later), but if you do need to make something perfect before you can move on, then that’s fine too.
Do whatever you need to do to keep writing.
I will however say this. First drafts suck. They do. And that is okay.
Books aren’t made on the first draft. This is where you let your characters drive that plot, and sometimes they don’t really know what they are doing. Books are made in the next stage – the re-writing. The editing. By getting feedback and working to make something shine.
In fact, I personally don’t even do first drafts any more. I call all my first attempts the ‘ditch draft’, because I know that chances are, I’m going to have to bin most of it and start again. I know that sounds a bit long – but again – do whatever you need to do to keep writing.
When it comes to re-writing, I personally like to open up a new document for my second draft and copy-paste the bits I like over and write the rest from scratch. There’s something freeing about not having words already there in front of you.
Books are made in the self-edit stage, so keep going until you have something that is really quite something. Because nothing much less will be good enough when it comes to the next stage…
9. Avoid these mistakes new writers make
But first – I want to pause and look at some common mistakes. Because these are the things you need to watch out for before you even think about sending out to agents.
The cry-baby little sister. The dysfunctional dad. There are certain stereotypes we take for granted. So think when you make decisions about every character in your novel – can they be subverted? Can you show that boys can cry too, and that dad’s can do all the housework? This goes for race, gender, sexuality, disability and pretty much everything else. Write characters, not clichés.
If you’re writing what you don’t know, get to know it.
This is becoming increasingly important in children’s fiction – and so it should. If you are writing about a character with an experience different to your own, then you need to ensure you do copious amount of research – including speaking to people who live this experience. This especially goes for anything to do with race, gender, sexuality and disability. There are things you can do to help ensure you are not portraying these lives in a way that is stereotypical or harmful. Sensitivity readers are now becoming a mainstay in children’s publishing and authors can even hire their own if they feel the need to check their facts. You should know however that no amount of research ever makes up for the real experience and you should learn from any feedback you have from readers, rather than challenge it.
Don’t start a story with a scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the story.
Alternatively, don’t go the other way and start your story somewhere that has nothing to do with the rest of the story, just because it is more exciting than waking up.
Your opening scene should excite, but it should also introduce the reader to the world that will appear in the rest of the story. So, if you’re story is about a girl’s relationship with her mother, then don’t start your story in the middle of a fist-fight unless that very quickly turns into something to do with the mother.
Of course, this changes if you are writing fantasy where the beginning of the novel is set in the everyday world before the magic is let loose. Still here though, ensure you are spending time introducing us to the characters and situations that will be important throughout the rest of the story.
Don’t mix tenses, or POVs.
Pick one, and stick to it (flashbacks permitting!). There’s nothing worse than reading a story that switches heads or propels us back and forth in time. Try reading this article on Psychic Distance if you need more clarification.
Don’t tell us – show us (for the most part)
This is one of the biggest mistakes I see writers make – including myself. When you are trying to explain a world or situation, it can sometimes be easier to just dump that information on the page. And some of that is fine, but too much can slow action and feel amateur.
This one is particularly for the picture book writers amongst you. Rhymes are wonderful when they work, but I’ve seen writers fall into the trap of sacrificing sentence meaning to shoehorn in a rhyme.
If you are struggling to make a sentence flow because of your rhyming structure, then try something else. Or try no rhyme at all! Some of my favourite picture books don’t rhyme – it’s all about the characters and the story you are telling.
Don’t overuse adverbs and adjectives.
All new writers seem to fall into this trap. Perhaps we want to show off how beautifully we can write, so we pen long, languid sentences that dazzle and glitter with sparkly splendour.
Unfortunately, they also weigh down your words. Keep your sentences to the point and I promise that those metaphors and similes that you do scatter in, will be all the more breath-taking because of it.
Avoid clunky-sounding dialogue.
Usually this happens when we want to try and ‘show’ something and not ‘tell’ it. And we might end up with a scene a bit like this:
“Why are you so upset Billy?” Mum said.
“Because my game was cancelled again, like it was last week.”
“Do you mean when you kicked the ball over the fence and it had to be called off?”
“It wasn’t my fault. A dog came onto the pitch.”
“And we all know you’re afraid of dogs.”
This doesn’t feel very realistic, does it? That’s because people don’t tend to spend their time reiterating things they all already know. Avoid doing this in your own book – especially with parents and their children, which tends to be where the clunkiest dialogue comes into its own! Try these tips on writing realistic dialogue.
Don’t have an adult save the day.
Finally, we have the ending. There is nothing worse than rooting for a child protagonist all the way through a book, only to have a grown-up step in and save the day at the end. Children want to see themselves as having the power to change the world. Sometimes, that might mean asking for help from a grown-up, but the decision to conquer should always come from the child.
10. Get an agent and get published
So that leads us to the last point – how to get this wonderful children’s book you have written, published and on the shelves.
However, the most important things to know are that you will nearly always need an agent to get a publisher. And getting an agent is very, very difficult.
Agents will receive around two-thousand submissions every year and will only have space to take on one or two. Out of these one or two, a third then never find a publisher.
So the odds are perhaps not in your favour. But that’s okay. Because the fact that you have read all the way to the bottom of this blog post tells me that you are serious about writing a brilliant children’s book. And brilliant children’s books are the only ones that get published.
The other alternative to getting your book published is self-publishing. This shouldn’t be seen as a ‘last resort’ option. In fact, plenty of authors create lucrative careers from publishing independently and it is fast becoming the number one option for a lot of writers.
It can be a little harder to self-publish in the world of children’s books. Illustrated books don’t always transfer to eBook easily and the market tends to favour print in general. However, there are authors who are doing really well in the YA genre fiction market, particularly for things like paranormal romance. If you are interested in this option, then you can find plenty of free information here.
Writing for children: Conclusion
Being a children’s author takes an incredible amount of hard work and dedication, but it is the most fulfilling thing you can do (in my biased opinion!) Children don’t like books, they LOVE them. And once your book is published, hearing from those readers makes every step of this whole process completely worthwhile.
I’ve mentioned the Jericho Writers membership a few times in this article, and it is something to think about if you are serious about carving a career for yourself as a children’s author. Reading and writing will take us so far, but sometimes we need a helping hand from the experts to create something at the level it needs to be to get published. You can find out more about that membership here.
I do hope you have found this article useful and wish you every luck (and enjoyment!) in writing your own children’s book.
You’ve got this.
Sarah Ann Juckes is the author of Young Adult / Crossover novel, OUTSIDE (Penguin). She is obsessed with children’s books, writing and her cat, and lives in East Sussex, UK.