Writing takes time. Even if you are writing for kids. While the notion that anyone can write a children’s book is true, not everyone is takes the time to write a good children’s book. Only those willing to do their research, hone their craft, practice, read, and write, write, write (then revise, revise, revise) will succeed.
This article provides resources for authors new to writing children’s books — whether it be a picture book, chapter book, or middle grade novel.
Know your format
When writing for kids, it’s important to understand the different children’s book formats so that you can envision the right format for your own story. In this article, we will take a look at picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels. But you can learn more about children’s book formats and genre here.
Picture books are thin, fully illustrated, usually hardcover, read-aloud books for young children. They are 32 pages long by standard. The 32-page format includes the cover pages, introduction or dedication, back matter, and copyright information. They are reliant on both text and illustration to tell the story. In today’s market, a word count of about 500 words makes sense.
Picture books talk about universal themes that get to the heart of the human experience. They are usually either concept based (think counting books or ABC books) or character based. In a character based picture book the protagonist will be placed in a kid-relatable situation or problem, and often times solve the problem by the end of the book. Additionally, the character will change or learn something by the end, or they will change the world around them.
Picture books use different techniques such as rhythm, repetition, and cadence to engage young readers and listeners. They are fun to read aloud, and are often read this way. They make great gifts. Grandparents, librarians, teachers love them! So do kids.
Some of my favorite picture books can be found on my bookshop storefront, The KidLit Curator.
Chapter books are usually a child’s or emerging reader’s first go at reading a book in novel format independently. They are for young advancing readers, typically for elementary school aged children. Many chapter books are single character or subject based and they may contain a simple subplot or two. But, the plot will be straightforward and easy to follow.
Chapter books will have illustrations on some or many pages, and the illustrations are usually black and white or pen and ink. The exception to this rule are storybooks like <<>>> and graphic novels, both usually written and illustrated by the same person.
The word count for a typical or standard chapter book today is about 8,000 to 10,000 words, and you can expect to have about 8 – 10 chapters total. They are usually character driven and quite voicey and playful in tone and content.
Some of my favorite chapter books can be found on my bookshop storefront, The KidLit Curator.
Middle Grade novels have an average of 50,000 words, though there is a range from about 30,000 up to about 60,000. They contain longer chapters than found in chapter books, often no illustrations, and can have over 100 pages. They look like novels and will be rich with subplots, multiple characters, and even explore complex subject matter.
Upper elementary through middle school aged children read these novels. They can have multiple points of view, even multiple protagonists, and can be character driven or plot driven. Character driven novels tend to be more literary, while plot driven novels are more commercial. You’ll find novels in verse in this format as well.
Themes can range in tone and complexity, and as long as there is no violence-for-violence sake, or harmful sexual content, most subjects are open for exploration including, war, abuse, sexuality, grief, death, and finding one’s place in society. The list goes on. And there are plenty of light-hearted, fun or funny novels for these readers too.
Some of my favorite middle grade novels can be found on my bookshop storefront, The KidLit Curator.
Read Children’s Books
Now that you know your format, take some time to read books that have been published in the last three to five years in the format in which you plan to write. Reading for reseach is a great way to glean a better understanding of what is being published today. Exploring or revisiting the classics can be rewarding, but remember to also read books that have been published in recent years to get a grasp on today’s market.
Now that you have familiarized yourself with the various children’s book formats, it’s time to get writing. While I won’t go into all the different steps – from start to finish – for writing a children’s book, I’ll outline the steps here.
In addition to the curated booklists available on The KidLit Curator, you can also use these goodreads bookshelves to find specific books in different categories. For example, lists like picture books featuring grandparents or middle grade novels with multiple points of view.
And while you’re reading, you might consider checking out one of these How to Write books for inspiration and additional guidance.
The Messy First Draft
Messy first drafts are, well, messy.
The messy first draft is all your ideas, all your thoughts, everything that is fresh and new and alive about your story, swarming around in your mind, tossed onto the page in some sort of semi-cohesive manner.
You may be a plotter (plot everything) or a pantser (fly the seat of your pants) but both have messy first drafts. You have to put your internal, or self, editor away to finish this draft. The aim is to get the story onto the page, whether you’re writing 500 or 50,000 words. This can sometimes feel like a daunting task, but without this first step, you literally don’t have a book, so get it down.
Some writers enjoy participating in writing challenges like NaNoWrMo or writing contests, to help them get their drafts on paper. Whatever or however you tackle the messy first draft, the important thing to remember is to simply: do it.
Writing Tips and Tricks
- Set aside a certain time of day or week to devote a little bit (or a lot if you’re lucky!) to writing
- DON’T self edit! Seriously, DON’T. Don’t worry about misspelled words are misspelled or formatting… yet
- Use an outline if you have one (I’m talking to you, Save the Cat devotees)
- But if you don’t have an outline, just write what comes to mind when it surfaces
- Don’t worry about writing in order; you can line scenes up in revision
- Set attainable goals. For example, I’ll write 10 minutes twice a week is all it takes
Revise, revise, revise
Once you have your messy first draft complete, it’s time to start revising. This can materialize in so many different ways, because writing and revising a book looks different for everyone. But here are some tips and tricks to get you started.
Revision Tips and Tricks
- Set the book aside for a week, a month, more; step away from it and do something else for a while, then revisit it for that first revision with fresh eyes
- You might work through one round of revisions, to clean up the typos and text, and then submit to a critique partner, do a manuscript swap
- You might consider hiring a developmental editor, or scheduling a consultation session with a professional
- Consider using a revision checklist, and here is a picture book specific checklist
There really is no right or wrong way to revise your work, except to skip revisions all together. And remember, no man is an island applies here too – get some outside feedback from someone other than mom, partner, kids and your best friend. Check out these resources for finding a manuscript swap or critique group
The Truth about Writing a Children’s Book
Writing a book for kids is hard! It takes time! You would not get up and run a marathon if you’ve never run before, and the same goes for writing a book. Set realistic goals, do a little each day or each week, and know that the time and effort you put in now will pay off later.
The children’s book market is competitive, so the idea that you’ll have the perfect draft on your first try is not only unrealistic, it could hurt your chances of traditional publication if you act too soon.
Patience is key. Practice is key. Especially if you have traditional publication in mind. Make sure your book is your best work before submitting it to agents or publishers, or before self publishing. You only get one chance, in most cases, to submit your book to an agent or editor. You cannot submit your manuscript again once an agent or editor passes. Unless the book has been significantly revised, no means no.
One of the biggest mistakes I see new authors make is querying too early. I have a separate article on how to write a query letter here.
If you plan to self publish, you’ll also want to take a few additional steps to make sure your book is the best it can be and error free. You might check out these articles to help you through the self publishing process. These articles have information that can be applied to self-publishing a chapter book.
A brief but unapologetic plug
If you do plan to purchase any of the books mentioned in this blog, or on my website, please consider shopping through bookshop.org, which supports small, independent booksellers like myself, or your own local bookstore.
Time to Write!
This article is jam-packed full of info that I hope will guide you on your writing journey. In closing, I’ll leave you with this quote from Louisa May Alcott, in a letter written to one of her fans:
I can only say to you as I do to the many young writers who ask for advice—There is no easy road to successful authorship; it has to be earned by long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials. Success is often a lucky accident, coming to those who may not deserve it, while others who do have to wait & hope till they have earned it. This is the best sort & the most enduring.
Check out the full letter here.
Interested in learning more?