I’ve written forty children’s books, which have been published in the UK, the USA, and many different countries and languages around the world.
Having written and published all these books, I wish I could say that there is a magic formula for writing a successful children’s book.
Unfortunately, there isn’t.
However, I can offer seven pieces of advice which should help you if you want to write your own children’s book.
You don’t have to be a famous celebrity
If you’re a famous actor, comedian, athlete, or musician, publishers will be queueing up to publish your children’s book.
You won’t even have to write it, because the publisher will find someone else to do all that hard work for you. You might want to contribute a few ideas, or a couple of jokes, but you don’t have to. All you really need to do is put your name on the cover.
If you’re famous enough, you’ll even be interviewed on TV about the book that you have “written”.
But if you’re not a famous celebrity, and you want to write a children’s book yourself, here are seven pieces of advice which should help you.
1. Read a lot of children’s books
That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But reading widely is really the most important thing that you can do if you’re interested in writing children’s books yourself.
You will learn about the market, the other books that are being written and read at the moment; you will learn how other writers have confronted and overcome the same problems that you’re struggling with yourself; and you will see the many different extraordinary and wonderful ways of telling a story for children.
I’m sure you read lots of books when you were a child, and I’m just as certain that you can remember the passion and the love that you felt for those stories and characters. However, many children’s books have been written and published since you were a child. Obviously, you can’t read them all, but I would recommend that you read as many children’s books as you can.
Read old ones and new ones.
Read good ones and bad ones (so you can tell the difference).
Read different genres: fantasy, adventure, crime, comedy, graphic novels, science fiction, historical fiction, books crammed with illustrations, books with no words, and every other variety of children’s book that you can find.
Read books aimed at different age groups: babies, toddlers, children who are just learning to read, confident readers, teenagers, young adults.
Read the books that everyone is talking about and the books that no one else has heard of.
Read the classics. Read Alice in Wonderland and Pinocchio and Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows and The House at Poo Corner. Children still eagerly ready these book today, although they were written long ago and their authors have been dead for decades. Why? What do they have which is so alluring, so resonant?
What to look for when you’re reading all these children’s books
I always think that there are two different ways of reading a book: critically and uncritically. Each of them is equally valid. You can (and should) read the same book in both ways.
The first time that you pick up a new book, you should probably read it entirely uncritically; allow yourself to be swept up by the characters and story; put aside your thoughts, your prejudices, and your criticisms; read passionately and emotionally.
However, you should also be able to pick up a book a second time, and read critically and dispassionately, picking the story apart. Just as a mechanic will take an engine to pieces, seeing how it works, investigating which parts are pushing and pulling which other parts, how the cogs connect, where the power comes from, so you should be able to see the workings of a book, and discover how it works.
How to read critically and analyse a book
When you’re thinking about a book in this critical and dispassionate way, you should concentrate on some particular and vital aspects. Interrogate your own response to the book. Ask yourself a lot of questions.
Where has the author chosen to start this story? And why?
Where has the author chosen to end the story? And why?
When we read this story, whose point of view are we seeing? How would the story be different if we were reading it from the point of view of a different character?
Does the author show us the story through one point of view or many? And why has he or she chosen to do privilege this particular point of view over any other?
Think about the language of the book. Is it simple or sophisticated? Ornate or blunt? Will it be understood by its intended readership? Are there words that a child won’t understand?
How are the characters introduced and brought to life? Are they described visually? Do you get an image in your mind when you’re reading about each of the characters? If so, where does that come from?
Dialogue is a vitally important part of any novel. Read the dialogue to yourself. Read it aloud. Does the dialogue seem realistic? Truthful? Can you imagine speaking the words yourself? Do different characters speak in different voices? Do they have accents?
What is the book about? Obviously this isn’t a simple question, but it’s still worth asking. Is the book trying to tell you something? Does it have a lesson? Or a moral? If so, do you think the author should have written a sermon or a speech, rather than a children’s book?
Has the author chosen the best format and medium to tell their story? How would it have been different if they had written a play, a song, or a poem instead?
Why is it a children’s book? Who is the intended readership? Just children? If so, what age? If not, then will the book be interesting and appealing to both children and adults? How? Why?
You will return to all these topics when you are writing your own book, perhaps not during the initial stages, but certainly when you come to edit and rewrite your work. If you can be critical and dispassionate about someone else’s book, then when the times comes, you will be able to apply the same skills to your own.
2. Decide on the age group that you’re writing for
You wouldn’t expect to go to a bookshop and find “novels for 30 year olds” in one section and “novels for 70 year olds” in another.
Books for adults are lumped together. Those 30 year olds and 70 year olds pick their books from the same shelves in shops and libraries. You would expect to find readers of different ages standing alongside one another, browsing, buying, reading, and discussing the same books.
Children’s books are different. As children grow up, they are expected to choose their books from very different shelves and sections in a bookshop. In a library, there will even be a professional, guiding children into the correct section, and steering children away from books which might be “unsuitable” or “difficult”.
There will probably be separate areas for board books (aimed at babies), picture books, early readers, middle-grade fiction, and YA novels (in other words novels aimed at Young Adults, which might mean anything from 12 year olds to 25 year olds).
This is worth thinking about. And looking at.
Visit lots of bookshops
Go to a bookshop and investigate the different age ranges of children’s books. When you come to publish your book, you will need to know what you’re writing and who it is aimed at. Where will your book end up? Which shelf? Which section?
Of course many books are bought online these days, but I would still highly recommend spending some time in good bookshops. You will usually find yourself among passionate readers who know an enormous amount about books.
I am obsessive about bookshops. When I’m travelling, I always visit bookshops, even if I can’t understand the language in which the books are written. I like looking at the displays, the way that books are organised in different shops, and particularly the way that bookshops set out their sections which are aimed at children. Are they trying to attract young readers? Or are they only interested in the people with the money, the people who are actually going to buying the books?
Does the bookshop have cushions or chairs, inviting customers to sit down and read a book? If so, are these chairs child-sized or adult-sized?
Does the bookseller know anything about children’s books? Do they have specific bookseller for their children’s section? If so, does that bookseller really know and care about children’s books?
You will soon discover which bookshops are knowledgeable and passionate about children’s books, and which aren’t. (All of them should be: children’s books currently account for a third of all book sales. If a bookshop wants to stay in business, they should be hoping to sell a lot of children’s books.)
Evaluate the books
Here is another useful test. Go to a good bookshop. Pick up a children’s book. Ask yourself what you can discern about the book without reading it.
How old is the reader of this book going to be? How do you know? What are the clues that tell you the age of the intended readership? The cover? The blurb? The size of the print? The number of illustrations? The age of the central characters?
There are, of course, exceptions to any rule. There are a picture books for teenagers and adults. There are novels for eight year olds full of complex sentences and unusual vocabulary. These books - these rule breakers - are often the most interesting. However, as people often say, it’s always best to know the rules before breaking them.
Test your interest by writing for one age group
You may know already that you want to write for one particular age group, rather than any other, but you may not. If you don’t, I’d suggest that the best way to find out is by doing it. Write a picture book text. Write a few chapters of a novel aimed at teenagers. See if you enjoy the process. Find out if you’re any good at it. Discover what feels right.
Eventually you will discover what you want to write and who you are writing for. You will find your own voice, the distinctive tone that makes your books, your prose, your poetry, different and distinctive and unmistakably your own.
3. Start writing
Now, we have reached a crunch point. The moment in the story when the hero knows there is no turning back. You are going to start writing your first book.
You have researched the market. You have read a lot of books. Now you need to start writing your own children’s book.
As you will have learnt from your repeated visits to bookshops, there are a huge number of children’s books being published at the moment. You’re probably feeling overwhelmed by the quantity and quality. But don’t be dispirited. Don’t give up. The number of children’s books simply shows that there is a large and eager audience of children who want wonderful books. If your book is good enough, then there will be thousands of readers who will gobble it up. Maybe millions!
You should also remember one very important fact. Your children’s book has one particular quality that isn’t shared by any other book on the planet. It is written by you.
Find your voice
When you start writing, it is easy, and perhaps even inevitable, that your words will sound as if they are written by someone else, probably one of your heroes, the writers whose books you have always loved and admired. Don’t worry about this. Pretty much everyone has the same experience.
Take time to find your voice. Don’t worry, you will. Eventually.
You can only do that by writing.
You will have decided on the rough age of your book’s readers. You will know whether you are going to write a picture book, an early reader, a novel for 8-12s, or a novel for teenagers. Now you need to think about a few other things.
What is your story going to be about?
You don’t need to know the answer to this. You could simply start writing and see where your imagination leads you. You may have nothing more in your mind than a question, or an atmosphere, or a child, standing at the beginning of an adventure. But as soon as you start writing, you will want to know the answer to three questions.
- Firstly, who is your central character?
- Secondly, what is your setting?
- Thirdly, where does your character go during the story? There are many, many different ways of answering these questions. I don’t want to suggest one particular way to you, because I don’t want to suggest that there is any single answer. Every writer finds their own answers to these questions. You can only discover them for yourself.
There are many, many different ways of answering these questions. I don’t want to suggest one particular way to you, because I don’t want to suggest that there is any single answer. Every writer finds their own answers to these questions. You can only discover them for yourself.
How do you create a character?
You might write about yourself, or your childhood, or your child. You might dig deeply into your imagination and pull out a pig, a dragon, or a wizard. You might choose to set the story in your back garden or a magical kingdom. These are your choices.
As a writer, you have absolute freedom. You have to pursue your own vision. I wouldn’t want to limit you in any way. And particularly when you’re writing the first draft of your story, you should go wild. Be free. Shrug off all restrictions. Break the bars of your cage. Write whatever you want.
Go! Start writing! See what happens next.
4. Finish a first draft
The initial inspiration for your story will probably be nothing more than a thought, a question, an image. You might find it anywhere. A dream. A sentence that wanders into your mind unexpectedly at four o’clock in the morning. A stray comment from a friend that sparks visions in your imagination. Or perhaps you’ll think of a brilliant title and want to write the book that fits it. Whatever your idea might be, now you need to write it down.
How long does it take to write a first draft?
If you’re writing a picture book, this might only take half an hour. The texts of most picture books are only a few hundred words, perhaps no more than two hundred or three hundred in total, so if you’re lucky, you could write an entire picture book in the time that it takes you to finish a cup of coffee.
Of course writing a good picture book will almost certainly take much longer than this. Writing a picture book text might take weeks, months, even years. If you’re writing a story in four hundred words, every one of those words has to pull its weight. Like a poem or a song, a picture book can’t have any wasted words, any flab, anything unnecessary.
But you might be able to write the first draft of a picture book text in a few minutes.
A chapter book or a YA novel will take a lot longer. Maybe a month, maybe a year.
But whatever you’re writing, I would advise you to do one thing: get to the end.
Keep writing your book until you can’t think of any way to improve it.
Don’t give up. Don’t despair. Even if you think it’s awful.
Just finish it.
Your book might be rubbish. In fact, it almost certainly will be rubbish, because first drafts usually are. But there’s a big difference between wanting to write a book and actually having written a book, even if only a first draft.
5. Edit your book
Leave your book alone for as long as you can. Don’t even take a peek.
When you’ve forgotten it, go back and read it.
You’ll almost certainly hate it. You’ll think it’s the worst thing that anyone has ever written. You won’t be able to believe how bad it is.
Perfect. Now sharpen your pencil. This is the moment to start editing.
Write your book again. And again and again and again.
Very slowly it will get better.
Keep writing until you can’t think of any way to improve it.
What to look for when you’re editing?
Think about the characters
Are the characters interesting? Is each of them alive? Does every character have his or her own narrative and motivation and reason for being in the story? Can you imagine them walking out of the book and into your life?
Think about the plot
We live in an age of short attention spans, so we’re used to being grabbed by a story very quickly. Children are no different. Like you and me, they will throw aside a book or TV show if it doesn’t snare their attention pretty much immediately. Does your story grab the reader with the first sentence? And the first page? And the second page? If not, why not?
Think about the structure
Every story has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Think about the beginning, a middle, and an ending of your story. Does it begin in a way which is gripping and thrilling? Does it have a satisfying ending? And will the reader stay with you through the middle?
You might find it useful to think about your story in terms of a three act structure. You will probably find that you have already instinctively written your story in this way, because these structures are so prevalent in Hollywood movies that we have started to think about all stories as if they have a three act structure. It’s worth knowing about the Hollywood story structure, so you can use it or reject it. It’s described in lots of books and online.
Think about the language of your story
Consider the way you have chosen to write your book. Can you justify every word? I would recommend reading your book aloud. Not necessarily to an audience (although that would be great if you can persuade anyone to sit still for long enough). Read it aloud to yourself. Particularly the dialogue, but preferably the whole book. You’ll soon hear which parts aren’t working.
6. Learn from other writers
Here is a common question often asked by people who have just written their first children’s book: “My book is aimed at children. Should I ask a child to read it?”
And here is a common statement often spoken by people who have just written their first children’s book: “My son/daughter/grandson/granddaughter/nephew/niece/next-door neighbour’s kid has read my book and they loved it!”
It’s very difficult to read a book with a critical eye. It’s even more difficult to analyse your own thoughts and feelings about a book and discuss them honestly with its writer. Most adults can’t do that. Most children can’t either.
Instead ask another writer to help. Seek their advice. Maybe you could read their book in exchange and offer your own thoughts.
I teach a workshop at City Lit in which a group of writers come together once a week to read, analyse, and discuss one another’s work. The process can be nerve-wracking, but it is also exciting, liberating, and extremely useful.
You will be surprised at how much you learn from the sensitive reading and astute questioning of other people who are also writing children’s books. They are obsessed with their craft too. They are struggling with the same problems. They might be able to suggest useful books to read. They will be able to see things that you have missed.
If you are anywhere near City Lit, please do come and join us. If you are not nearby, then City Lit also has many online writing courses which you can join from anywhere in the world. Or you could find a workshop or a writers’ group near where you live. Share your work with your fellow writers. You’ll learn a huge amount from reading their work and having them read yours.
Then go back to your book and keep writing, editing, improving.
7. What to do when your book is finished?
How do you know when your book is finished? You don’t. And perhaps no book is ever finished; perhaps a writer just reaches a stage when they can’t bear to keep working, or can’t see any more improvements, or simply need to get on with something else.
When you do eventually decide that your book is finished, you can think about getting your book published, or publishing it yourself. That’s a whole different subject, and I’m not going to cover it here. However, I would like to deal with the few questions about publication which are specifically relevant to children’s books.
The best children’s books usually have some illustrations, illuminating and complementing the text, and authors often want to know about the extent of their own involvement in the process.
Who will illustrate your book? Do you need to find an illustrator yourself? Should you pay them? And if so, how much?
If you’re an artist yourself, then you should, of course, do your own illustrations. You can take children’s book illustration course at City Lit to help sharpen your skills. If you don’t think that you’re the best person to illustrate your book; you may decide that someone else would do a better job.
If you’re intending to publish the book yourself, then you will need to find and pay an illustrator.
If your book is going to be published by a traditional publisher, rather than self-published, then you do not need an illustrator, and you certainly shouldn’t pay anyone to do any illustrations. Your publisher will deal with the illustrations - and choose an illustrator - just as they will deal with the design of the book, and every other part of the publication process.
How to find a publisher and/or agent
This is a complex topic, which I do not have the space to cover here.
If you want to discover more about finding an agent and a publisher, I would suggest you buy or borrow a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which has the contact details that you will need. You will find information about all reputable publishers and agents. You will also find useful warnings and advice.
Perhaps you will choose to publish the book yourself. There are certainly many advantages to self-publishing. You keep control of the whole process. You also get to keep a much higher percentage of the profits.
However, there are many advantages to having a traditional publisher:
- they will have expertise in every aspect of the publishing business;
- they will edit and copy-edit your book; they will know how to sell your book;
- they will have contacts among bookshops and libraries;
- they will know all about publicity and marketing;
- they will have full time employees dealing with every aspect of the business.
Get a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. Investigate the alternatives. Make a choice.
What should you do when you have written your first children’s book?
The answer is very simple: write your second. And then write your third.
Any writer needs to practice their craft. Each book that you write will (almost certainly) be better than the previous one.
If you talk to most published writers, you will soon discover that their first published book was not the first book that they wrote. It might not have been the second, third, or fourth either. Practice, practice, practice!
If you’re interested in writing a children’s book, City Lit has a wide range of writing for children courses, suitable for anyone from beginners who haven’t previously written a word to experienced writers who want to workshop and discuss their stories with other writers.
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