Believe it or not I have written, or rather heavily edited, several children’s books. They were early drafts of stories that later came out under a different title and were changed up a bit but it wouldn’t have started without my getting the gears in motion. In fact, I just happened to get my hands on them first so when I say no one could have even deciphered them if I hadn’t rewritten them, it’s true, not bragging, and it also goes to show you that this is very much the world of publishing and not something that’s just for fun and games. The market is very very tough! Seems that every mom and celebrity has a children’s book they want to write and a moral they want to tell. I thought I could quickly share some of the points I learned along the way.
Though you’re not writing a novel, it’s still hard work. Sure, there are fewer words. But those words need to be the right words! Kids don’t skim books the way adults do. They pay attention and they need things to be “spelled out” for them so the words you use are instrumental to the book’s success. Here are some practical pointers to start:
A standard children’s picture book is 32 pages. The front matter (title page, dedication, copyright) takes up several pages so the actual text usually begins on page 5 or 7. This leaves you with 25-28 pages to tell your story.
Think about the illustrations – A children’s picture book needs to strike a balance between the text and the illustrations. The text should be able to be divided up evenly, with a fairly equal amount of text on each page. Each page, or each double page spread, has a sentence or two or a paragraph. Each of these sentences or paragraphs must lend themselves to an illustration, and so your text should provide a variety of scenes, characters, or actions. You could think of this as writing captions/outlines for the (not-yet-drawn) pictures. However, these captions/outlines must flow, as with any other well-written story, with an intriguing beginning, a rousing middle, and a good, satisfying ending. I contacted a high school friend who was a illustrator’s agent and we paid a few hundred dollars to have a mock-up the main character drawn. It was helpful because it gave us an idea of who we were talking about, who was talking and so on. As time went on that character changed but many of the supporting characters didn’t and we had early mockups of them as well. Of course, you don’t have to have it done professionally, but it helps to have a picture of your characters in front of you as you write in some capacity even if it’s a stand-in off an image gallery online.
Page turns – Each picture book page should make the reader wonder, “What will happen next?” and want to turn the page. This is very much like writing for adults in any form – book, screenplay, etc… just an audience whose attention span is a lot shorter, so make it good!
Dummy it up – I read this in a book and started to prepare it before I stopped finished working on the project. I found it helpful to edit the pieces and get the project in proper order to get to a publisher. I took a photo album, and numbered it from page 1 to 32. I skipped to page 5 to start inserting the text. I divided the text evenly from page 5 to page 32, then visualized a scene for each page. If I couldn’t find the right picture for the page I kept working the text, editing it, finding the right beat, until it became clear.
Word choice – So important in children’s books. Not only because you are teaching words along the way but because there are fewer words and they have to pack more punch! With so few words to develop a setting, character, and plot, each word really counts! There is little need for visual description – most of that will be done by the illustrator. Choose words that are vivid, words with action, feeling, and words that are pleasing to the ear. When I was pregnant with my son I read aloud to him every night. I read him grown-up books but he is great with words now and I believe it had a part. I feel as though the beauty of the words I read to him have been imbedded in his mind and he already knows them a bit. For kids, even more so than for adults, words are important so choose wisely and with delicate care.
Also when editing the stories, I wanted to make sure there was a definite rhythm to the words in the sentences and the ones spoken. I worked hard to make sure there was rhythm, alliteration, repetition, onomatopoeia, similes, rhymes, and word play where there wasn’t already with the original text. I made sure the words were musical, with a little dance of their own. And I made sure they sounded like the character I was
creating editing. The rhythm for the main character was different from that of her playmate for the first story or Grandmother for the third. I spent a lot of time reading out loud so I could hear the beats.
Characters – Give main characters one dominant trait. As in all good stories, main characters need to solve their problems on their own. Good stories emerge from character.
Plots & Themes – A good children’s book plot, like a short story, builds to a climax. Within the plot there needs to be, especially for children’s book, a strong, universal theme. What does your story say? Is there a subtle (not preachy!), underlying message? Ideally, children’s books give us something big, something of value to take away with us. I was proud to work on the stories I did because each did have a good strong moral and they were cleverly constructed within the story. Sometimes it was too obvious and needed to be filled in a bit with character to create a bit of mystery, other times they were not obvious enough or too mature for the reader and needed to be ‘dumbed down’. Either way, the idea of creating a world for children that they read in their room and which brings them joy and enhances their imagination is great fun. It was hard work but it was a success as well. Unfortunately, my favorite one got scrapped for legal reasons (that’s a whole other part of this blog post) but they were clever and so props to the author(s).
There are some great books on selling and presenting children’s books to publishers. The ones I was dealing with were celebrity written so there was an added easiness in selling them and no one had to go through the rigmarole of actually going down each children’s book publisher and editor path. I will leave that to a professional book to help you there. But I hope the above will be a good start and get you to a place where the editor says yes!