Learning how to write a children’s book involves a number of steps. It’s more than just writing out a story idea and drawing pictures…
Have you written a book for children that has been rejected by agents and publishers over and over? Or do you have a page full of kids’ writing prompts or book ideas but no idea what to do with them?
If you’re like me, this has made you wonder if you’re good enough, smart enough, talented enough, or just plain enough for this writing and publishing for kids gig…
I’ve met my fair share of authors who’ve been swindled by hybrid publishers or spent years investing time, money, and energy into an industry that has given them little in return.
Never fear! We are here to help you!
Here are the steps for how to write a children’s book:
- Determine who you’re writing for
- Learn what makes a good children’s book
- Read a lot of children’s books
- Flesh out your own book idea
- Outline your children’s book
- Narrow the details
- Write your children’s book!
- Re-read and revise your first draft
- Get your book edited
- Find a children’s book illustrator
- Celebrate writing a children’s book!
What is a Children’s Book?
Children’s books are everything from Young Adult down to board books for your teething kiddo, however, a book is considered a children’s book when it’s intended for an audience between 0-8 years old.
But there are a wide variety of standards and skill between these opposite ends.
For example, books for young adults are full of detail, world-building, plots and subplots, setting creation, and strong character development, with no pictures, for thousands of words.
Picture books, on the other hand, serve our 0 to 8-year-old audience and have very few words, lots of pictures, simple plots but intense engagement.
For our purposes here, let’s think Early Reader down to Mom-or-Dad-reads-it-to-you. Everything else is essentially novel writing for an older child audience.
Why write a children’s book?
Here are some of the wrong reasons to write a children’s book:
- “I’m retired now and want to make a livable wage doing something easy.”
- “Children’s books are short so I know they’re easy to write and fast to the money.”
- “I want to write but I’m not sure what. Kids don’t expect much so I’ll write for them.”
- “There are some awful children’s books out there. I know I can do at least that well.”
Here are some of the right reasons to publish a children’s book:
- “Children are the present and future of our world. I really want to impact them.”
- “I want to make writing for kids my business and have a plan to write many books.”
- “I LOVE children’s books (even though I’m an adult) and want to write them so much, that I’m willing to learn how to write well in order to exceed their expectations.”
- “There are some awful children’s books out there. I want to improve the quality of children’s literature to give kids a better reading experience.”
The reality is, children’s books are the most difficult type of literature to write and produce.
You have to engage an adult audience (the people who hand over the money and are likely to be the one reading your book Every. Single. Day.) but you also have to engage the children, who will beg their money-wielding parent to buy the book and read it to them Every. Single. Day.
Additionally, you only have zero to 700 words to communicate an entire story, with inciting incident, climactic moment, and final resolution, to the full satisfaction of both adult and child—much like when writing short stories. On repeat.
Children’s Books Are on the Rise
The good news is that children’s book sales are on the rise. According to a 2017 article in Publisher’s Weekly, children’s books have become a centerpiece for many traditional publishers because the increase has surpassed those of every other book genre counterpart.
Between 2012 and 2017 children’s book sales doubled, with a trajectory to continue increasing.
In 2018, 31 out of the UK’s 100 bestselling books were children’s books. That’s a huge percentage!
If I’m honest, I didn’t enter the children’s industry for the “right” reasons. I have always been a writer and was finally ready to pursue that professionally.
So, in 2007, I began the hunt toward publishing. Self-publishing was nearly unheard of and I knew enough about traditional publishing to know that who you know matters as much as the quality of your work.
What I learned Writing Children’s Books
Before we teach you how to write a children’s book, it’s important to understand a few key things I wish I knew when I got started.
Here’s what I learned writing a children’s book:
- The children’s industry is highly competitive. So even though sales are on the rise, so are people writing and publishing them.
- Books that thrive in the industry are extremely well written and well marketed.
- It takes time to study the craft of writing for children well and of marketing and selling your book well. Thus, it also takes time to make money.
- Self-publishing children’s books is a totally viable and profitable way to produce your stories. From conversations I’ve had, I learned that I make more money per book sold than my traditionally published counterparts, have to do the same level of marketing as they do, have more creative control, and can get my book out in three months instead of one to two years. (I have many friends in the traditional industry and I love their contribution to market research and high-quality value. Together, we partner to impact children.)
- Writing for children is the best. Fan mail for kids? Nothing else like it. Experiencing the giggles and gasps of kids who are caught up in your words is life-giving. And knowing that your story is a safe space, gives kids permission to be uniquely them, and passes on important life skills to our upcoming generation is among the highest of honors.
With time and practice, I learned how to set my expectations correctly, develop a writing habit, and produce high quality, professional, and engaging children’s books.
If, after reading the right reasons to write a book for children, you realized this is YOU, then stick with me a bit longer and I’ll walk you through some standard first steps.
If, after reading the wrong reasons to write a book for children, you realized this is YOU, then consider writing a book for adults. We have some great resources on how to determine what you should write, starting with something that gets you excited, that you can write quickly, and that you can write easily.
For the rest of you, there are a number of standards and steps to get you going on writing your first children’s book.
How to Write a Children’s Book Step by Step
We’ve broken down the steps for writing children’s books with a strategy that works.
#1 – Determine your children’s book’s audience
Everything about how you start your book: your story idea, book layout, page count, number of illustrations, and depth of the plot depend on who you are writing for.
A picture book, for example, is normally ready aloud by an adult. The child is captivated by full spreads of illustration and relies almost entirely on listening to the story.
Language can be a little more developed, poetic, and nuanced since the book is as much for the reading adult as it is for the child. Early chapter books, on the other hand, are for the older budding reader who still relies on some artwork while gaining vocabulary.
If you don’t know the age and stage of the child you’re writing for, you might lose their interest. The following is a guide for your book according to age group.
Determine What You’re Writing:
Children’s books length varies depending on the age group you want to write for and the detail of the story you want to tell.
If you want to write for children 0 – 4 years old, then you’re most likely writing a board book or a very simple, short concept book.
These books often teach children their colors or how to count or demonstrate a routine like bath time or bedtime, in 0 – 100 words.
Children ages 3 – 8 love picture books. These are stories 0 – 700 words (1000 at the most) that use full page images to tell a story.
These books are often read aloud to children by an adult. Picture books rely in part on the quality of the story as told through text and the work of the illustration to communicate the story. With so few words, picture books must be compelling and tell a complete story, meaning that every word must be purposeful in moving the story forward.
Early Readers are short chapter books aimed at 5 – 7 year-olds and range from 200 – 5000 words. This youngest chapter book is designed for kiddos who see big kids reading chapter books and really want to read them, too.
However, these kids are still developing reading skills and need simple language because they are reading it solo. Chapters are short so kids can feel successful as they make their way through such a “big” book. These are most popular in the educational market as a bridge for younger readers between picture books and chapter books.
Here’s a handy table for an easier overview:
|Children's Age||Book Length|
|0 - 4 years old||0 - 100 words|
|3 - 8 years old||0 - 700 words|
|5 - 7 years old||200 - 5000 words
|6 - 7 years old||5000 - 20,000 words|
|8 - 10 years old||20,000 - 35,000 words|
|Tweens||40,000 - 55,000 words
|Young Adult||50,000 - 70,000|
Naturally, as age of target child increases, word count increases, and the depth of the plot increases as well. These books include illustrations, in lesser measure as the word count increases, stopping around Middle Grade.
This is a great resource for determining what you want to write (and for whom). This article was written primarily for writers in the traditional industry but is a great standard for us as well.
#2 – Know What Makes a Good Children’s Book
Children’s books are unique in the sense that their lesson and what children learn are so very important, but you also have to create this in a way that holds their attention.
Here are some criteria for writing a good children’s book:
- It has an important lesson
- The story is easy to follow for your chosen age-range
- The illustrations are high-quality and professional
- It’s relatable to a wide range of children
- It can entertain adults at the same time
Using these criteria can help you structure your story, create a better story setting, and ensure you’re hitting the milestones needed for a good children’s book.
#3 – Read LOTS of books in your category
There are many different genres to choose from when writing for children and the best way to write them well is to read them often.
The following are a sampling of the options:
- Realistic Fiction: Made up stories that could happen today in real life (but didn’t).
- Historical Fiction: Made up stories based on actual historical events.
- Biography: A story like this, or a memoir, is based on the life of a real person.
- Fantasy: Made up stories that involve ideas that don’t happen in real life.
- Science Fiction: Made up stories that generally aren’t plausible and are normally set in the future involving some level of science and technology.
- Poetry: Writing poetry is telling stories told in verse, rhyming or not, mean to communicate in such a way as to evoke emotion.
- Non Fiction: True stories that are informational (to teach facts) or based on actual real-life stories.
- Folklore: These are the stories, often told orally first, that represent our history, our culture, our stories, myths, legends, nursery rhymes, songs of the past, and even some passed on fairy tales. These are often retold since we don’t know the original author.
Reading books in your genre can help you understand the story structure that works, including how to start your story, the maturity of the content for your intended audience, and more.
#4 – Come up with a children’s book idea
Children’s story ideas can be silly, deep, inspiring, hilarious, zany, serious, and straight up weird. They can make you laugh, cry, gasp, squeal, giggle and guffaw.
Ideas like these come from so many places: the kids around you (eavesdrop on ‘em, it’s great), adults around you (eavesdropping actually goes a long way as a writer), nature, books, movies, newspaper articles, youtube videos, animals… be an observer and you’ll find ideas everywhere!
Here are a few of my favorites places to come up with children’s book ideas:
- Fractured Fairy Tales: Take a commonly known myth or legend and retell it in a new and creative way. Think “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” (as told by the wolf), Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, or my very own book, Tercules. I took the legend of Hercules, combined him with a wild turkey chick, and voila.
- Unlikely Characters and Settings: Speaking of Tercules, another great place to get ideas is by throwing together two very unlikely characters and dropping them in an unlikely setting. Shark versus Train is a great example of this.
- Putting Characters in Child-like Settings and Circumstances: Some book ideas are life skills we want to teach our kids in creative ways. The Princess and the Potty worked magic with my daughter. Or Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten?, illustrated by my friend, Daniel. Taking a unique character and putting them in the position of a child will help kids catch all sorts of great life skills. Or on a more serious note, my own Speranza’s Sweater: A Child’s Journey Through Foster Care and Adoption, gives children permission to experience the many conflicting feelings of adoption through the lens of Speranza. Our own SPS coach, Jed Jurchenko, also does this with his recent release, The Stormy Secret, helping kids navigate the safe places to share secrets imposed on them.
#5 – Outline the Story
Once you have an idea, start laying it out in a book format. Yes, this is essentially outlining. Depending on the book category and genre, this outline will look different. For a picture book, the story will be, on average, 28 pages of story.
Create a book dummy and fill in the pages with your idea. (To make a book dummy, take 16 pages of regular paper and fold them together in half to make a small booklet.
This should create a 32 page “book.” The first few pages are your title page and copyright page, 28 pages of story, and then any end matter you’d like to include, like “About the Author” or an author’s note.
Use this book dummy to layout your scenes and choose where in your story you want the page to turn.
If you’re writing a chapter book, make sure to outline the entire story with the five important milestones of a strong plotline, as well as the individual chapters. If you’re more of a pantzer, writing by the seat of your pants, then at the very least have a framework for your story so you don’t get lost on rabbit trails.
If you get lost, your readers will too.
#6 – Nail Down the Details
Choose whether you’ll write the book in poetry or prose, first person or third person, past tense or present tense.
Use other books in your genre to guide you as a standard.
If you choose to write in poetry, be aware that if you can’t do it perfectly, you really shouldn’t do it at all. Writing poetry is much more than rhyming words. It’s meter. Rhythm. Timing. Pacing.
If one of these is off, it throws your reader off and discredits your book and your storytelling skills. If it can be told just as well in prose, do it. If you have mastered poetry, do it.
#7 – Write that first draft!
Don’t stress the details, just get the story down.
One of the biggest hangups preventing all authors from being successful is finishing writing a book.
If you can accomplish this, you’re further along in the process than most other writers you never get past the idea phase.
Here are a few tips to finish your draft:
- Schedule writing time
- Get an accountability partner for external motivation
- Set a deadline
- Get rid of distractions while writing
- Focus on just FINISHING, no editing along the way
#8 – Re-read and revise your first draft
Do you have enough words? Too many words? Add or cut as necessary.
Does your story make sense? Are there plot holes you need to address? Did you break any of the “rules”? If so, why? If not, why?
Tighten up your draft.
This self-editing process can take a while, but you’ll feel better sending a cleaner, tighter manuscript to the editor because it can only get even better from there.
#9 – Get a critique and/or an edit.
Getting a book critique gives you a chance to get a children’s book professional’s feedback on the marketability of your book, the content of your book, and to address any grammatical issues.
No matter how well you think you’ve nailed grammar or understand a child’s brain, your set of eyes alone will never be sufficient for a perfect draft.
I’m a seasoned writer and editor and I still don’t trust myself to catch every grammatical issue or plot hole. Invite a professional to give you content feedback as well as outside eyes on your grammar and syntax.
But not just any professional! Make sure they have strong experience in the children’s writing industry and credibility to back up their work.
Editing for children’s book is not the same as editing for books for adults.
Trust me, I do both. Consider the editors feedback and make any necessary changes. Stay true to your voice and your story while honoring the tradition of literature and writing quality books.
#10 – Find a children’s book illustrator
This is the most fun part! Your book will now come to life in the hands of someone amazing.
The illustration in your book are extremely important. You have to think about which style you want and find someone who can bring that to life.
Here are a few places you can find a children’s book illustrator:
- Google search for “children’s book illustrator”
- Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators
P.S. — Do you know any great children’s book illustrators? Drop their names in comments below so we can check them out!
#10 – Celebrate!
This is huge! These words you’ve been pouring over are about to be read by children!
You did it!