Writing a Children’s Book For Dummies

So I’ve decided to write a children’s book about a girl with an imaginary friend. How hard could that be? I mean it’s just lots of pictures with a couple words on each page, right? Right?

“Hold up, Soph…”, you may be thinking. “Why are you wasting your time trying to be Dr. Seuss for a project at a distinguished university? You’re almost 21 and you can’t draw… What’s the deal?”

Well, inner voice, we read children’s books during very formative years to learn our morals and life lessons. “Be nice”. “Share”. “Don’t lie”. Isn’t is ironic that when you reread those statements, you realize that those same lessons are skills we grapple with as adults?

Some classic children’s books that I remember fondly.

So in some way, children’s books are still a relevant genre for me as I navigate early adulthood and all the lesson that come with it.

After a very intensively researched, painstakingly curated, and exceptionally credible Google search I performed, here’s what I learned:

  1. There are many kinds of children’s books based on reading ability. Am I going to write a picture book, chapter book, interactive book? Well this handy little chart will help me out.
As someone who is not a self-professed arTEEST, I might want to stick to fewer pictures…

2. Pick a writing style and stick with it. Rhyming? First or third person? Past or present? I’d better figure it out.

3. Unforgettable characters. The Cat in the Hat. Curious George. The Very Hungry Caterpillar. My character needs to be up there with the legends.

4. Suspenseful action and hook. While I might not need Jason Bourne-level action, kids have a short attention span and need the enough plot development to keep them engaged and not picking their noses.

5. Realistic Dialogue. The disconnect between the rhetoric and existential dilemma of the protagonist necessitates prose that fosters empathy betwixt the author and the consumer. Read: NOT CHILD FRIENDLY LANGUAGE

6. Storyline. Jack and Jill sat, then they went for a chat, then Jack bought a hat, and Jill turned into a cat. The end.

7. Instant Recall. If the child can remember that Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water before Jack fell down and broke his crown, then my story isn’t as memorable as I thought it was.

I was also reminded of some pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Preachiness: Their mom is already telling them not to burp at the dinner table. They don’t want a book that tells them the same thing.
  2. Stereotypes: Not all children are alike. Sure, that’s obvious. Jack can play with dolls and Jill can get messy in the mud.
  3. Point of View: Keep it simple. If Jill is telling the story, don’t bring Miss Frizzle’s inner dialogue into the mix. We don’t need Inception-level complication.
  4. Lack of Suspense: I think this is important enough to reiterate because every one of the sources I found harped on how easily kids get bored. Especially in the age of iPads!

Oh, lastly, apparently these books, despite their “less is more” word philosophy, take a long time to write. The quote that popped up in a bunch of my sources over and over again by acclaimed author/illustrator Mem Fox says that “Writing for children is like writing “War and Peace,” in haiku.”

If this is the case, I better brush up on my Leo Tolstoy…

3 thoughts to “Writing a Children’s Book For Dummies”

  1. I love the bold move to write a children’s book as a college student! I think this will add a completely new perspective to a genre that your audience probably hasn’t read in awhile, giving you the chance to bend its genre rules a little.

  2. This post was very engaging, and also accurately describes the conventions of short stories! I sometimes forget that there are writing conventions and strategies specifically used to appeal to young children.

  3. I know you said you were worried that this post doesn’t give enough information about the genre (like the hard facts), but I feel like I learned a lot about what many children’s books typically have and what sets them apart from other genres. You’re funny and real by saying that you don’t know how your going to write parts of the book or wanting your characters to be legends- all things that make me super engaged in this post and excited to see what kind of legendary characters you create!

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