Writing for Children

17 Jun

A Guest Post by Hayleigh Bird

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Many people think that writing fiction for children must be much easier than trying to write a novel for adults. But the truth is that less words does not equal less complicated. Writing for children presents many challenges that don’t exist when writing for adults.

One of the main challenges in writing for children is that you are writing for an entirely different audience than the one you exist in. When writing for adults, you can constantly evaluate your work based on whether you would enjoy it, or the people you know would enjoy it. When you’re writing for children, you can’t base it off of what you would enjoy. Kids see the world differently. Even their fundamental value system is completely different than that of an adult. When writing for children, you can never lose sight of who your target audience really is. Even if you think something is funny, that doesn’t mean a kid will think it’s funny.

So how do you remedy this? Hang out with kids. The more time you spend with kids, the more you’ll come to understand what they find funny, what scares them, what interests them, etc. I am not suggesting you go to the playground and take notes (that might get you arrested). Do you have cousins? Nieces? Friends with kids? Do you like volunteering? There are lots of volunteer opportunities that involve hanging out with super cool kids AND giving back to the community (bonus).

Another challenge specific to writing for children is that in many cases, you are actually writing for two audiences; the parent and the child. While the child must be engaged and interested by the book, often it is the parent who is purchasing the book. This becomes especially relevant for picture books. Picture book authors are tasked with coming up with stories that interest both parent and child, a feat that is by no means easy.

Scaredy Squirrel - a great children's book!

That being said, writing something that engages parent and child alike is possible. And if you can master that, it will undoubtedly bring you success. Take your cues from books like Scaredy Squirrel, and movies like Shrek. They deal with concepts and ideas that are recognizable to parents as funny, but present them a way that make them accessible to kids. There is no sure-fire way to achieve this but always keep both audiences in mind. A good tactic is to do what I call “throwing the parent a bone”. This means that you can include sentences or bits that won’t be lost on a child (ie. they will still understand what it going on) but that are more directed at engaging the parent.

Shrek!

A final (and major) challenge in writing for children is knowing which age group you are writing for. Kids grow and learn at a rapid rate, and the vocabulary, sentence structure, and literary devices they are capable of understanding change as they develop. There is a big difference between writing something for a six year old kid and writing something for a ten year old kid. Your editor will undoubtedly help you with this, but you’ll find more success at getting your manuscript accepted if you have a clear idea of what age group you are writing for, and what they are capable of understanding before you begin.

In general, picture books can be made for ages 0-3 (board books and very simple/repetitive type books), and ages 3-6 (more complex picture books with more writing per page). When writing a picture book it is important to note that the parent is generally reading it out loud, so words can be somewhat complex in terms of spelling, but should still be a part of that age-group’s vocabulary.

At about age seven or eight, kids become capable of reading simple chapter books. These books contain simple and short sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Generally these books are a child’s first attempt at reading on their own, and as such they are almost even simpler than a picture book. The child needs to be able to get through it without constantly asking a parent or teacher to explain. When writing for this age group, keep in mind that things like flashbacks or disjointed scenes will confuse readers. Literary techniques like foreshadowing and allusion will be lost on readers this young, so it is much more useful to spend your time being direct and to the point. You will need to do a lot of repeating, especially when it comes to who is speaking or thinking. Too many pronouns will confuse young readers.

Around age 11 or 12, a child becomes capable of reading more complex stories and longer chapter books. Sentences can become longer as kids this age are capable of putting together the thoughts in a compound sentence without going back and rereading the first part. Many readers in this age group are already reading ahead to YA/teen fiction, so the majority of books produced specifically for 11-13 year olds is geared at getting reluctant readers interested in books. That means that a lot of these books are not too complex in terms of reading level and vocabulary, but are “high concept”, meaning more complex terms of content and plot.

There are a few other things to keep in mind when writing for children:

Don’t include a “lesson” or “moral”. Tales of morality or stories that are written specifically to teach a lesson are awful. They are uninteresting, preachy, and nobody will want to read them, let alone buy them. Publishers will throw your manuscript out the second they sense that you are trying to teach a lesson. In fact, most children’s publishers explicitly state this on the submissions portion of their website. It is an un-breakable rule. Note: it is perfectly okay if in the end, your already interesting/stand alone story *happens* to convey some sort of message. It just should not be the underlying premise of your story. Kids are smarter than you think, and pick up on it quite easily when the “moral” of the story is presiding over the actual plot.

Speaking of submission guidelines, as with any publisher, children’s publishers are very strict about their submission guidelines. There are many children’s publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts, so it’s not necessary to find an agent for your manuscript, so long as you submit it to the right publishers and follow all the guidelines, usually listed on their website. For example, many people are tempted to writing rhyming picture books, but the fact of the matter is that most major publishers don’t publish rhyming picture books due to being unable to sell foreign rights (rhymes don’t translate). As such, many children’s publishers explicitly state not to send them rhyming poetry. These submission guidelines are not flexible and if your manuscript doesn’t follow them, it will get tossed in the garbage.

My last piece of advice to you is to tell your story to a kid. Kids are honest critics and you’ll know right away whether you have a winner or a stinker. Best of luck on your writing endeavours; and if you have questions about writing for children, or publishing for children, please comment!

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Hayleigh Bird is a children’s book fanatic and enthusiast. She works in the children’s publishing arena as a sales assistant at Kids Can Press, and is currently working on several manuscripts for children and young adults. You can find her on twitter and on her comedic blog, Peculiar Amusement.

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21 Responses to “Writing for Children”

  1. pamela wilson June 17, 2010 at 1:19 AM #

    Great post. So succinct. So true. I really enjoyed it.
    cheers,
    Pam

  2. Vanessa June 17, 2010 at 8:56 AM #

    Hayleigh, I’m so glad you were able to guest blog for us!!

    I love that you went through all the different age groups, and what works (and doesn’t work!) for them. Knowing your market is the best thing to do before you start writing!

  3. svonnah June 17, 2010 at 8:58 AM #

    Thanks for guest posting for us Hayleigh! I don’t know anything about children’s publishing or writing for books, and this was a lovely intro.

  4. junebugger June 17, 2010 at 12:02 PM #

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us all! I guess I now understand a bit more why children lit authors get so annoyed when people say, as if it’s the easiest thing in the word: “Oh….ho hum, maybe I’ll write a children’s book too!” I never realized how much went behind these books. And I’ll be able to appreciate them more thanks to this article. My university actually has a course on Children lit!

    • Vanessa June 17, 2010 at 10:39 PM #

      Children’s lit classes are always so interesting!

      And yeah, it’s funny how many people think that writing for kids is easy!

  5. svonnah June 17, 2010 at 12:11 PM #

    Are there different standards in query letters for children’s and picture books?

    How does someone write a book that is meant to be illustrated without havinga an illustrator, or do writers typically partner with illustratiors before hand?

    • hayleighbird June 17, 2010 at 12:38 PM #

      Hi Savannah!

      Since there are so many children’s publishers that do accept unsolicited manuscripts, querying agents isn’t as necessary as it is if you’ve got a novel for young adults, or adults.

      In terms of submitting directly to a publisher, 99% of them state in their submission guidelines that you should NOT submit your original artwork with your manuscript. This also includes submitting a partner’s illustrations with your manuscript. Unfortunately, as a first time author, you don’t have much (or any) say in who will illustrate your manuscript.

      As you develop a relationship with your publisher, you will have more and more say in terms of the art and illustrator, but until then, you are (for the most part) limited to what they want to do with it.

      This can make writing a picture book tricky, because you will undoubtedly have an illustration style in mind. The best advice I can give you is to illustrate with your words (make them expressive and evocative). And look forward to seeing how someone else will interpret the visuals of your story!

      Hopefully that answered your questions! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  6. Biljana June 17, 2010 at 12:44 PM #

    Thanks for the guest post! 🙂 I remember actually trying to write something geared towards children but then giving up because it was too hard. And I was being a touch lazy :P. But this post makes me want to try again.

    Similar question to Savannah’s about illustrated book; is it possible to successfully pitch the plot of a picture book to a publisher without having any pictures to go with it?

    • hayleighbird June 17, 2010 at 2:02 PM #

      Hi Biljana!

      It is definitely possible to successfully pitch the plot of a picture book to a publisher without having any pictures to go with it. In fact, that is the way the majority of manuscripts get accepted.

      That being said, it is definitely much easier to break in to the children’s publishing world by being an artist first, and a writer second. Most publishers accept (and encourage) art submissions as they are always looking for good illustrators. After a publisher commissions art from you, they are likely to also listen to story ideas and pitches of yours as well.

  7. Marina June 17, 2010 at 3:40 PM #

    I know just what you mean when you say they’re hard to write. We had an assignment like this in my High School creative writing class, and I thought it was going to be a breeze! Boy, was I wrong. It’s so hard not to get long winded and get to the point. Being simple is the hardest thing to do it seems! Kind of like actually thinking what 2+2 is after just finishing a complex equation. It’s hard
    ! I kind of wish I had this advice then.

    • Vanessa June 17, 2010 at 10:42 PM #

      Simple IS hard! When I was in school for English lit, we always had to write essays in a simple, and to-the-point way. And it was always difficult for me! Proof that simple isn’t easy at all!

      Plus, what we think of as simple might be complex for kids. And yet, sometimes we baby kids too much, and they get annoyed at how we talk down to them. It’s a difficult balance!

  8. Gabriela da Silva June 17, 2010 at 5:33 PM #

    This was such an interesting post! I’ve been trying my hand at picture books (with the help of a painter friend) and while I’ve really liked it, it’s so much more difficult than I imagined it’d be. You’re totally right – hanging with kids helps wonders, but they grow up so fast I feel like I’ll never have enough time to get what they like.

    Really good read, thank you!

    • Vanessa June 17, 2010 at 10:43 PM #

      I tried writing a picture book… and it was absolutely terrible! :p So yeah, definitely hard!

  9. Sammy June 17, 2010 at 7:26 PM #

    Thanks for an awesome guest post, Hayleigh! Really informative. Honestly, I know jack about children’s books or that side of publishing, so this was really interesting for me to read.

    It also made me 100% positive I could never write one :-p I’m too much of a description whore to be succinct and to the point, haha. But I passed this article along to a friend of mine who’s a great illustrator and writer. I hope she gets as much use from it as I did!

  10. hayleighbird June 17, 2010 at 8:42 PM #

    Thanks for the comments! I am glad you all found the blog interesting and helpful. I love children’s publishing and could talk about it for hours…

    • Vanessa June 17, 2010 at 10:45 PM #

      I’m just happy that you mentioned Scaredy Squirrel! ❤ haha

  11. Julie Eshbaugh June 17, 2010 at 11:22 PM #

    Hey Hayleigh! This is such a great post; thank you so much for your insights! You covered SO MUCH that I think a lot of us writers *raises hand* have been afraid to ask. 🙂

    • hayleighbird June 18, 2010 at 8:33 AM #

      Thanks Julie! I’m glad you liked it. Writing for children can be really intimidating. When I’m writing I honestly try my very hardest to think like a kid. These are some things that I ask myself: What kinds of things do kids notice? What catches their attention? What would they make of this situation? How would they problem solve? What would they assume?

  12. Caitlin June 18, 2010 at 12:31 PM #

    Thank you Hayleigh for this post it was so informative, especially because I was such an eager and relatively advanced reader as a child that I skipped a lot of these categories in my own reading. It’s hard sometimes to remember that there are reluctant readers out there since no one in my nuclear family was/is one!

    I do have a question though, how does non-fiction work in the world of Children’s & Picture books? I was always curious as a kid and so my mom ended up getting us a bunch of kids science & history magazines and other things, a Gray’s Anatomy coloring book included, so if I ever decided to try my and at something for kids I feel like non-fiction is where I would want to go.

  13. hayleighbird June 18, 2010 at 1:42 PM #

    Hey Caitlin!

    That is a really good question. Writing non-fiction for children has a lot of things in common with writing fiction. You still have to keep both audiences in mind (the parents and the child), you have to know what age group you are writing for, and what they are capable of understanding, the topic still has to be something a kid is going to find interesting, and want to read, AND you have to follow submission guidelines.

    The main difference is WHAT you submit. For non-fiction, unsolicited manuscripts are submitted as outlines, or proposals, rather than completed manuscripts. If the publisher likes what you’ve submitted, they will commission you for the project.

    That being said, many publishers already know what non-fiction books they would like to put out, and commission specific authors for them. But do not despair, they still do publish things from the slush pile!

    See Vanessa’s blog here: https://letthewordsflow.wordpress.com/2010/05/27/on-writing-non-fiction/ for a really great post on writing non-fiction. It is very applicable to writing non-fiction for children.

  14. Linda Strachan June 24, 2010 at 3:42 PM #

    Excellent post and such sound advice, too.

    Just wanted to add that when writing a picture book text I find it helps if you can visualise what the pictures will show – think about what the child is looking at when they hear the story being read to them. That way you avoid adding too many words describing something that is already clear in the pictures. Often less is more, especially in a picture book text.

    Also, make sure the text has a rhythm that makes it easy to read aloud.

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