Many creative people harbor the dream of writing children’s books. Oftentimes, these writers have drawn or painted a series of illustrations or invented a story that they have shared with children, and they want to test the story in the publishing market. However, learning some basic rules about writing children’s books will ultimately benefit both the creative work and its potential to sell to a publisher and eventually to parents, children, teachers and librarians. A savvy writer considers how to make her children’s book special so that it stands out in the piles of manuscripts that hit publishers’ offices every year.
Historically, children’s books were often didactic in nature, such as the cautionary and moralistic tales popular in the Victorian era. Even fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm concerned the dark outcomes of those who wander in the woods, talk to strangers, engage with witches or choose play over work. Children’s books in the contemporary age show a marked break with their predecessors, favoring humor, nonsense, adventure, fantasy, mystery and controversy over didacticism.
Books for children and young adults have certain features that make them more appealing to readers and marketable to the public. Authors should consider their audience first, and be certain that the subject matter, characters, images and vocabulary are appropriate. However, appropriate does not necessarily mean logical. Children love imagination, humor, nonsense and wordplay, so do not feel restricted by reality. Many children’s books have a sympathetic character, be it a child, an animal or an alien, with whom the child can identify. Even simple ABC books, such as Graeme Base’s “Animalia,” often have entertaining juxtapositions between words and images. In the children’s book market, illustrations play a significant role. In fact, the criteria for awards such as the Caldecott Medal pertain more to the quality of the illustrations than of the story.
Writing children’s books demands establishing a unique voice, angle or situation, even if you are retelling folktales such as Patricia Polacco does in “Babushka Baba Yaga.” While your marketing goals should not interfere with your creativity, keep in mind that your work must stand out from the competition. Whatever qualities make your children’s story more compelling or engaging will be those aspects you highlight to agents and publishers and will most likely be the same elements that the eventual publisher uses to market the book. When you create you query to agents and publishers, delineate specifically what makes your books different and include a marketing plan.
The benefit of understanding the rules of writing children’s books is not solely one of marketability. Pushing yourself to write with style and persevering to engage your audience makes you a better writer. Many accomplished writers assert that they never stop learning their craft. While writing daily is the best recipe for improvement, there are a wealth of options in the form of courses, websites, magazines, books and forums at a writer’s disposal. The website Write4Kids (see Resources) provides a font of information for writers beginning their careers.
Your favorite books from childhood can be a wonderful inspiration, but reading up on contemporary children’s literature will give you a firmer grasp of the market. Some of the trendier themes in children’s literature are suspense, easy readers, simple nonfiction, scary stories and multicultural tales.