How to Write for Children

Lots of writers want to know, “How do you write a children’s book and get it published?” Do you know how to write for children? If you think it’s easy, don’t do it. Writing for Children has an obvious appeal: the stories are often short, simple, and use basic vocabulary words. “See Spot run. See Jane run after Spot. Run, Spot, run!”

But writing for children isn’t that easy, and it is vitally important to do it well.

Why It Matters

Reading helps to develop a child’s imagination and empathy.

Researchers have found that invisible friends don’t necessarily disappear when childhood ends; they found that

…socially competent and creative adolescents were most likely to create an imaginary friend and that this type of friend was not a substitute for relationships with real people.”

Adult fiction writers often talk about their characters taking on a life of their own. This isn’t so very different from the imaginary friends of childhood.

SOURCE: Imaginary Friends: Are invisible friends a sign of social problems? by Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD

Reading regularly not only helps to grow the language centers of the brain, but also builds an amazing network of connections between all parts of the brain, making it work better in ways that go beyond reading.

The natural progression of story structure – a beginning, middle, and end with cause and effect, helps to increase the reader’s attention span.

Using functional MRI and other tests, scientists have now learned that we experience – on a physiological and emotional level – the actions and emotions of the characters in the books we read. Have your ever felt so immersed in a good book that when you finish it, you feel almost as though you have lived it? That’s because your brain believes that you have. When we read, the brain doesn’t make a significant distinction between reading about an experience and actually living it. The same neurological regions are stimulated triggering thoughts and feelings. Reading is the original “virtual reality.” (See “Your Brain on Fiction,” by Annie Murphy Paul.)

Reading not only enriches our experience, it helps us to develop greater empathy. Reading fiction gives the reader a chance to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” with a wide range of characters having a diversity of experiences, beliefs, and motivations. The more dynamic the characters, the more impactful the reading is. In my book, A New Leaf for Lyle, I wrote about a little boy whose habit of lying about the most mundane things earns him a reputation as “Lyle the Liar.” It hurts – because when Lyle does tell the truth, no one believes him. Is there any hope for him to regain his friends’ and family’s trust?

How Do We Introduce Books?

Before I could read or speak, my mother filled my crib with books, so that they would be familiar, comforting objects.

She read to me – sometimes pages from her college textbooks – knowing that it didn’t matter if I understood psychology or library science. It mattered that I was becoming familiar with the sounds that are the building blocks and shape of language.

Both of my parents were in college, so reading was just this thing that everyone did, as far as I knew. And what child doesn’t want to try on Mommy’s shoes or lug books around like Mommy does?

We tell our children not to talk to strangers. If books are strangers to mom and dad, then they will be strangers to our children. It’s up to parents, and other adults in our children’s lives, to introduce them as friends.

And as writers, it’s our job to raise those books up right, so that they can be best friends.

Too often, we introduce books as if they were vegetables. “Here, read this book. It’s good for you.” As a kid, I saw right through this – if the book had a shiny gold foil sticker bearing the words “award winner,” I figured it would be the literary equivalent of broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Our job as parents, educators, and writers isn’t so much to steer the boat as to get it into the water and help teach the basics of sailing it. That includes how to navigate the library.

The best writing for children also appeals to the adults who will read to them out loud. The musical sounds and shapes of letters, the spelling and meaning of words, the history and evolution of language are not outside a child’s grasp. The benefits of reading extend to being read to, and reading to children also enhances the relationship between parent (or grandparent) and child.

Not Everyone Experiences Books the Same Way

Not every child gets “the moving pictures in their head” when they read. When I first realized this, I was horrified: If I didn’t have the cinematic, 3D movie going on in my head while I read – I’d probably hate reading! This may be an overlooked “reading disability” – a key to better understanding a subset of “reluctant readers.”

I thought about people who were adept but unenthusiastic readers. I started asking people whether they saw movies in their heads when reading a book, and while most women said yes, many of the men said no.

I started thinking about and asking what men like to read: Newspapers, sports magazines, history, biographies, business books. Books for boys are often action adventure stories.

What do we offer girls who don’t much like to read? Are we trying to shove Barbie doll books and princess stories on them, when what they crave are Tonka truck books and action adventure thrillers?

Ask young readers what they prefer: books about dragons and princesses and faraway kingdoms, or books about real people doing real things. You might be surprised to learn that a second grader would rather read the biography of a President than a fantasy about talking bears.

We should avoid pigeonholing books as “girl books” and “boy books.” It’s limiting. Boys like fantasy; girls like action-adventure stories. Books that have strong, capable characters of both genders are likely to have a much broader appeal than books boys or girls feel embarrassed to choose from the school library shelf.

Whatever Works

One of my son’s first book friends included Captain Underpants – incidentally, one of the most banned and challenged books in recent years due to potty humor and lack of respect for authority. My only objection was that the kids in the book couldn’t spell worth a darn. My son and I compromised – if he could spell “floccinaucinihilipilification” without looking, and correctly use it in a sentence, he could read Captain Underpants.

The best books are the ones a child will read.

I tell parents to try not to judge their children’s book friends too harshly. Just as your human friends aren’t your children’s friends, neither are your best book friends always going to be theirs.

Why We NEED More Diversity in Children’s Books

Everyone – children and adults alike – prefer books in which they can imagine themselves the protagonists. This is why we need greater diversity in children’s books, so that every child has interesting stories to read and love, full of characters that look and sound and act like them.

Another way to show diversity indirectly or illustrate a universal principal is to use animals and animated objects – think about stories like The Little Engine that Could, or The Three Little Pigs. These have a broad appeal and a very clear lesson that’s not heavy handed or preachy.

When I wrote my first book, Trockle, I didn’t consciously set out to deal with “diversity.” But Trockle is an adorable little under the bed monster, with one eye and three fingers on each hand, who’s scared of that great big smelly boy who lives over the bed – a horrible creature with two eyes and five fingers on each hand…and they learn, gradually, not to be afraid of one another. It leads to friendship.

Tell stories that deal with relevant themes. Don’t shy away from difficult topics like death or divorce – these are things that touch even the youngest lives –  but tell them in a way that’s appropriate to the reader’s age. If a child is old enough to ask a question, they are old enough to get an honest, straightforward answer that they’re able to understand.

Even fiction presents opportunities to learn something new. And that “something” doesn’t always have to be a moral or a life lesson. My book, A Puppy, Not a Guppy, touches on animal training and behavior modification using a technique called “shaping.” The main character, Irma, wants a puppy to train and play fetch with. Instead, she has to settle for a bunch of “boring guppies.” Disappointed, she tosses a stick into the aquarium, and one of them noses it back to her. I wasn’t sure how plausible this was, but in researching it, whether this was at all plausible, I ran across Albert Einstein – the goldfish, not the scientist – who holds a Guinness World Record for the number of tricks he’s learned to perform, including dunking a basketball.  There are some simple, age-appropriate facts at the back of the book, designed to prompt kids to learn more without being a treatise on psychology.

Children are Honest Critics

Children are nothing if not honest and blunt. If you can capture and hold a child’s attention, then writing for adults should be fairly easy – not the other way around.

Many children’s book manuscripts are…

…not to put too fine a point on it…

BORING.

Too many of them are books about children, written from an adult’s point of view. They are often condescending or oversimplified. Never talk down to a child. Children are smarter than many adults give them credit for being.

As you write, read aloud. Act out the story. There’s no room for a long, narrative introduction – start with action that shows character. Use dialogue to show what’s going on. Avoid using modifiers; instead, choose strong, descriptive nouns and action verbs. Get to the central problem quickly, and show it from the child’s point of view – not the adult’s point of view.

When a character explains his actions or someone else’s actions to the reader, the author is telling, not showing. For example, if the character walks down the street muttering to  himself, “I don’t know where I am. I’ve never been in this part of the city before. I think I’ll walk to the corner and turn left. Maybe I’ll see someone to ask for directions. It sure is cold tonight.”

But what if that same scene is written like this:

Josh looked at the unfamiliar buildings. “Where are all the people?” he asked himself.

“Maybe I can find someone around the corner who can help me.” He blew on his hands, trying to warm them. “Mom told me to wear my coat. I hate it when she’s right.”

Empower the child to solve their own problems – enlisting help, as needed, from the adults. Remember, though, that the adult characters should never just jump in to save the day. Show your characters as smart, funny, quirky, strong, resilient, growing.

As you tell the story, think about the images that form in your head. Get a few readers to describe to you what they see. For picture books, especially, the action should translate well to illustrations. If you have a bunch of talking heads doing nothing, you’ll know – if you try to lay it out as a picture book.

Use humor – children love to laugh, and strong emotions actually help to enhance memory. Humor in picture books is broad and very visual. Easy readers (and some picture books for ages 6 and up) begin to introduce verbal humor. Chapter books start to work in jokes needing a setup and payoff played out over several scenes. Dialogue, how characters react to one another, or the situation in which a character finds himself, may be humorous.

Avoid clichés and stereotypes, but do not be afraid to re-tell favorite folk tales and fairy tales in fresh, new ways. It is estimated that the Cinderella story, alone, has been told over 350 times. The reason such stories are popular is that they touch on timeless themes that transcend national and cultural boundaries.

In The Three Armadillies Tuff, Jackie Mims Hopkins gives The Three Billy Goats Gruff an updated, Texas twist. In Sleeping Ugly, Jane Yolen tells the tale of Sleeping Beauty, but the princess – beautiful on the outside – is hideously ugly on the inside, and the prince wisely ends up waking another sleeping girl – Plain Jane – whose kindness is richly rewarded by the good fairy. The three live happily ever after, using the still-sleeping “Beauty” as a coat-rack.

Write Well and Clearly

It’s important to write well. I mentioned, earlier, that the one thing I objected to about the Captain Underpants books my son loved when he was little was the “creative spelling” in the characters’ own comic books.  You are leading by example – young readers are learning grammar and spelling through the books they read.

In children’s writing, there’s little room for unnecessary verbiage. It’s critical to write tight.

Read aloud as you write to be sure that the rhythm and flow of sentences is easy to read and pleasant to listen to.

We make a mistake when we assume that children’s books should only contain easy little words that don’t challenge or even slightly frustrate young readers. Don’t exhaust them – use hard words sparingly. Use them to pique readers’ curiosity and provide strong context clues to help them decode the meaning on their own.

Make sure that all new vocabulary words are age-appropriate. In other words, don’t introduce overly mature concepts along with the vocabulary. One good place to start is the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee list, with 450 words for students in grades one through eight.

Explore all the musicality of language, but remember that bad rhyme, meter, and alliteration are worse than none. Avoid sing-songy, simplistic rhymes, or rhymes that aren’t “true” rhymes.

Pay Attention and Follow Directions

Adults are always admonishing children to “Pay attention and follow directions!” Why, then, do we assume we’re exempt from this requirement? Why do we act as though saying to a child, “Do as I say, not as I do” is a right of adulthood, rather than a cautionary warning in the face of our own failure to live up to what we know we ought to do?

If your intention is to write a publishable children’s book, be sure that you understand the industry-standard word count and layout requirements for each type of book (e.g., picture book, early reader, chapter book, middle grade, young adult). While it’s important to tell a fast-paced, original, entertaining story, the format of your manuscript is not an opportunity to get “creative.” When you submit a story to a publisher, follow their submissions guidelines to the letter. If they want Courier, 12 point, 1 inch margins all around, and roman numerals on every third page – that’s what you send them.

Don’t assume that it’s okay to send your manuscript formatted in Verdana because you think it looks better. A monospaced typeface like Courier makes it easier to estimate word and page count and placement at a glance. It’s standard. It’s readable. And the bottom line is this: If you don’t follow the publisher’s guidelines, you’re sending a clear message that you’ll be difficult to work with on other things. Consider it a test.

Do not assume that a publisher’s editors will correct a poorly written manuscript; it’s much more likely that they will spot the errors, decide you’re unprofessional and toss the manuscript in the trash.  Over the years, I’ve seen enough submissions to various publications to realize that getting published is not tantamount to winning the lottery – it just feels that way, sometimes. God bless the writers who don’t follow directions – they just upped your odds of getting published.

A few specific things to avoid:

  • Non-standard formatting
  • Bold, italics, or all capitals for emphasis (emphasis should be clear in the context of the story)
  • Too many exclamation points or multiple, consecutive punctuation marks
  • Incorrect spelling (do not rely solely on autocorrect or spell-check – this won’t pick up on homophones like their/there/they’re)
  • Poor grammar and punctuation

Unless you are a professional illustrator, do not submit illustrations with your manuscript. This means your own, a friend’s, or an illustrator you’ve hired. Publishers generally prefer to work with their own illustrators. If you have your heart set on using your own or a specific artist’s work, discuss it with the publisher first, or consider self-publishing.

Writing for children isn’t easy.

It’s one of the hardest forms of writing to do well. And one of the most important.

You are building – or chipping away at – the foundation of a lifelong love of reading and learning. You can make it fun, or you can make it a boring chore.

Writing for children is important and rewarding work – if you choose to pursue it, I recommend the following resources:

I look forward to seeing your books in print.

me in tree

HollyJahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.
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6 thoughts on “How to Write for Children”

  1. howdy Holly Jahangiri!
    really, write a great book for children is not easy!
    with this article, you give me some problem that make me have more acquirements for a author
    Thanks for sharing and good luck Holly!

  2. Holly,

    I really like this post. Will read it slowly and more deliberately later but just want to say you seem to really bring out and discuss important issues and strike a very good tone.

    One quick comment to the sentence: “You are leading by example – young readers are learning grammar and spelling through the books they read.”

    The same goes for writing for adults. Sadly, too many indie writers really do not pay enough attention to this, and to the necessity of professional editing – having a 2nd and even 3rd party review what we have put on paper and think is flawless. Writing can be a big “ego trip” but there is a definite element of humility in it. Never forget the experience of somebody, whether an adult or child, picking up something with grammar and punctuation errors to read.

    Good post!!!

    1. Thank you, Jane! For reading, and for sharing your thoughts here. Glad you enjoyed this post. I agree wholeheartedly with your point about writing for adults.

      I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the BEST editors (people whose professional efforts I can’t afford as an indie author, to be honest), and they have taught me much. A good editor is worth their weight in gold. People tell me I write well; I should, after a decades-long career of it. But I cannot think of a thing I’ve written that was not improved by the work of a good editor.

      As for humility, my young self aspired to be a great novelist, but quickly learned that technical writing paid the bills more reliably. One of my earliest bosses said, “Let go of any pride of authorship. Your work will be reviewed and critiqued by everyone. It won’t carry your byline. It will likely never be ‘perfect.’ Develop a thick skin. You can go home and write poetry in your tears at night.”

      I laughed, even then, and I followed his advice. One of my favorite review comments was, “This thing reads as smoothly as a pig walks on stilts.” It sounds harsh, but it was hilarious and true. And the author of that comment knew I had the skill to do better – he was just pointing out where I’d missed the bumps in the prose with the sandpaper of a good edit. He wasn’t being mean; he trusted me not to crumple in a sobbing heap or lash out and haul him to HR. That meant a lot.

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