Writing for Children: Rules of the Road
As if it were that simple!
Truth is, writing for children is a very specific and complicated creative challenge. It is immensely rewarding, highly competitive, and a test of your writing skills.
Today I’d like to demystify the children’s publishing world for anyone out there who is contemplating writing for this market. Here’s an overview of the genres, age groups, and formats you may encounter in the field.
Who’s Your Reader?
First, you will find all the broad genres you’d find in adult publishing: contemporary fiction, historical fiction, mystery, fantasy/sci-fi, horror, biography, graphic novels, comic books, and every type of nonfiction, from nature guides to cookbooks.
Second – and here’s where it gets interesting – you’ve got a lot of levels of target readership. After all, childhood and adolescence are rapidly changing states of being. A toddler wants to read about different things than a teen. A six-year-old needs a different approach to the topic of parental divorce than a twelve-year-old. Appropriate language for a junior high school student doesn’t work when writing for a preschooler.
So, as a children’s writer, you must always first ask yourself what is my target readership, my ideal audience? Whether it is infants, toddlers, preschoolers, elementary age children, middle graders, or teens, everything you create must be in tune with that age reader’s cognitive and emotional sphere. It determines the word count, the narrative structure, characterization, sentence structure, and language level. Your words must sing…but they must be singing a tune that your target readership will be able to hear clearly.
Third, when you write for kids, you’ve got to determine which type of story, which category of book, you are writing. Here are some of the broad categories in which your story might be published:
BOARD BOOK for ages 0 to 3.
PICTURE BOOK for ages 2 to 6.
STEP INTO READING BOOK for ages 4 to 7.
EARLY CHAPTER BOOK for ages 5 to 8.
MIDDLE GRADE BOOK for ages 8 to 12.
YOUNG ADULT BOOK for ages 12 to 16.
Fourth, once you’ve got the readership and the book category dialed in, you can begin envisioning the look of the book and the specific format the book might take. Of course, if you place the work with a publisher, the fine tuning will be collaborative between you, the editor, the art director, and the illustrator. But knowing what sort of pictures each category might need will help you shape your story efficiently from the very beginning.
A young explorer. Image credit: Jonathan Borba on Unsplash
Every Story Tells a Picture
For example, board books have a very small word count. Much of the meaning of the story or the explanation of the concept it’s presenting must be placed in the illustrations. If you are writing a story with 200 words, for example, you are not writing a board book for an infant or toddler. You might be writing a picture book instead.
If it’s a picture book, you need to leave room for the illustrations to carry a piece of the story. If you’re also the illustrator, you will plan what storytelling job the words will do and which bit of narrative or characterization the pictures will carry.
If you aren’t the illustrator, it’s a bit trickier, but you can focus on the words being just the right ones to communicate things best told with words. Said differently, your writing needs to provide an artist with a good launch pad for their own imagination to fill in the blanks you’ve provided. This often happens in a delightfully surprising way.
The older the audience in children’s literature, the less illustration you may need – with the exception of graphic novels and comic books, that is. The point here is that, to some degree or another, in writing for children, every story tells a picture. From your very first draft, thinking and writing with possible illustration in mind is necessary. You must think and write visually.
Choose Your POV
There is another aspect of children’s writing that I absolutely adore: the wide variety of points of view from which to write. My target readership spans from infant to high schooler.
And it is absolutely necessary to write for your ideal reader. Emotionally, how would they feel in your main character’s situation? What’s the worldview of a three-year-old? If your main character is a mouse, how would the physical world look to them? And so on. An important question to ask yourself as you write for young readers is: Am I looking at this through the eyes of an adult, or a child the age of my ideal reader?
Creating books for young readers might not be the simplest thing in the world, but it is challenging, meaningful…and FUN. With each story, you’ve got the chance to touch a young life with your heartfelt thoughts and words.
It’s important to understand the landscape of the children’s publishing world as a first step toward writing for one of its specific audiences. Once you’ve identified your reader and book category, you can get creative. I’ve been at this writing game for twenty-five years and counting. There’s never been a dull moment at the keyboard!