If you can write a children’s story with universal appeal to young readers, you might just find it turning into a classic that’s passed down for generations. Just think: Goodnight Moon was originally published in 1947, but it still sells more than 800,000 copies every year.
But what goes into writing children’s fiction with that kind of staying power? This post will explore exactly what you need to do before you write your first children’s book.
1. Know your market.
Write to market, write to market, write to market. Any author who’s looked up writing tips will have heard this piece of advice too many times to count.
Of course, if you’re writing as a hobby, producing a story just for yourself, feel free to disregard this refrain. But if your goals for writing a book include publication and sales, then it is imperative that you think of your market from the get-go. And this is perhaps more crucial for children’s fiction than any other genre.
Children’s books are divided into very clear-cut categories determined by not only the content of the book but also the tone and vocabulary it’s written with. Sure, 30- and 60-year-olds might enjoy the same book. But the books someone picks for a child who’s two versus a child who’s 6 years old will differ hugely. That’s why you need to know exactly who your target audience is while writing a children’s book, because it will affect literally everything about the story.
Here are the different types of children’s books, as well as their age bracket.
Picture Books (ages 0–6)
Designed for the earliest of readers, picture books typically have 500 words or fewer. Examples: Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Early Readers (ages 6–7)
These books, which are typically 2,000 to 5,000 words long, are created for readers who can handle more words but still benefit from accompanying illustrations. Examples: Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish and The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
Chapter Books (ages 7–9)
Illustrations are few and far between in chapter books, which typically run between 5,000 and 10,000 words. Examples: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh and Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary
Middle Grade (ages 9–12)
While the prose might be slightly denser, the stories are still quick and light in these books, which typically clock in at 30,000 to 50,000 words. Examples: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume and The Giver by Lois Lowry
Young Adult (ages 12–18)
The last category of children’s books is Young Adult, and these stories often deal with more mature themes, treated in 50,000 to 100,000 words. Examples: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
2. Create a relatable protagonist.
There’s a common pattern among some of children’s literature’s most beloved characters:
- Nancy Drew is 16–18 years old in the books, and the series is written for readers aged 10+.
- Anne Shirley (of Green Gables) is 10, written for readers 8+.
- Pippi Longstocking is 9, written for readers for 6+.
- Peter Pan is 12–13, written for readers 7+.
- Ramona Quimby is 10 at the conclusion of her series, written for readers 7+.
- Harry Potter is 11 at the start of the series, written for readers 8+.
- Madeline is 7, written for readers 4+.
- Max from Where the Wild Things Are is 8, written for readers 5+.
It’s no coincidence that the most popular characters are written to be a couple years older than their intended readers. Children have proven to enjoy reading about a character that’s a little older—almost like they’re being taken on an adventure by an older sibling (or an aspirational version of themselves). That being said, the experiences and emotions of those characters should still be relatable to the intended readers. Harry Potter might be 11 in the first installments of the fantasy series, but the themes of starting a new school, making friends, and, of course, magic are also things that appeal to 8-year-olds.
This “slightly older” pattern isn’t a hard-and-fast rule—Matilda is 6 years old, and her book is recommended for readers 6+, and Peter from The Snowy Day is 4 years old, in a book intended for readers the same age. Still, it’s a useful tip to keep in mind! And on that note, here are a few other tips to remember as you develop your memorable young protagonists.
Write about your first best friend.
Fictional characters often mirror personality traits of real people from the author’s life—it’s almost inevitable that what we have experienced influences what we create.
A great way to get into the mind-set of a child is to think back to your first close friend and make a list of what they were like back in the day. Write about their:
- Personality traits
- Whether they were introverted or extroverted
- Favorite color
- What their family was like
- Favorite class in school
- What kinds of things you used to do together for fun
Remember the things you noticed about the people around you as a child, and you’ll be able to write characters that feel relatable to children.
Revisit your favorite characters from children’s books.
Without actually going and grabbing your favorite books, take a moment to think about their characters.
Next, start freewriting—writing without pausing or editing, for a specified amount of time—about everything you remember: physical traits, plot lines, pieces of dialogue, anything. Shut down your critical left brain and just write.
When you’re done with your freewriting session, go back through your notes and ask yourself why those specific things stood out enough for you to still remember. Did they have a physical trait you shared or that deviated from many other characters? Did they overcome an obstacle you’ve also faced? Did their relationship with their siblings remind you of your own?
Once you’ve mapped out the memorable aspects of that character, use it as a blueprint to start developing your own.
3. Establish your narrative style.
The “author voice” is one of those terms that the writing community seems to have a shared understanding of. If asked to define exactly what it is, we’d struggle to put it into words—though Maya Angelou probably comes closest:
"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning."
Every author has their own unique voice infusing their writing. While your voice will naturally be present within a story, you also need to make sure to tailor it based on the context of your book (your genre, your audience, etc.). A large part of that comes down to the narrative style you choose.
When it comes to children’s books, think about …
- Rhyme. Dr. Seuss has made rhyme-lovers of us all. But rhyming an entire book is tough work—you don’t want your actual story to become overshadowed by forced couplets. Unless you feel your book absolutely needs to be told with rhymes, it’s best to steer clear. If you do decide to rhyme your story, studying these books might help you achieve glory (see what we did there?): Room on the Broom, How Do You Wokka-Wokka?, Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, and The Pout-Pout Fish.
- Repetition: This is especially popular for picture and early reader books because it helps children follow the story and gets them to recognize familiar elements. For those learning to talk, it can also be a helpful way to encourage association. Check out: We're Going on a Bear Hunt and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
- Tense. Typically, children’s books are written in present tense. This better engages a young reader because it feels like the story is actively unfolding.
4. Consider the title. (It matters.)
Did you know that The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was almost titled Mistress Mary? Or that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was almost called Alice's Adventures Under Ground, Alice Among the Fairies, and Alice's Golden Hour? Sometimes authors have a list of different titles they’re working with, but, often, it’s the publisher that changes a title before releasing it. (We’re all grateful that William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was not allowed to be published under its original title: Twilight!)
In other words, publishers put a lot of thought into the title of a book, and you should too.
There are a number of different trends when it comes to children’s book titles:
- Noises. This often works well for board books, because an infant might not be able to say “Where the Wild Things Are,” but “Clack” or “Moo” is probably more within their wheelhouse. Examples: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Click, Clack, Moo
- Names. Using the protagonist’s name as a title works particularly well for series. For instance “Winnie the Pooh and the…” Examples: Eloise and Olivia
- Appealing to Adults. At the end of the day, it’s the parents who pick out the children’s books for young readers to enjoy, which is why, sometimes, a title that incorporates adult humor with age-appropriate content can be a home run. Examples: The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and I Want My Hat Back
- Exaggeration. When it comes to having the wild imagination of a child, exaggeration is part of the package. Which is why bombastic titles often work to grab young readers’ attention. Example: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
- Repetition/Alliteration. If you make a title fun to say, chances are that children will want to say—and, therefore, read—it. These kinds of titles are also good at indicating that the actual story will follow a similar style. Examples: Go Dog, Go and Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse
Whatever you end up calling your book, remember the primary goal of children’s literature: to capture the imagination of little ones and inspire a whole new generation of readers—and maybe even writers! As long as you can keep circling back to that goal, you’ll be on the right path to writing a well-worn family favorite.
Arielle Contreras is a guest blogger from Reedsy.com.