How to Write a Children's Book in 7 Steps
Today, we're going to walk you through the Steps of How to Write a Children's Book. Below, you will learn how to:
- Discover the children's book basics.
- Generate a rock-solid idea.
- Do research.
- Write a first draft.
- Revise again.
- Choose your path to publication.
But first, take a second and imagine what it would be like to have a mom, or dad, or grandparent cozying up on the couch with their favorite little, reading your story.
This is your goal. Don't lose sight of that goal.
Learn the children's book basics.
We have seen it all. However, the number one mistake we see is when writers don't bother to learn the basics. Don't be that guy! Also, if you are envisioning a book from your childhood or—worse yet—haven't visited the children's section of a bookstore in the last five years, you need to brush up on the basics.
Storybook vs. Picture Book
“Children's book” is a very large, overarching term that technically includes a LOT of different types of books for a variety of ages, but odds are, the type of book you're thinking of is a picture book.
A picture book is a book written for children that uses a combination of words and illustrations to convey a story. Pause here for a second because this is an important point. The words tell PART of the story. The illustrations tell PART of the story. As a result, a picture book relies on these pieces working together. One more time (for the kids in the back), the story is incomplete if one of those two components is missing.
Oftentimes picture books are confused with storybooks, which are children's books that may or may not be illustrated. A great way to tell the difference:
If the illustration just shows scenes described in the text, it is a storybook. However, if the illustration goes beyond the text to tell more of the story, it is a picture book. Head to the bookstore, and you'll find that the vast majority of current titles are, in fact, picture books.
Today's picture book market is very different than it was a couple decades ago. Recently, I grabbed a few classically popular books of old and some of the “new classics” to compare. The chart below presents a snapshot of how word count has shifted over time.
|Title||Publication Year||Word Count|
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
The Rainbow Fish
Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site
Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus
To clarify, this is by no means a scientific study. There are outliers in every direction, but this reflects the general industry trend.
Today, the general rule of thumb is that a fiction picture book manuscript should be fewer than 500 words. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it is a good guideline to follow. The key to making an excellent picture book is making every word count. So, if you're way over on word count, that's a signal that you haven't done your homework, you haven't revised, or you haven't given the illustrations anything to carry.
However, there is an exception: nonfiction picture books. These books tend to carry more meat in the text and can crest up to 1,000 – 1,500 words. Despite this, it is important to note that every word counts here as well. Each story, regardless of genre, should carefully evaluate each word.
Picture books have printing constraints. Consequently, this means that 99.99% of the time they have 32 pages or 40 pages. However, that doesn't mean you get 32 pages to tell your story! For instance, these pages also include your end pages, your title page, etc.
Additionally (to complicate things a little bit more), there are two different ways a picture book can be structured: Self-ended or Separate-ended. In fact you can read all the gory details about the differences between self-ended and separate-ended picture books here, but the important thing to note when you're getting started is how many pages you have to tell your story.
Dummy Creation Guide
Generate a rock-solid idea.
If you're reading this post, you might already have an idea for a book. But if you don't, check out our post on How to Generate New Picture Book Ideas, where we share fun activities you can use to swipe an idea out of thin air.
After that, take your idea and ask yourself the following questions:
First, is it relatable to kids?
If you're writing a picture book you want to make sure you're addressing topics that a child would be able to relate to. That does NOT mean you can't tackle something like . . . chemistry . . . but it does mean that you need to pinpoint what about that topic IS relatable to kids (i.e. explosions!).
Second, am I trying to teach something?
This gets a little hairy because we all want kids books to have a purpose. But kids don't want a sermon or a lesson. They want a fun story. Because of that, your idea might need a simple shift of mindset. Let's say your idea is:
A book to teach kids manners.
If we asked a bunch of kids, “Hey guys! Who here wants to read a book about manners?” we would hear crickets. Consequently, you'll want to ask yourself, how can I take this “teaching concept” and turn it into a rock-solid idea?
One way, is to flip your idea into something that subtly coveys your message.
A book where the main character has the word “please” erased from her vocabulary.
Both of these ideas could impart the same underlying message of the importance of manners, but the first idea is going to lean toward a didactic (lesson-teaching) story. More importantly, it's going to be hard to make it feel emotionally true to a child's point of view. Kids are smart, and they'll see right through an attempt to lecture them.
Now you've got to do a bit of legwork. Visit the bookstore, the library, and good old Google to search for your concept. You need to find all the books that will help you tighten your idea and position it in the market. For example, look for books with similar:
- Main characters
As you read these books, take notes on what works and what doesn't. Then use these mentor texts to tighten your idea.
Probably. On the whole, there are thousands of picture books out there, and it is exceptionally rare to come up with an idea that is completely original. Despite this, that doesn't mean your idea is bad or not worth pursuing. You just need to make sure it feels fresh.
A New Perspective
There are a thousand and one ways to add a twist to a story. First, take your idea and poke at it. After that, ask yourself all the “what ifs” to see how you can stretch your narrative. Let's consider an example:
The Idea: A little kid loses his stuffed animal.
Whew, has this idea been done. (Your research should have turned up Corduroy and Knuffle Bunny at the very least!) Before you begin, ask yourself some questions. What if the stuffed animal . . .
. . . wasn't recovered?
. . . was magical?
. . . disappeared on purpose?
. . . traveled through time?
Then, when you get those creative juices flowing, who knows where your story can go? Just add some twist. Specifically, try tapping into your own childhood—or your own interests—to set your book apart from what has already been done.
Write a first draft.
For some, writing the first draft is easy. But for others, it is the hardest part. Despite this, you've got to get that first draft down, and here are some tips to do it:
Let it be terrible.
This is what first drafts are for! Before you start, it's important to note that your first draft doesn't need to be perfect. On the whole, finished will always be better than perfect. Don't worry about anything other than getting the idea down on paper. Your goal is to get from Point A to Point B. That's it. In fact, 9 times out of 10, your first draft is really going to stink. However, you need that first draft to revise it into something wonderful later on.
You've got to do what works for you. For example, you could block off an entire afternoon and not allow yourself to leave your computer until that story is drafted. But we don't all have an entire afternoon. Consequently, maybe you give yourself 30 minutes a day to write, and let it take as long as it takes. You could even break your story up into pieces and write one section at a time. Do whatever motivates you.
After you've got your draft, you hunker down and revise. Indeed, this is where the magic happens. One of our instructors, Jim Averbeck, uses a Hierarchy of Revision to structure the different levels of revision your manuscript should undergo. This helpful tool, shown below, can save you loads of time.
PAUSE: Let's be clear. Revision in and of itself is an art form. In fact, we have many lessons devoted to applying Jim's Hierarchy of Revision, so this is not something that can be covered in one article, but consider this a “cliff's notes” on revision to nudge you in the right direction.
- What is the shape of my story, and does it work with this theme?
- Does my story have a problem?
- Does it have a clear beginning, middle, and end?
- What obstacles does my main character encounter?
- Does the end leave you emotionally satisfied?
- Is the character interesting?
After you've got a solid foundation, you will dig into the next level to take a look at things like pacing, subtext, illustration opportunities, and emotional pull.
First, take a look at the pace of your story. Pacing is the speed at which your story progresses. Most importantly, ask yourself these questions:
- Am I giving the right amount of time to my beginning, middle, and end?
- Does my sentence structure match the mood I want to convey?
- Do I use page turns and punctuation to control the pace where appropriate?
Second, explore your stories subtext. Subtext is what is what is NOT being said. In picture books especially, words and illustrations can contradict each other to build suspense or humor. This can be perfectly explained with an example from Jon Klassen's book, This is Not My Hat.
Subtext: He woke up.
Here are a few ways you can build subtext into your manuscript:
- what came before
- obvious sarcasm
- leading or rhetorical questions
- declared state/opposite dialogue
- words vs. pictures
Third, illustration opportunities! Illustration opportunities are all the things that your text doesn't need to say because the illustrator will show them. Take this for example:
The big brown bear stepped onto the winding path. He couldn't see where the path led, and he felt nervous.
When you evaluate this, you can strike out many words. For instance, this text could become:
Bear took a single, tiny step.
Of course, what the bear and the path look like will all be in the illustrations, just as his face will showcase his emotions. Therefore, anything that you NEED conveyed in the illustrations should be added as an illustration note.
Bear took a single, tiny step.
[Illus. Note: Onto a scary wooded path.]
To underscore everything else, look at how you're creating emotional pull. A well developed character-driven story will contain both an internal journey and an external journey. Just as the internal journey is measured by emotions, the external journey can be measured by actions. Therefore, your emotional pull is how these two elements work together to drive both journeys toward a satisfying resolution.
You'll notice I skipped over the top tier of the hierarchy. However, that wasn't an accident. More often than not, you didn't nail this on your first revision. You should go back through and revise for the first two levels again. Moreover, you should go back through and revise these levels three, four, or five times!
In addition, we recommend taking your story to a critique group and getting their feedback. As creators we can get too close to our own work and fail to see its shortcomings. But when trusted critiquers come in with fresh eyes, they can help pinpoint weaknesses.
Have you got your story in good shape? Up next, you're ready for . . .
At this stage, you have worked through much of the “messy middle” and you're really tightening and polishing each and every word. You should be considering:
- Word choice (The thesaurus is your friend!)
- Use of adverbs (Don't say “ran quickly.” Use “dashed.”)
- How is your word count?
- Are there opportunities to put words into your character's mouth?
- Is your manuscript properly formatted?
The secret to revision is that you continue to do it over and over. Just as you think you have a solid foundation, you may realize when you're working on pacing that something is off, and you need to go back and make some changes.
A good rule of thumb: When working with picture books, every single word matters. You only have ~500 words to tell an entire story. If a word, sentence, or page doesn't move the story forward . . . cut it.
Choose your path to publication.
Finally, you've got your story fully polished, formatted, and ready to go! Now, you need to figure out how you want to get it published. You really have two options:
Traditional publishing is the industry you are probably most familiar with. Publishing houses pay authors to publish their books and then sell them to the public. If you opt to go this route, you will need to:
- Write an excellent story.
- Secure an agent.
- Secure a publishing contract.
- Market your book within the allowed parameters.
Also, getting an agent is not required but many publishing houses do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Therefore, it is increasingly difficult to even have a shot at getting in front of an editor unless you are agented.
Self-publishing removes the publishing house from the equation. You become the publishing house. If you opt to go this route, you will need to:
- First: Write an excellent story.
- Second: Hire an editor(s) to improve your story and copyedit for you.
- Third: Hire an illustrator.
- Fourth: Produce the book (printer, storage, distribution, etc.).
- Fifth: Market the book.
Pros & Cons
There are pros and cons to both paths, but as you make your decision you should consider the following:
- Do you want to run your own business?
Self-publishing a book is running an actual business. Because of this, you are responsible for every single aspect of the process.
- Do you want to (and can you) put up your own money?
Traditional publishing does not cost you anything out of pocket. The publisher fronts the money to pay for everything and takes on all of the risk. In self-publishing, that's on you.
- How much control do you want?
Self-publishing allows you full control over the entire process. However, with traditional publishing, you have experts guiding you at each step. You don't get to make all the decisions . . . but also you don't have to make all the decisions.
- What's your timeline?
We're never going to recommend you rush your book. If you want to be successful, both publishing models require that you have a great book to sell. Of course, traditional publishing is notoriously slow moving. It is very common for a book to take 12 – 24 months from contract to publication. Traditional publishers are focusing on producing and marketing multiple books at once, and there are multiple people and stages your book will have to go through before it's published. That takes time. Self-publishing doesn't happen overnight, but you do have more control over the pace of production.
- Where do you want to sell your books?
Publishers are in the business of selling books. They have connections with the school, library, and bookstore markets. These are important sales channels that self-publishers can't access without some extra work.
There! Now you know how to write a children's book!
Did you think it would be easy? Come on. You can admit it. In fact, most people have that misconception before they really sit down to do the work.
But don't be discouraged!
Remember when you first starting reading this article, and you were imagining that family on the couch, reading together? Go back to that thought.
When you have that image secured in your mind, it is easy to see why we do this. We make stories for our most important audience. The kids. It's not easy to get there but. . .
It's worth it.