Writing for children is an extremely rewarding type of creative writing, with little readers often being the most enthusiastic, inquisitive, and invested fans out there. The common misconception, however, that writing for children is somehow an easy feat (presumably due to the shorter length of children’s books, or the assumption that plots are “simpler”), is just that — a misconception. Publishing or self-publishing a children’s book shouldn’t ever be approached as an easy fix for someone looking to release a book. It’s just as demanding as writing for an older audience, but in different ways.
Of course, “demanding” doesn’t mean “impossible”. So, now that that’s cleared up, let’s take a look at 5 tips for how you can meet those eager children’s demands with your writing.
The most important writing tip when it comes to children’s books isn’t actually anything technical: it’s simply a reminder that you need to have fun. This part of the publishing world has room for every whimsical, wacky, and totally nuts idea you’ve ever had, and having fun while you’re writing significantly increases the chances of your readers having fun, too.
With an audience that is endlessly curious, trusting, and open to strange and new ideas this is the perfect opportunity to lean into your creative thinking and come up with something wonderful. Whether that means conjuring a world full of magical wonders, a funny or eccentric plot, or writing in rhyme Dr Seuss-style, this is the best genre for letting your imagination run wild — and having a blast while you’re at it.
As part of letting your imagination loose, it’s important to highlight the special significance of creating interesting, vivid, and amusing characters for young readers. Whether it’s that they have a special quirk (e.g. the wolf in Orianne Lallemand’s The Wolf Who Wanted to Be An Artist), they’re in a strange new predicament (e.g. Bernard Waber’s Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, where a crocodile lives in New York City with a human family, making a neighbor and his cat ever so slightly nervous), or the fact that they’re a creature or monster of your own imagination, the possibilities are endless when it comes to making your characters stand out.
But don’t feel pressured to make your characters non-human or otherworldly — instead, focus on their personality traits and how they experience their particular circumstances. Think about how you might develop your characters, and how they’ll be different in the beginning and end of your story. How will plot events change them? Many narratives starring children contain an element of growth and learning, so consider whether this is suitable for your own story. Just be mindful so you don’t confuse your children’s book with a coming-of-age story — the two have distinctly different readerships!
Whether you’re working with a children’s book illustrator or simply relying on the narrative to engage your readers, rich visual detail is a winning ingredient in children’s books. From specifying and describing colors and patterns to sizes, heights (remember how big everything seems when you’re a child?), and lighting, you want your writing to be as vivid and cinematic as possible so it can immerse and enchant children. This is particularly important for projects set in imaginary worlds, where visual details are crucial for the story to be able to function.
For worldbuilding, however, you’ll need more than just visual details: anything sensory should be a huge help, so think about the sounds, smells, and textures of your setting as well as its appearance. If you need inspiration, check out Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or any other classic children’s book and take notes of how they do what they do!
Story structure is one of the unsung heroes of writing: if it does its job well, it may not be something you’re always actively conscious of as a reader, but if it’s terrible, you’ll realize because the story will be a mess to follow.
For younger children, a linear, chronological structure will make the most sense, especially for picture books. For older kids, you can try more complicated concepts, including flashbacks and multiple points of view, but don’t go completely crazy if you can help it. Depending on the needs of your story, make sure progression is logical and turning points are clearly signposted!
One of the best things that can help you become a better writer is receiving feedback from your readers. If you, a close friend, or a relative has children, you can read them your work and ask them what they make of it. They may not be able to give you extensive editorial feedback, but they can tell you if something is confusing, or which parts they enjoyed the most, which is important in helping you edit and clarify your writing.
This is quite literally market research, so be careful not to be dismissive of the children’s comments purely because they’re children: these are the exact readers you’re hoping to impress, so stay open to criticism. Of course, children don’t all have the same personalities or taste in books so recruiting as many early testers as possible will give you a more representative idea of how your future readers are likely to perceive your writing.
I hope these tips help, and I wish you all the best with your works in progress!