1 Most of us have our own favorite children’s books. What is yours?
Mine is Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans. I still love it, almost sixty years later. The pictures, the principal character. The story.
My first tip is to look back to your own childhood. What are your favorite stories from way back then. Why? Why? Was it the story, the language, the characters, the setting, the illustrations?
So tip number one is:
Connect with your inner child and your favorite childhood stories. Let them inspire you. Writing for children is also writing for the child within you.
2 Books for young kids have more than one audience. There are four, actually.
The first audience is the children, themselves.
The second audience comprises the adults buying and reading the stories. Remember that if your book is a bedtime story, the parents and grandparents are the ones reading it. Is the font easy to read and the text not-too-long? Will they read it with gusto? Will they love it too?
The third audience is the ‘gate keepers’. The publishers, the librarians, the schools. You can choose to pander to them, to ignore them, or to try to walk the middle road.
The fourth audience is you, yourself. If you’re not amused by your book, why should you expect anyone else to be?
Second tip: Children’s books should appeal to all four audiences. The children, the parents (or teachers), the gatekeepers and the author. But most of all, to you.
3 There are two types of writers. The first type is the professional class who get paid for creating children’s books. I am fortunate to have friends who are well-known children’s book writers.
They write beautiful poems and prose. They have all developed their gifts with hard work and grit. But they are few and far between, comprising less than 1% of all writers and illustrators.
The second group are those who don’t yet have a book deal with a professional publisher. The 99+%. These writers (and illustrators too) inhibit a purgatory, spending years sending queries, looking for an agent, taking courses and hoping and praying to be discovered.
Some are lured into spending great amounts of money (e.g., hiring artists for covers and artwork, copy editors, content editors, etc.) to self-publish their books, either online or on paper.
Most end up selling only a few dozen copies, do not receive objective critiques and become discouraged. I have gone this route myself on several occasions, and the results have been disappointing.
So I would recommend sharing some of your work online, but without spending money (or hardly any money). Of course I’m not objective, but sharing stories on a free site (such as this) has many advantages.
You might find an illustrator willing to collaborate with for free, you might find an editor willing to help out, and you might get a publisher interested in some of your material. All three scenarios have happened to me since I started publishing my stories online.
Tip number three:
Try to present some of your material for free on the internet. Do not self-publish if it involves significant self-funding. You’ll likely end up being disappointed and it won’t take your career anywhere.
4 Choose a strong and memorable central character.
The character can be a person, an animal, an inanimate object. Make a list of people, animals, and objects. Which character has special meaning to you? Is it a prince, a family member, a frog, a toy on the shelf?
Whoever or whatever you choose, the character should elicit intense emotions in the readers. Do we love her/him? Do we feel sorry for her? Do we cheer when she prevails? In order for that to happen, we should feel sympathy for and empathy with the main character.
It helps when we know some details about the character of the character. What is special about the character? Why should we care?
The character can be very tall, very hungry, very ambitious, very sad. As long as he, she or it, is really something.
Tip number 4: Dream up a character with character.
5. In a classic story, the character is confronted with a problem, a challenge, a dilemma, a crisis. He or she is tested. Often the crisis is related to a flaw in the character of the hero. Sometimes the crisis comes out of nowhere, as it often does in real life. In this case, the heroine must muster up whatever she needs to overcome it.
Tip number 5: Classical stories tell tales of dealing with challenge.
6. The ending of the story can be as important or even more important than the story itself. What happens in the end? How is the challenge resolved? If it is a normal and expected ending, it will be less fun to read. On the other hand, if the ending is original, creative and surprising, children and elders will be delighted to read it again and again.
Tip number 6: Try to find an amazing resolution to your story!
7. Sometimes we tell a story in order to convey a message, moral or lesson. In other words, we are trying to teach someone something. This implies some kind of superiority on our part, as if to say “I know better and am telling you so that you will accept what I say and thus improve your life”.
Kids are very sensitive to stories that talk down to them. Better just to write a great story. The moral and take-home lesson will miraculously appear, I assure you.
Tip number 7: Try to avoid putting the message before the story.
8 What’s in a name?
Everything, really. If you call your chief character Dorothy, it will be difficult to find her on the internet. It may remind people of another story. On the other hand, if your character is named Wizelda, Gloomeris, or Popadiculous, you may be the very first!
Naming your book provides a similar dilemma. If you name your story “My Dog”, it will be very difficult to access over the internet. A name such as “Franchise, my French Poodle” stands a much better chance.
So tip number eight is: Look for a special name for you character, and for the title to your story.
9. When you have finished writing the draft of your story, you might want to ask yourself, “What is special about my story? Does it have something that sets it apart from the millions of other children’s books in the world? Have I created a wonderful setting to my story, a mysterious atmosphere, a tale which is unique and memorable?
If you wonder about the answer to this question, your readers will too.
Tip number nine: Create a unique setting, atmosphere, experience. Make sure it sets itself apart from other books in at least one imporatant way.
Pay attention to detail, nuance and grammar. Consider using expert tricks of the trade such as repetition and onomatopoeic (words that imitate sounds, such as bang, whoom, and oink). Try to get feedback from content and copy editors. Read your book to adults and children.
Are they excited? If so, you should be too. If they suggest ideas, listen. Mentors and your potential audience can help you hone your writing skills.
Tip number ten: Listen to mentors, experts and your potential audience. Remember that no story is ever perfect. Perfect it.
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