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How to Write a Children’s Book and Submit It to Publishers
By: Jerry Jenkins
Publishing a children’s book in today’s extremely competitive market can be tough.
And because most such books require four-color illustrations, they are also the most expensive to print — though most publishers have this done overseas.
You might think it’s easier to write children’s books because they’re shorter than adult novels. Well, they might not take quite as long to write, but they’re no easier.
You must limit your word count and your vocabulary without appearing to condescend, and you must engage both the adults who buy such books as well as the kids clamoring to hear or read them.
No easy task, but it CAN be done.
Why Write Children’s Books?
Book sales overall were strong in 2021, growing 8.9% over 2020.
The market for children’s books grew even faster.
Backlist sales — in other words, books from previous publishing seasons — are especially strong in children’s genres. Publishers look for series of such titles, because if parents and kids love one of your books, they’ll likely want more.
Children are loyal readers. Win a place in their hearts and minds, and fan mail will prove the best reward of all.
If you want to write for kids because you think it’s a quick way to make money, you may find yourself sorely disappointed.
But children’s book writing may be just the thing for you if you’re:
- Dedicated to learning the craft
- Want to impact the next generation
- Love the genre and are thoroughly familiar with it
Why Writing Books for Kids is Different
Skill in writing for adults doesn’t necessarily translate into the children’s market.
Besides limiting your vocabulary and sentence length, it’s challenging to tell a story in 200, 700, or even 1,000 words.
A great kid’s book will:
- Teach a lesson
- Educate while entertaining
- Use age-appropriate language and topics
- Feature high-quality, professional illustrations
- Be relatable to a wide range of children
Still interested and wondering where you start?
9 Steps to Writing Children’s Books and Submitting Them to Publishers
1. Know the 4 Types of Children’s Books
For all types, protagonists are generally 1-2 years older than the readers. Young readers tend to enjoy reading “up” and imagining themselves as their heroes soon.
Board (heavy cardboard) books are read-to books for babies and toddlers. Illustrations do most of the work.
Board books: Ages 0 to 3, up to 200 words
Early picture books: Ages 3 to 5, 200 to 500 words
- Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
These contain fewer pictures and more words. Series are popular.
Picture books: Ages 5 to 7, 500 to 800 words
Older picture books: Ages 7 to 8, 600 to 2000 words
- The Animal Ark by Lucy Daniels
- Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish
Written for kids ages 7 to 10, chapter books carry 3,000-10,000 words but are still quick reads. These have even fewer pictures, usually black-and-white sketches rather than four-color illustrations.
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
- The Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne
Middle Grade Books
Kids ages 9 through 12 read books of from 30,000 to 50,000 words. There could still be some pictures, especially for the chapter headings.
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Word counts are important in children’s books, unless you’re J.K. Rowling. Her Middle Grade Harry Potter novels range to over 150,000 words and have become the bestselling books in history.
2. Know Your Readers
You must know and understand kids of the age you’re writing to — no guessing.
You also need to know what their parents are looking for.
Get to know your readers and their parents by:
Reading dozens of books in your genre
Become familiar with the conventions and expectations and learn what works and what doesn’t.
Remember that your primary goal is entertainment — the moral lesson is a bonus.
Paying attention to what kids are into
Talk to teachers, friends, and family. Kids are loyal and will be happy to tell you the books they love.
Notice the themes, authors, and publishers on the shelves. See what kids gravitate toward and why. Come to understand the market.
3. Decide on a Concept
Have fun choosing your children’s book idea. Kids have great imaginations, so let yours soar.
Inspire them. Embrace silliness. Be outlandish.
Imagine your readers gasping, giggling, or even squealing.
Focus on universal themes both parents and kids love, including family, friendship, bravery, open-mindedness, and kindness.
Add your own twists to traditional stories, like:
- Jack and the Beanstalk and the French Fries by Mark Teague
- Uprooted by Naomi Novik
You can also write or adapt nonfiction for younger readers:
- The Everything Book of Cats and Kittens
- National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Dinosaurs
- Your favorite books as a child
- What today’s kids love
- What parents and teachers love about certain books
If you’re not sure, ask them!
A simple Google or Amazon search will show books similar to your ideas. How will your book be different or better because it’s uniquely yours?
Find a unique angle — a twist, a surprise ending, a different point of view.
4. Create Memorable Characters
The best stories feature an unforgettable character with an extraordinary arc.
Such characters aren’t perfect, but the most memorable characters develop skills, strength, and wisdom that change them and let them achieve their goals.
Your character’s arc is the transformation he experiences throughout the story. The more challenges he faces, the more memorable your story can be. Those challenges could be internal, for example, learning to be brave or confident, or external — sometimes even life and death.
Perhaps your main character believes, like Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, that money is more valuable than love — then learns the truth. Or maybe he learns to become as confident as The Little Engine That Could.
- Heroes A2Z #1: Alien Ice Cream by David Anthony
- Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
The right character development, in spite of challenges and flaws, can result in timeless role models.
5. Write and Rewrite
Decide whether you’re writing a standalone or a series?
Kids, parents, and publishers love series, so it’s to your benefit if you can write one.
Create a strong plot
Don’t skimp on plot just because your book is short. Build tension and excitement to keep readers turning pages (even if they’re made of cardboard).
Avoid patronizing or talking down to kids. You’ll lose readers if they can’t relate to your story or feel you don’t understand them.
Develop your own voice. Read your book out loud and listen carefully. Does the story flow? Does the dialogue ring true? Does it hold your interest?
Even books written for older children may be read aloud in libraries or classrooms.
Use a grammar checker like the Hemingway App to gauge reading level.
Learn a new manuscript preparation process
Picture books average 28 pages, so you’ll create a book dummy — a 32-page book in which you’ll sketch out your scenes, text, cover, copyright page, and end matter.
That way you’ll make sure the book works visually and that the story flows.
If you’re writing middle grade, your process will be closer to writing a full-length novel.
What’s the same?
You’ll still need to push through and finish.
You’ll still need to schedule writing time, become accountable, set a firm deadline, and eliminate distractions.
Mind your rhymes
Poetry involves more than simply rhyming the ends of each line. You must not be derivative, and avoid lazy rhymes by also considering meter, rhythm, and pacing.
Jump into the action
Children’s books are short, so skip the backstory. Notice how successful books in your category start. Make sure your story begins immediately.
Challenge your hero
Your main character needs a realistic external or internal challenge without a quick fix. Is he solving a mystery? Learning bravery or developing confidence?
Your hero needs to fail, get back up, and try again — and more than once. Have him face several obstacles and finally succeed at something that matters.
Use repetition and ritual
Repetition is critical in children’s books, especially for the youngest readers. It’s how they learn. That’s one of the reasons kids ask for the same book over and over.
You can repeat a word or phrase (like Dr. Seuss) or a situation. Repetition reinforces memorability.
Allow yourself a messy first draft
Many aspiring authors never complete their first draft because they allow distractions or self-doubt to get in the way. On your first pass through, just get the story down. THEN polish it to your heart’s content.
Learn to self-edit. Subsequent run-throughs will polish your book, adding detail, humor, and fixing mistakes. Work at it until you’re happy with every word.
Help your illustrator
Successful children’s books rely on great visuals, so don’t limit your hero to one boring room. Put him in the great outdoors, take him to other planets, other landscapes.
Wrap it up
Work toward a satisfying conclusion and tie up loose ends, giving it the time it deserves. Show your main character arc — how much he has grown or learned since the beginning of the story.
6. Suggest a strong title
Your title will be a major marketing tool for your book and may go through several iterations. In the end, the title is the publisher’s responsibility, but you need the best one you can think of to get their attention in the first place. Brainstorm countless possibilities.
- Play with alliteration
- Include action, not just description
- Aim to entice readers with mystery and curiosity
Get feedback from both kids and adults. Are kids curious and excited to read it? Would adults buy it?
7. Get feedback
Once you’ve completed your self-edit, you’ll want people’s reactions. Obviously, you want to test your book on people you trust to not broadcast your project or be tempted to claim it as their own. If you can get someone in the publishing business to take a quick peek, great, but otherwise you’re looking for typical buyers who have kids the right age to read it to and gauge their reactions.
Enlist beta readers
Consider joining a critique group where you can bounce your work off fellow writers.
Research social media groups of children’s book authors you might want to join.
Once you’re published, professional organizations you may want to check out include the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Children’s Literature Association.
8. Getting Your Children’s Book Published
Finding an agent is your best chance of selling your manuscript to a publisher. Do your research so you’re querying ones who specialize in this genre.
Agents receive thousands of queries and proposals every year, so it can be tough to find one. But the time and effort can pay off if you impress one.
Start with a query letter.
Self-publishing, especially a four-color children’s book, can be a VERY expensive proposition. So first, exhaust all your efforts to traditionally publish — where they pay you and take ALL the financial risk, not the other way around.
9. What About Illustrations and Formatting?
You don’t need illustrations before you approach agents or publishers — simply explain the illustrations in brackets or sketch stick figures. Publishers hire their own illustrators.
If you’re also an artist, include illustrations for your book. Publishers love discovering strong writer/illustrators.
If you self-publish, finding an illustrator is the most important step and likely the most expensive.
Good illustrators can be booked out several months. Determine who will retain rights.
A good illustrator will help you choose the right type font and size and will know how to design and manage page breaks.
You can find illustrators on Fiverr, Upwork, The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators, and Illustration Web.
Expect to spend thousands for illustrations.