How to write a children’s book

In the first blog of my two-part blog series, I addressed the question of why I write children’s literature. You can view that blog by clicking here!

This week, I wanted to address a key point about writing children’s books, and I also want to share a few points that I keep in mind when I am writing.

When someone learns about me and my books, I start the count — 3…2…1…— just waiting for the inevitable question:

“You write children’s books? I have a children’s book! Can I send it to you?”

This is strangers who ask me this. Literally, I’m waiting at the DMV and this has happened to me on more than one occasion. This has occurred while shopping, riding public transit, you name the place and most likely I’ve been asked at that location.

What most people don’t know is that editors receive more picture book manuscripts than any other genre. Why? Because it seems so easy to do. Well, despite popular belief, writing books for small people who can’t even read is actually really hard. I can say this with confidence because I use to be one of those people who had this misconception.

Don’t think I am bothered by being asked this question.  I do not have a problem taking a look at someone’s manuscript. Heck! I was (and still am) someone who shares manuscripts to get feedback. Getting feedback is a vital part of my writing process. I believe in authors helping and supporting one another. However, more often than not, I’m also informed by the same individuals who have asked me this question that they wrote their book with very little time going into it.

Please, do not take this the wrong way. I am by no means tiring to diminish the work of anyone. I think it’s important to note that anything that can be written while taking the Cal-Trans home from SF to SJ isn’t a book, it’s the first draft. First drafts are great! Without them, you wouldn’t have a finished book! All authors start with first drafts. Heck, we go through several rounds of drafting before we have a completed manuscript. So there is nothing wrong with saying ‘Hey, I have this draft I wrote for a kids book. Would you mind taking a look?’ If I have the means and ability to help someone out, I will.

Speaking from personal experience, I think it’s essential to recognize how much goes into writing a book for children. Whether you are writing a book for solely family and friends to enjoy, or it is to be published for the entire world to see, know that it takes time.

Writing picture books looks deceptively simple—after all, how hard can it be to write a 32-page story of about 700 words? (Most picture books are between 500 and 1000 words). In fact, though, it is this very economy of words that challenges a writer most. The craft of writing picture books involves telling your story in as few of words as possible with the most compelling pictures to fill in the blanks.

Australian author Mem Fox sums it up perfectly:

“Writing a picture book is like writing ‘War and Peace’ in Haiku.”

You may be an excellent writer, an engaging blogger, maybe even an already accomplished author of adult fiction or nonfiction. But when it comes to writing for children, we have to adopt a new mindset and put ourselves in the shoes of those we want to write for. I am sorry to say, this cannot be accomplished from start to finish in under two hours.

Here is what you can do while you say, ride the train home from work. These points are just as vital as taking the time to draft that first manuscript. In all honesty, you should keep these points in mind before you start typing that next book.

How can we decide what type of children’s book to write? 

Most children’s books fall into one of these six categories:

•Board books

•Picture books

•Trade books

•Chapter books

•Middle-grade chapter books

•Young Adult books

Each category has subcategories. For example, Picture Books: Educational. The division is mainly based on the targeted age group, the average number of pages, the number of images, and the overall word count.

Really get to know your audience.

Writing for children brings a completely new set of challenges. Something an author for grown-up fiction and nonfiction doesn’t have to be concerned about.

In essence, the book will have to appeal to two completely separate and different groups of people:

1The children that consume the book, and

2The grown-ups that purchase and read the book with their kids.

The age of the main buyer of children’s books is between 30 and 44. Females make up more than 70% of these buyers.

A few ways you could really get to better know your audience are:

•Spend time with age groups you’re targeting

•Talk to parents and teachers

•Give a survey to women within the target age range from your own social circles

Remember, if your goal is to sell books, your book will have to please parents and teachers just as much as children.

To learn more about children’s books and their unique setup, you could:

•Study books that fall into your targeted age group. What is the general layout?

•What vocabulary is used?

• Visit a bookstore or library and browse through the kids’ section to get a feel for this genre.

What’s the point?

A story told to a specific child has its own value, but if you want to take it further, it needs to have a wider resonance. So why would any child who doesn’t know you want to listen to your story? The theme doesn’t have to be original – the same ones come up time and time again (a favorite toy, fear of the dark, love between child and parent, common childhood experiences) – but the way you treat it does. Make it uniquely yours.

Don’t forget the pictures!

A picture book is a collaboration between an author and an illustrator (unless you’re one of the few who has the skills to be both). The pictures play as large of role (if not more significant) as the words on the page. So think of the pictures as you write. Is there enough in your words for an illustrator to picture – changes of place, time? Is there too much detail? Think pictorially and cut out what you don’t need (even if it’s your favorite piece of writing; if it’s not serving the story, then it has to go!). Occasionally, I will draw some of the illustrations first if I am feeling stuck on the words to use. This has helped me to get the creative vibes flowing and the words to be penned.

In conclusion, writing for children is an act of love. Every children’s author that I know personally started writing for that same reason. Out of love. If you want to write a book for children, then do it! Embrace it! Just like with everything there will be challenges. Don’t let fear hold you back. Without trying something new, we will never know how much we truly love something.

Are you an author? What are some things that help you when you write your stories? Would you like to hear more tips on writing for children’s literature? Do you have questions that you would like have addressed? Drop a comment below; I would love to hear your thoughts!


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10 thoughts on “How to write a children’s book

  • Marie

    This was really insightful. Thank you, for being so candid when addressing a realistic time frame of writing. How long does it take you to typically write a children’s book?

    • Carmela Dutra Post author

      Thank you, Marie, for your comment. Like I mentioned to Frank who also commented. Perhaps I could share a piece on tips for writing a children’s book. These would be based In my experiences. Being that I am also the illustrator for my books, this can sometimes take up to a year for me to complete a project.

  • Frank

    People really ask you at DMV? Those lines do take for ever and a day! Anything else you got to share about writing books? I’m curious about marketing. I have a … well, I guess manuscript i’d Like to share haha! But really, I’m curious to hear more about your steps. I know there’s no magic bullet, but not being in the dark would really help. Thanks!

    • Carmela Dutra Post author

      Hi Frank,

      Haha, yes. I have been asked this question when I’m at dinner, or reading a book waiting for an appointment. Hmm, 🤔 I could share a piece x-amount of tips for writing a children’s book. These would be based on my experiences, or perhaps that of some of my fellow authors. As much as I wish I could give you the magic bullet, sadly, there isn’t one. What works well for me might not work well for the next children’s author. However, when you find something that works. Stick with it! Focusing on working with schools is what is best for me. That isn’t always the case for other authors.

  • Jessica Adams

    Great article Carmela! I was getting ready to go back to my next story, The Underground Toy Society Helps Ellie Elephant. I was thinking it shouldn’t take me too long to edit it. Well, I went into the file and oh my word…. I didn’t give any of my characters speaking parts. I told the story as the narrator. Ugh. I have a lot of work to do to get the story to where I want it to be for kids and parents to enjoy it. I guess I should have considered I wrote the first draft while I was recovering from my broken leg, so I probably wasn’t thinking properly. At least I have the first draft written though. Did you notice how long I’m taking for this reply on your post? I’m stalling. I’m procrastinating. I don’t wanna edit. LOL!

  • Rosie Russell

    Carmela, great post for all on writing books for children! I have been looking forward to this!
    It is not as easy as one thinks. Like you mentioned, the words have to be precise, the illustrations have to be engaging, and the storyline has to be interesting. It’s a slippery slope for sure.

    I agree writing “out of love” is a winner every time. Readers can tell when the passion for the story is not there.

    You are so right about researching the market in which they are interested and getting to know other authors. What is the drive behind their work? You are also correct about authors supporting authors. They’re one of the best I have ever seen in this field. One should never be afraid to ask them for their advice or help.

    Thanks so much for your interesting article.

  • K. Lamb

    Spot on, Carmy. Most people do not realize the challenge in writing for children. It is much harder than other age categories, in my opinion. For myself, I find writing in the young adult/new adult categories much easier. You can be more fluid, your sentences more complex and descriptive—all of which has to be toned down into simplified text for young, beginner readers. It is much tougher than it appears, especially, when you are trying to keep newer readers engaged.

    Writing for children is a labor of love. It is why I have my “Dani” series. I want to share the gift of reading with the younger generation. However, when it comes to personal satisfaction as a writer, you will find me most comfortable and in my element writing for the older set.

  • Julie Gorges

    Great advice! I also have people asking me to look at manuscripts. But I am shocked how many do not take the time to learn the basics before wanting to submit a book for publication. I would add to your excellent advice, no matter the genre, take classes, read books on writing, attend writer’s conferences. Cut your teeth writing for magazines or websites – start with smaller ones or literary magazines and work your way up before tackling a book. I used to write for children’s magazines and wrote young adult novels. You are so right – it’s not an easy category like people assume. Go for your dreams, but be willing to work for it.

  • Sandra Bennett

    Well said Carmy, often people don’t realise the time and effort it takes to write for children. It is not easy, it is a labour of love. It is important to remember it takes times, a lot of learning, reading, writing, re-writing and editing. Not to mention a fantastic support team. Fellow authors are your friends and always around to offer encouragement and advice. We can’t do this alone even though writing may seem a solitary effort, it is not. Appreciate being a part of this awesome group.