THE BASICS OF WRITING FOR CHILDREN

For this blog, I want to discuss some of the basics in writing children’s books such as the different types of children’s books, current trends, and what needs to be included for the age they are written.

As an agent, I receive several hundred manuscripts a year written for children—everything from illustrated picture books to new/young adult novels. As an author, in addition to my six published novels written for adults, I have had two middle-grade novels, and two young/new adult novels published. Over the years, I have learned a few things that make a children’s book appealing to an editor, and I have observed many changing trends. It is some of those things I want to share with you.

To begin with, children’s books are not a genre, but a specific kind of writing. The books themselves embrace almost the same genres as adult fiction and nonfiction, with the added dimension of being age-specific. The term “Children’s Book” is broad, and it covers everything from the picture book, which is simply captioned pictures, to the sophisticated young/new adult science fiction novel. Within that range, you can find historical fiction and nonfiction, adventure, romance, mystery, detective, science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Themes and subject matter change rapidly in children’s books. What might be popular today will probably be forgotten tomorrow. Gone are the days of Pokey Little Puppy and The Shy Little Kitten. A vivid, and sometimes harsh, reality has spread through all age groups. Now for picture books, we have Suzie Cockroach, the story of a black child living in a New York slum area with no friends other than a cockroach that lives under the kitchen sink. Or, more recently, Everybody Poops and Poop Is Fun. And we don’t want to forget that book that came out not too long ago titled, It All Began with a Bean, and it answers that all-important universal question of what would happen if everyone had flatulence at the same moment. What was once considered a nice book for children has been shoved to the background and replaced with cutting-edge reality and off-beat humor.

In order to be successful in writing for children, it helps to have a broad knowledge of modern fiction. Except for books written for the very young reader, children’s novels these days are expected to have logical plots, themes, character development, and style. So what are some of the genres you will not find in the children’s book world?

– You are unlikely to find erotic horror (although there are vampire stories at the YA level), and you won’t find straight erotica.

– You won’t find romance at the younger levels (although it certainly flourishes on the YA shelves).

– You probably won’t find police procedurals, but certainly mysteries are popular at both the middle grade and young adult levels.

– Books about friendship are common, and may lay the ground for later romances.

Although there are always exceptions, in general children’s books usually follow certain rules:

– Children’s books are usually shorter than books for adults.

– Characters are usually young; the rule of thumb is that the main protagonist and the viewpoint of that character(s) should be one or two years older than the intended readers.

– Books for young (pre-teenage) readers will probably have a simpler vocabulary and less introspection.

– Endings will often be “for now” or “until the next time”. For example, a romance between two 14-year-old protagonists can rarely end in any kind of permanency. If seeking a happy or satisfactory ending for a children’s book, you should look for the best solution “for now” (at this point in the protagonists’ lives).

– Happy or satisfactory endings still rule in books for young children, but teenagers are just as likely to find their books ending sadly or resignedly.

– The “freedom” of childhood is less likely to be used as a theme in modern children’s books.

– The main difference between writing for younger readers and writing for adults, apart from the age of protagonists, is that the writer should see things from the viewpoint of a child or teenager. Whatever the situation, you should focus on the way it affects the young protagonists. Certainly adults should be presented as well-rounded and credible characters, but they are not the main focus. If you find yourself empathizing with your child-character’s parents instead of with your hero or heroine, you must change direction—and remember that you are writing about children rather than for them.

– Young adult or teenage fiction is still considered part of the children’s book world. The ages of the protagonists will probably be somewhere between twelve and twenty. Teenagers are generally more skeptical and less accepting than younger children, so this should be reflected in their fiction. In my young adult novel, The Cadence of Gypsies, the story centers around three high-spirited 17 year olds, all three orphans, and all three with intelligence quotients in the genius range. They accompany their teacher to a small village in Italy in an attempt to help her discover the truth of her own past. There is mystery, humor, fear, and sadness throughout the story written at a level that can be felt and understood by older teens and adults. Because it is written for older teens, I was able to write from the viewpoint of the three girls as well as some of the other adult characters revealed in the story.

– Picture books, sometimes called picture story books, will have a short text which usually falls between 400 and 800 words. It will almost certainly have thirty-two pages, it will begin with a statement or setting out of a situation, and it will close with a punchline or affirmation. The illustrations will interpret rather than illustrate the text, and will add quite a lot of information. The main character(s) will probably be a young child, who may interact with an older person, animals, toys, or even fantasy characters.

– Falling between the picture book and young adult novel come chapter books or middle grade novels. These are novels of most genres with subject matter and characters designed to appeal to children. They come in a variety of lengths and formats, from the quick and easy reads illustrated lavishly with line drawings to the more substantial books for older, more confident readers. Mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy are especially popular with this age group. Children’s chapter books may well be longer than young adult novels, but will usually fall somewhere between 10,000 and 70,000 words.

– Most recently a new category called “New Adult” has been added, and this category includes books that are written for readers in their early twenties, already finished with school, and probably out in the work force. These books focus on themes and problems associated with that age group, and are more explicit in word choice. The length of a new adult novel can vary, but it tends to be slightly longer than a young adult novel, around 60,000 words and up.

I hope this information will help you as you try to decide where your voice is and which age group it will appeal to. Good luck!

Barbara