In conversations with thousands of authors, we’ve found that many have at least this in common: They loved reading, even before they could read.
Most of us can look back to our own childhood and find the seeds of who we would become between the worn covers of our most beloved picture books.
And it’s common to want to pay that forward. Whether it’s through reading to the children in your life, gifting them the books that were meaningful to you as a child, or writing a picture book yourself, you can use children’s literature to help influence the next generation—the ones who will help build the world you want to see.
In the world of transformational non-fiction, many authors have crossed over into children’s books to spread their message. Dr. Wayne Dyer wrote several children’s books over the course of his career. Nick Ortner, Hay House author and kn literary client, has published three. These authors found that they could repackage their ideas and aim them at kids as part of their greater mission.
So, I’ve rounded up the questions kn literary’s matchmakers most often receive about writing books for children.
Before I answer them, let’s get a few things clear. We’ll start by looking at the many types of books that are aimed at children.
Children’s Book Subgenres
First of all, there are quite a few types of children’s books. They’re generally organized by reader age.
Board books are aimed at babies and toddlers and are printed on thick cardboard. The text is usually standalone words or simple sentences, while the focus is on the pictures.
Picture books, whether hardcover or paperback, have their content printed on glossy paper and are aimed at children aged three to nine and the adults who read to them. Every (or nearly every) page is illustrated, and while full sentences generally drive the content, the sentence structure and vocabulary are simple. Picture books can appeal to children of a variety of ages, generally focusing between three and nine.
A sort of picture book/chapter book hybrid, picture storybooks include illustrations on either every or every other page, but the sentences and the stories themselves are more complex. These are generally aimed at ages five to nine, depending on reading skill, and are often read with an adult.
Easy readers (also sometimes called early readers) are aimed at the same age group, but they’re meant to help teach skills and encourage independence through using simple language and repeating vocabulary.
Finally, chapter, middle grade and young adult books are aimed at kids who are reading independently. Aimed at ages five to eight, eight to twelve, and twelve and up, respectively, these books may include a line illustration here and there, but not heavily illustrated and are most often printed in regular black-and-white ink rather than color.
Please note: Because each of the above subgenres has a specific set of factors that will set it up for success, and because picture books are the ones we most often get asked about, the rest of this post specifically focuses on children’s picture books.
Reading Audience vs. Purchasing Audience
Though the content in picture books is aimed at children, the books themselves are also aimed at adults.
This is because while children are technically the reading audience for picture books—even before they can read!—adults are the purchasing audience. Picture books are bought by parents, grandparents, teachers, and dedicated aunties (like myself!).
Getting that purchasing audience interested in your book can be no small task.
As Reid Tracy (my friend, mentor and the foreword author of my book The Book You Were Born to Write) often says, the biggest struggle he has faced in marketing children’s books is that most adults lean towards buying the books they remember fondly from their own childhood.
In other words, convincing them to move away from classics like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish or Goodnight Moon can be tricky.
That’s why the best picture books are aimed not only at the children who love them, but also at the adults who buy them.
One way to do that is by hooking your purchasing audience with an idea that has changed their own lives.
That’s precisely what self-help authors like Wayne, Nick and others figured out how to do. And it’s the perfect way for you to transmit your transformational ideas to the younger set!
Why Write a Children’s Picture Book?
Even though writing a picture book can be tricky, and marketing it even trickier, it’s an important way to make your mark on the world.
I believe that kids absolutely have the potential to create an entirely new world—the world that I, myself, would like to see created.
As classic young adult author Madeline L’Engle once said, “…if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
So I absolutely commend you for stepping into the world of children’s books, and I’m committed to helping you as best I can.
Now, let’s dive into the questions we most frequently hear about children’s books.
Frequently Asked Questions about Children’s Books
Which age group is appropriate for my book, and how do I best reach them?
Though picture books are aimed at kids from approximately ages three to nine, I suggest you narrow that range for your own purposes. Every book needs an ideal reader, and if you’re writing a children’s book, that reader will be at a specific stage of development.
First, take a look at the method or idea you’re promoting with your book—perhaps it’s how to be a better friend, or learning to take deep breaths, or feeling our feelings with an open heart. How old does a child need to be to comprehend your idea?
Some ideas are more universal and could be tailored to a wide range of ages. In that case, take a look at any elements of your story—such as the character(s), points of conflict, or setting—that you have already determined. Then, ask yourself, which age group will relate to them?
For instance, the idea of school, and everything associated with it (school buses, schoolmates and teachers), will be much more likely to appeal to a child over the age of five.
Then, make sure everything else in the story more or less matches a child of that same age. Set the story firmly in that child’s world, creating characters of roughly their age. Give those characters problems that your reader may need to solve in her daily life (say, giving away her favorite sticker even though she is attached to it, or feeling sad about a friend who moves away) and age-appropriate triumphs (like facing her fear by riding the school bus for the first time).
If your book is funny, make sure it’s funny for kids in your target age group. Great picture books speak to children’s unique concerns, joys and challenges. The more you can picture that ideal reader in your mind’s eye, the more likely you are to be able to achieve that end.
How many characters should I use, and how should I develop them?
Most picture books focus on one main character or protagonist, regardless of how many auxiliary characters there are in the story. At maximum, aim for two main characters.
A great rule to follow is to keep fewer than five names in your story. This will help ensure that each of the characters you name will mean something to your reader.
The protagonist is usually a child. In some cases, the main character will be something else that represents a child—like an anthropomorphised animal (e.g. The Berenstain Bears) or even an inanimate object (e.g. The Little Engine That Could, who gave us the classic self-help motto, “I think I can! I think I can!”).
The auxiliary characters are usually other children, wise adults, or non-human but adult-like characters (e.g. The Giving Tree) who offer the protagonist guidance.
Be sure to give all your characters easily identifiable features (physical features, catch phrases, or personality traits) and then refer back to those features over and over again. Children love repetition!
Remember: simple is best. The more your reader can understand your characters, the more she will identify with them.
I want to teach something. How do I set it to a story arc?
At the heart of nearly every story is a conflict that needs to be resolved. In the case of a children’s book, we recommend that the protagonist’s conflict be their need to learn something. One or more auxiliary characters will help them learn it—either by directly explaining it to them, or by guiding them through a process of self-discovery.
If your concept is very simple and you need to build more story around it, consider having your story reach a few, even very subtle, mini-conflicts before the final conflict. In all cases, the story will likely end with the resolution of the primary learning conflict you’ve chosen.
How long should my book be?
Unlike adult books, children’s books are very uniform. The majority of picture books contain precisely 32 pages, about 28 of which are story. The other pages are made up of front matter, such as title page, copyright page, etc. Each set of two pages is called a spread, and most stories have 14 of them.
The number of words distributed throughout those 14 spreads varies based on the ideal reader’s age. Younger readers will appreciate books of 300-800 words, while school-aged children can usually handle 800-1200 words. At the absolute maximum, a picture book should be 2000 words. (And if you’ve ever tried to read to kids at bedtime when you, yourself, are exhausted, you’ll know why!)
Should I get an editor?
Ok, I bet you already know what I’m going to say: Yes. You should get an editor.
Even—in fact, especially—if you’re going to try to pitch your book to a publisher.
It’s not easy to convey something important in fewer than 2000 words, and your editor’s job is to make sure that each one counts. As renowned author Eric Carle openly admits, “Children’s books are harder to write.” Roald Dahl, who wrote both children’s books and adult fiction, stated that children’s books are “deceptively simple.” Making a story both sufficiently simple and sufficiently compelling requires you to strike a delicate balance.
Some authors will choose to bring their draft to someone who works with children, such as a teacher, parent, or nanny, to determine whether their draft is age-appropriate before they consult an editor. This makes a lot of sense, and I support it!
But after that, please find an editor with experience in picture books to help you hone each word. Your editor can help you with factors like rhythm and balance, ensuring all 14 spreads of your book are compelling.
Finally, many editors can help you develop your idea into a first draft. I like to say that it’s never too early to get an editor on board!
How do I prepare my manuscript for an illustrator?
First off, your manuscript should be completely finished with the editing process before an illustrator gets involved. (We’ve seen it go the other way around, and it can create a big mess!)
That said, you can be thinking about and planning for your illustrations all along the way!
An art log is a simple document that helps the author explain their vision to the illustrator. While there’s no one way to do it, a simple format is to create a basic table in a document. In the first column, note the page number, and which spread its in. In the second column, explain the main action happening on the page and where you want your reader’s eye to go first—whether that’s a character’s face, a picture of a house, or the zoomed-out view of a playground scene.
In the third column, include any relevant background action you’d like depicted. And in the fourth* column, note your vision for how the illustration might be presented. You might designate for the page to be full bleed (i.e., running all the way to the edge of the page, and including any text embedded within it) a double-page spread, spanning both pages, or a single-page illustration with a white border.
Some spreads may have very few words, if any at all, because the picture is telling most of the story. The art log will help you convey what’s happening between the words, even before the illustrations are created.
*This fourth column is unnecessary if you’re pitching publishers; read on.
Should I hire an illustrator myself? If so, where do I find one?
This depends on how you plan to publish. (If you don’t know your options, I explain them in this video.)
Most traditional publishers will provide an illustrator of their choosing. Since they are taking a fairly big risk on publishing the book, they will want to control its look.
In fact, most publishers would rather not see illustrations in your proposal, unless you’re working with a seasoned, previously published children’s book illustrator.
Self-publishing authors, on the other hand, will need to find an illustrator on their own. I recommend you find one who has children’s book illustration in her background. The illustrations should match your book’s tone, target age, and message. An experienced illustrator will know how to make that happen.
Prices vary widely, but in general, you can expect to pay more for traditional, hand-drawn or painted illustrations than you will for digital ones. It can be very tricky to convey your vision to another person, so you may need to explore working with several illustrators before you find the perfect match. Once you feel you’ve landed on the right one, I recommend hiring the illustrator to create 1-2 pages to start. That way you’ll be able to see if you like their work as much as you had hoped, before engaging them to illustrate the entire book.
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Writing a children’s picture book can be both rewarding and fun. I hope this FAQ has been helpful as you take your next step! If you’ve already written a picture book, tell us about it below!
And if at any point you get stuck, just remember that little blue train’s affirmation as she went up the mountain: I think I can! I think I can!
Whether you have a draft in hand or you’re just toying with a book idea idea, our matchmaking team is at the ready to give you some free advice on your project. Simply Schedule a Call.
Kelly Notaras is the founder of kn literary arts and the author of THE BOOK YOU WERE BORN TO WRITE: Everything You Need to (Finally) Get Your Wisdom Onto the Page and Into the World, published by Hay House. An editor for 20 years, she’s worked at HarperCollins, Penguin, Hyperion and Sounds True. She speaks regularly at the Hay House Writer’s Workshops and offers consultation by appointment. Find out more about how she can help you with your book.