Updated: Mar 2
The first novel I wrote is women’s fiction. It’s based on the coming of age stories of me and my friends. It took me three years to write it...and it’s terrible. I wrote it because I needed to write and as soon as I finished I knew it would never emerge from the depths of my files into something more, but I wanted to write. I love to write. I needed to find my way.
Shortly after finishing the novel, I was giving my son a bath and we were telling stories. We often played a game where one of us would say something like “Tell me a story about Santa Clause, a pair of cleats and a corndog.” This particular night, we came up with a story together that I thought was just great. It occurred to me that I should write it down. I could write children’s books! Why hadn’t I thought of this before?
After a few drafts, I decided what I had written was gold and began to submit it everywhere I could find. After a whole lot of rejection (shocking, I know), I realized I had a lot to learn. Writing children’s books is a completely different endeavor than what I’d done before. It requires new disciplines and strategic thinking. It requires viewing you work from a variety of perspectives. It requires precision. It also allows for a tremendous amount of creativity and fun.
My full time job, though important and satisfying, is not one that allows me a lot of right-brain creativity. Writing for kids opens up possibilities for me to explore to my heart’s content. The real beauty of writing for kids is that dragons or talking flowers or kids in space are normal. These are the genres that brought us Flat Stanley, Junie B. Jones, and Harry Potter. Your imagination is your only limit, so enjoy.
Children’s literature is a big industry because kids are readers. Other than publishing professionals, I can’t think of any other group of people that are actually required to read every day. My son must read 30 minutes a night just to get by in school. Kids make their way through a large quantity of books every school year, meaning there is a lot of opportunity for sales. There are also a lot of people who think that writing children’s books is easy and anybody can just jump right in (see previous paragraph).
One of the most challenging parts of writing for children is realizing that children seldom buy books. Even the most avid young reader is asking their parents to purchase books for them or borrowing them from their school library. Thus, it is critical, when thinking about marketability to consider not only a story that kids will love, but a story that parents, grandparents, friends or teachers will buy. This dynamic of writing for very different audiences requires a lot of perspective. When you think of the books you loved as a kid, try to remember how you came across them. Looking at your work from various perspectives can make it a lot better and a lot more successful.
One of the things I think writers find appealing about writing for children is short story length. It seems easy to only have to write a few thousand words or even a few hundred, but I would venture to call that the hardest part. Consider a picture book: they max out around 500 words. In those 500 words, editors expect to see a complete story arc, characterization, voice and even a moral lesson. I’ve never written a picture book first draft that I didn’t have to cut in half.
Writing an age appropriate story in the correct reading level is a skill I have yet to master. It is difficult to align the story you want to tell with the exact language you should use. Think about how different a six year old kid is from a nine year old. Not only is their ability to read highly varied, but their interests will be worlds apart. I recently got some very good advice on this from President of Triada Uwe Stender. He suggested immersion, the same kind you hear about when people learn a new language. Uwe suggested that I set aside hours, go to the library and read (and read and read and read) in my age group until I can only think in that reading level, then write the story. I have tried software to determine reading level and it hasn’t served me very well. I’m still open to suggestions.
The best advice I have to offer, though, is simple: educate yourself. There are fantastic resources out there to help you understand the nuances of writing for children. My current favorite book is The Magic Words by Cheryl Klein, but there are countless resources out there. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is an excellent organization to learn from. I’ve especially enjoyed their regional events. I’ve also learned a great deal from following children’s book professionals on Twitter. There are plenty of people out there who want to help you, myself included, so take advantage of that.
About the Author: Katie Evans is a children's author from Southern California, where she lives with her family. Katie has participated with Writer's Workout as a Games and Team participant, a 500 participant and a 500 judge. Katie can be found at authorkatieevans.com or on Twitter @kruark.
*Illustration by John Coulter