It’s tougher to keep a child interested because a child doesn’t have the concentration of an adult, but it’s a lovely thing to try to do – Roald Dahl, author of 17 children’s books
I may know a lot about children’s concentration being a classroom teacher for more than three decades, but I’m still learning what makes some books so very exciting for children while other books are easily tossed aside.
So what tips can I offer in writing for children, specifically as a ghostwriter?
1. The Idea
The idea is the most important factor. So spend some time thinking about what the client wants. If you are at a loss for ideas, think about the types of books you liked as a child or skim through some children’s books at the bookstore, library or online. What makes any of these books special? Now brainstorm your own possibilities until you have flushed out a set of characters and a possible setting, action and resolution. Does this match with what the client intended? Do you have something unique and catchy? You will know it when you go through this process.
2. Think of Your Intended Age Group
It is advisable to use main characters who are either the same age or slightly older than the intended audience. In other words, if you are writing a book for 7-10 year olds, it is recommended that the characters be about 10-12 years of age. There could still be a younger character, but don’t have all of the main characters under 7.
Make sure each character is interesting and necessary to the development of the plot. Ensure that the characters change or solve something. Have a terrific ending. Nothing ruins a children’s story more than not realizing the story is over. When the children read the last line, they should know the story is over and they should be able to look back on that story fondly.
If you’re writing a children’s book, it pays to be familiar with how publishers classify them. Clients will also ask you about this, as they expect (and rightly so) that the ghostwriter is more knowledgable in this area than they are.
Publishers generally assign age groups for readers of various formats as set out in the following list:
Board Books: Newborn to Age 3
These are small books, typically (although not always) square-shaped with a standard size being 6×6 inches – making them easy for the young children to handle. The length varies, but 12 pages is typical with 300 words or less (in terms of your text, think one-half to one page with single words on each page, or a few very simple sentences). The subject matter is simple with basic plots. Many include a focus on the alphabet, numbers or colors with songs, rhymes and finger plays. The illustrations are bright and colorful. The pages may ask the children to lift tabs, touch, feel, and make sounds – basically to have fun with reading.
Picture Books: Ages 3–8
The recommended word length here is 400-900 words with a standard picture book length of 32 pages. Pictures dominate the text and the text complements them. The topics are endless and have simple, linear plots. They usually with one main character with whom the child identifies. Some fun suggestions are rhyme, rebus or modern adaptations of a popular fairytale. Picture books for older children may have more than 900 words and use higher vocabulary and a more developed plot. There may be longer chunks of text on a page. Illustrations do not play as big of a role, but they do appear minimally on every other page.
Early Readers: Ages 5–9
These books are called “easy readers”, “beginning reader” and “easy-to-read” books. They have 2 -5 sentences per page, and if they have chapters, the chapters are short (1 to 2 pages) with approximately 1,000-2,000 total words. The books tell predictable storylines with simple vocabulary, usually in the form of dialogue or action. Topics include family, friends, pets, school, holidays, sports, first day of school, etc. There are color illustrations on every page or double page, but these are not crucial to the story.
First Chapter Books: Ages 6–9 or 7–10
Chapter books are for children who are reading independently. These books have more complex sentences and a developed plot. Paragraphs remain short (2-4 sentences). The character is the main focus; the ending plays a major role in sustaining interest. The average range is 4,000-12,000 words with a range of 40-60 pages. These books often have black and white illustrations or in some cases, no illustrations at all. Early chapter books (sometimes called “transition books”) have bigger print and slightly shorter chapters on average (2 to 3 pages for about 30 pages) compared to more advanced chapter books which have chapters that are 3 to 4 pages long. Chapter books are often written as a series.
Now choose an idea and develop the story. Get it down on paper. Make sure it flows from beginning to end. Have you provided enough background so the reader can grasp the story? Did you add some excitement and offer a resolution that will make kids want to read the book? It might be funny. It might be sad before ending “happy”. It might make them think. Just be careful to avoid writing a book that is “preachy” or talks down to kids. Kids like learning but not
necessarily being lectured. Think of illustrations and how your writing can trigger a great illustration. Sometimes ghostwriters are asked for illustration ideas so try to visualize the book as you write.
4. Use Descriptive Language
Children love animals to anthropomorphize them or use alliterative names (Robbin’ Robin or Sassy Squirrel). Build up to the climax. Don’t just tell it. You can explore using rhyme or repetition. Younger children love to hear words or phrases repeated and, in turn, join in the
“reading”. Make the words fun and the story come alive.
5. Rewrite and Polish
Never say that your story is finished until you have reread it and made repeated edits so the story is the most inviting possible. Start with the names. Are the names of your characters interesting and fitting to their character traits? Will the reader be able to keep the characters separate? If not, make each character more unique. Are the places interesting, too? Are the actions of the characters credible? Is something solved or accomplished, changed or finalized in the book? Think of the book’s purpose: if it is to entertain, did you do that? Make sure your book matches your client’s needs.
Go through your story several times to find any punctuation, spelling and grammatical errors. Vary your sentence length and your word choice. Add dialogue. Use the dialogue to tell the story rather than narration.
7. Page Breaks
You may be asked to make page breaks in your story. It can be as simple as numbering your pages accordingly or indicating with a code like PB (page break) where a page ends. Even if you are not asked to do this, it is a good idea to keep in mind. Knowing where the pages turn will improve your story’s pacing and help with keeping your book suspenseful. And you’ll see which scenes have too much text as the words won’t fit on the page!
Usually a picture book will have 32 pages. Of these, you will have 24 pages of text since 8 are used for the book ends, the copyright and title. These 24 pages equal 12 spreads (an illustration that spans the two opened pages in a book). There are self-ended and colored ended books.
In a self-ended story book, the printed book block serves not only for the story but also for the end pages. (The printed book block is pasted directly onto the cover.) So page 1 is blank and pasted down on the inside cover, pages 2-3 the end pages, page 4 the copyright, and page 5 the title. Your book begins on pages 6-7 and ends on page 28-29. Then pages 30-31 are end pages with page 32 blank and pasted on the inside of the back cover.
With colored ends, colored paper serves as the end pages. Page 1 is the cover with page 2 as the copyright. The story begins on page 3. There are 14 double-spreads of text ending on page 31, followed by an additional ending page, page 32. Some picture books have single-page illustrations instead of spreads.
8. Have Others Read it
Find someone who enjoys children’s books and ask them to read the book. Listen to their honest critique. Make adjustments accordingly. Actually, I have a sister who is my go-to person when I need writing advice and repeated readings. It is a great sounding board to have someone you trust read what you wrote.
9. Please your Client
When sending the story to your client, make sure you are prompt. Also be available to answer any possible questions and offer to adjust the story in any way that the client wants. Be positive and open to the needs of your client. Remember, their satisfaction is as important as the quality of the book itself.
10. Continue to do your Best
Like most things in life, the more you write – the better you will become. Just keep telling yourself that. Let’s face it, you chose to write a children’s book for some reason, so continue. Strive to do your best.
There you have it – 10 tips on writing children’s books. Now it’s time for you to write for this fun demographic. Remember, it’s a lovely thing to try to do.