Five tips for writing illustrated children’s books that kids will actually read
Children’s books are a unique genre in that they require not only expert storytelling and illustration skills, but also a keen focus on the audience before the story is even crafted. Whereas novels and memoirs geared towards adults can interest a wide range of readers, illustrated children’s books have to focus on very specific topics targeted at specific age groups. If you’ve got the basics of a story for a group of youngsters in mind, consider the following tips to turn an outline into a fully developed book.
1. Balance your childhood with that of the children you now know.
Your inspiration for your children’s story likely comes from your own childhood or from that of a child you knew. Whichever of the two it started with, you’ll want to gain perspective from each side, which requires a little back and forth. Getting into the mind of your young self is key as you likely have detailed memories of happiness, disappointment, and frustration, and these real-life emotions will help to build out your story. Observing children you know in current situations will also offer a perspective of how children’s reactions to their feelings may have changed based on societal influences since you were a child yourself. Most importantly, don’t dumb the language and messaging down. Your young readers will notice and the message won’t resonate with them.
2. Do your homework.
Research the children’s book market, and get a sense of what’s already out there. Learn a little bit about which books have succeeded and why. Get in the heads of the kids in your target demographic and really understand the key emotional triggers for that age group. And don’t forget to focus on the illustrations. Aside from being high quality, they need to be consistent. Children respond to the details in images, so if the main character is wearing a red had and later ends up wearing a blue hat, a child will notice and be confused about the inconsistency. The best children’s books have stories and characters that are relatable and visually memorable.
3. Know your audience(s).
Illustrated children’s books are written for, well, children. But don’t forget about the book-buying audience—parents, teachers, friends, and relatives. This idea of a dual audience is key when putting pen to paper. While Darcy Pattison believes “it’s preferable to have a young child as protagonist, or an animal” since “it needs to be someone who the child reader can relate to,” you’ll need to balance that with what an adult buying the book is often looking for. They’re usually focused on books that feature lovely illustrations, clever text, or moral lessons in an interesting and engaging way. And, most importantly, a book that’s well-written so they can stand to read it “one more time” on a nightly basis.
4. Show and tell.
One of the most appealing aspects of creating illustrated children’s books is the ability to tell stories and convey messages through both words and pictures. Children’s book author Dashka Slater explains “A picture book is 32-pages, a very tight space in which to work. So you have to use all the tools you employ as a writer, in terms of plot, character, beautiful writing, jokes and everything you know how to do but you have to do it in very few words. It really helps to read picture books and see how people do it.” If you feel your illustrations are subpar or art just isn’t your thing, don’t be afraid toseek out an illustrator with whom you can collaborate. You want to do whatever it takes to make every page of your book work hard in support of your story.
5. Keep writing.
It’s easy to get started on multiple stories, especially when you’re excited about different ideas, but there is something to be said for completing one story at a time. Dave Shelton knows all about it, and says “don’t write the beginnings to 20 different stories. Write all of one story. Keep going to the end, even if it’s bad. Then go back to the beginning and change it. Even if it’s awful, it’s a better place to start from than having just a blank page.” It offers you a basis of the time and effort it takes to write a story from start to finish, and also allows you to finesse your story in editing—which is where many believe the magic happens.