One of the biggest challenges I encounter in my editorial practice is picture books that show character change in a clumsy or overbearing way. Picture books, more than any other category of kidlit, are about character change, a moral, or a lesson. A strong takeaway is expected because we want our young readers to be eating a little bit of medicine (the moral) with their syrup (the story). Like those cookbooks for moms who want to sneak veggies into brownies. But how do we do this effectively, without turning readers (and agents and publishers) off with too much lecturing? It’s all about character!
So how do we write picture books that show character change without explicitly stating the lesson? It’s a rather simple answer: let the character have some realizations and then act upon them. At the same time, do not explain what the character is learning.
Bad: “And Kim realized that sharing IS caring!”
Better: A scene of Kim sharing with her friends and finding satisfaction in it, but without this satisfaction being explicitly explained.
Better: Kim encouraging a younger sibling to share, but also without explicit explanation. (Kids love to play the teacher role, so showing a child passing on their new knowledge to someone else is a great solution!)
Use the moral you’ve come up with as a starting point. Then write three scenarios where the character can actively learn the lesson, enjoy the lesson, or pass their wisdom on. One of these will invariably be better than a straight explanation of the moral.
Unrealistic Character Change
One thing to keep in mind about picture books that show character change is that they should also be realistic. Even preschoolers know that people don’t change 180 degrees overnight.
Yes, we all hate bullies, and we all want kids to share, and we want our preschoolers to tell the truth. But you aren’t going to get anywhere near a realistic and nuanced character if: your bullies vow to never bully again; kids always share forever and ever from this day forward; and your character will never tell a lie in their whole lives, not even a little harmless one.
Honor your reader by not feeding them an overly idealized view of the world. This practice sets up false expectations. Kids are humans, too. They shouldn’t be held to these impossible adult standards for Victorian-era good behavior, not even in picture books.
Because that bully in the preschooler’s real classroom will, unfortunately, bully again. I’d much rather you strive to teach that transformation happens with little choices and in small steps, as that honors the real life process of behavioral change.
The idea of author platform is vitally important to all writers, but today’s question is about how it relates to writing nonfiction for children. Here is Dena’s question:
I know for NF you need a strong platform, but what if you’re not a teacher? What sort of platform do you need for NF in the MG and younger age range?
Platform and Nonfiction for Children
When we sit down to write fiction, “write what you know” is often enough to get us started. We’re making it all up, anyway! Well, not so in nonfiction for children. There, the idea of qualifications—including our author platform, professional identity, areas of study, etc.—comes into play. The question becomes:
Who are we that we can (and should) write this particular story?
After all, if I’m a parent looking to buy a book on bugs to supplement my child’s learning, do I want a book written by Carl, an enthusiastic but amateur bug fan, or Peggy, a trained entomologist (bug expert) working in the field? I think we can all agree that the latter would seem most qualified. (To be clear, not everyone who writes nonfiction needs to be a PhD level expert in their field. But qualifications like “teacher” or “scientist” don’t hurt when you are writing about relevant topics.)
Does that mean Carl’s story lacks value—educational, artistic, or otherwise? Is Peggy’s book better simply because of her experience? Not necessarily! Carl could have an amazing piece of nonfiction for children on his hands. But now Carl does have to overcome some bias in the marketplace, because he may not be seen as the most credible or desirable source.
In other words, Carl does not have the best platform for writing in his particular nonfiction area. Is this a dealbreaker?
Getting Around Platform
There are ways for Carl to build his case—and his platform—that will allow him to pitch his nonfiction for children and attempt to have his project considered seriously. (Explore the topic of author platform for fiction writers.)
First, Carl can do comprehensive research and include a bibliography and author note at the end of his nonfiction manuscript, which shows how he arrived at his data. When we write nonfiction for children, we aren’t discussing the topics at the graduate level. Writers are generally painting in broader strokes and avoiding too much jargon. So it’s easier to research a topic intended for a children’s audience than, say, a thesis dissertation defense.
That being said, the quality of your research counts here, especially if you are trying to compensate for a lack of credentials. Publishing credits, even if they’re not in your current interest area, also establish credibility and can offset your lack of platform.
A great way to build your platform would be to ask a consulting expert to contribute—and transfer some of their credibility to your project. In your pitch, it would look compelling to say that you’ve reviewed your nonfiction for children about dealing with feelings with a child psychologist or school counselor, for example.
Bolstering Your Nonfiction for Children Platform
In addition to the strategies listed above, you should also think about building your platform as you get into the submission process. In an add-on to my WriterType Marketing Roadmap resource (called Repurpose Your Content!), I divulge ways to spin any content you create or research you do.
Why not try to publish a nonfiction article on the same topic in a children’s publication or newsletter? You’ll now have a writing clip in your new field to add to your platform. The research has already been done. It’s literally a free opportunity to build your author platform.
In a similar vein, find an expert in the field and interview them for your blog, newsletter, or podcast. They may even sign on to consult on your manuscript. Now you have some social media content for your platform, a valuable connection, and another inroad with your topic.
Think creatively if you don’t have a nonfiction for children resume already in place. You may have to work harder, but victory will be that much sweeter!
For in-depth personalized advice on your children’s nonfiction, hire me as your picture book editor.
The unique thing about kidlit is that there are many children’s book genres and categories to choose from, and the divisions in children’s books are much more segmented than, say, the adult fiction world. (The reason for this is simple—your target audience is changing drastically in regards to their ability to read independently, they are also changing according to age, maturity, and a ability to process and understand information. These same kinds of changes simply don’t happen as rapidly to readers from other demographics.)
Many children’s book writers are interested in writing for more than one age group. Read on if you want to learn about writing in several children’s book genres and categories.
The Difference Between a Genre and a Category
First, one nit I like to pick: there’s a difference between a “genre” and a “category.” A lot of people call picture books a “genre.” Nope. But this line of thinking is so prevalent that I’m using the keyword “children’s book genres” to talk about categories so that more people find this post now and in the future.
A “genre” is a stylistic description. You immediately know that a romance is going to be a different style of book than high fantasy or hard sci-fi. That’s “genre” at work.
In children’s books, we have different “categories” or “audiences”. Books that fit into these are each written for readers at different ages, of different reading abilities, and in various stages of mental and emotional development. That’s simply because kids from age zero to eighteen make a ton of leaps.
Now that you know the lay of the land of children’s book genres and categories, let’s say you want to write for multiple audiences. This is totally worthwhile, and there’s more commonality between, say, a chapter book and middle grade than a business nonfiction book and a memoir for adult readers. The characters are similar in age, the language is similar, and the intended kid readers are going to be only several years apart from one another.
The first thing to know is that you must be very comfortable with multiple age categories before you attempt to write, say, a picture book on the one hand, and a YA romance, on the other. Understand the differences in your reading audiences in a holistic way first—what will each age of kid want to read about?—and then bolster that understanding by using appropriate language, word count, and character age. These differentiators are the bare minimums when it comes to writing across children’s book genres and categories.
It’s also crucial to understand that these category guidelines and requirements are going to be somewhat inflexible. You can always write a 300-page picture book full of words at a college reading level, yes. But your odds of publishing one successfully in the tradition or indie setting are going to be very low, because such a project is unlikely to speak to your target audience.
It takes many writers a while to learn and deeply understand the needs, requirements, quirks, and sensibilities of one children’s book category. If you can bring this keen understanding to two or more children’s book genres or categories, you may be a good fit to “double dip” or more.
Building a Career in Multiple Children’s Book Genres or Categories
Because of the intended audience in kidlit—children—we face unique considerations when we want to build a career writing across children’s book categories or genres. In my consulting practice, I hear variations of the following question all the time: I write racy erotica, but also board books. How do I market myself without scandalizing children or confusing the BDSM crowd?
This is obviously an extreme example, but the conflict remains. It’s also compounded by the fact that, through about middle grade, your readers are technically and legally unreachable online and you’re marketing to parents, educators, and librarians instead. It isn’t until upper MG and YA where you are actually reaching your intended target audience.
My advice goes back to what I learned as an agent when doing career counseling: You are welcome to switch children’s book genres or categories, if you can pull more than one off well, but only after you’ve established yourself. Write three really strong picture books, then attempt to publish and market a middle grade.
If your audiences are two different, consider setting up multiple areas of your author website and social media, or multiple accounts altogether (in the example of your erotica presence vs. your board book marketing). I would discourage aspiring career-makers from hopping around, first to picture book, then young adult, then middle grade, then chapter book.
You can write all of these children’s book genres and categories at one time, if it keeps your creative fires burning, but I wouldn’t attempt to publish them in such a sporadic pattern. Make a name in one arena, then branch out. Otherwise, you may confuse your audience and waste precious energy and marketing resources duplicating your brand-building early on.
Looking for custom career advice? Hire me as your publishing consultant and we can draft your way forward together.
To increase narrative tension avoid the sense of “limbo” in your fiction, give your characters a sense of their past, present, and future. You want to spend most of your time in the present, sure, but if you don’t weave in the past and future of your character eventually … the present will start to feel like limbo. And readers will not want to be in limbo for long.
Start in Action
One of the notes I give the most in my editing work is to start in action, whether it’s a simple picture book or complex young adult novel. If you cannot choose a scene or moment that is sustainable for a page or two (this applies to novel or picture book), then it’s not the right place to start.
Most common is zooming away to fill in backstory. For example, “I sit in the assembly, looking around. There’s Phoebe, my best friend since kindergarten. The day we met …” and then we’re off to kindergarten.
Readers need a reason, like narrative tension, to keep reading your work, especially when you launch a new story. A scene that you sustain allows them to truly sink in. Ideally, there’s enough action to get them invested. Something is happening. The character is allowed to be active and proactive (readers love a proactive character).
And while some of us are trying to achieve a “be here now” mindset in our personal lives, this can actually backfire in your creative writing. Sooner or later, the character’s past and future need to come to the party to create narrative tension.
What is Narrative Tension?
To quickly define it, narrative tension means something in the story that keeps a reader invested in reading. My favorite thing to talk about (well, one of like 5,000) is loops. Humans hate an open loop—something unresolved. That’s why writers need to open loops as they go. Usually, the loop asks the question, “What will happen here?” Or, “Will the character get what they want?” Or, “Will this thing from the past ever be resolved?”
If our characters exist only in the present moment, going from scene to scene, we risk our power to create narrative tension, or open and close the maximum number of loops.
Weave in Narrative Tension and Context
Think of how your own mind operates. In a normal span of fifteen minutes, I spend woefully little time in the present. I’m usually “time traveling,” as I call it. My mind is either dwelling on something in the past, or worrying about something in the future. (Looking for meditation app recommendations, plz!)
Characters should spend a bit more time in the present than I do in my personal life, but you can use this tendency of the human brain to “time travel” to add narrative tension and open loops.
As for the past, think of your character’s wound (vulnerabilities) and need. They have probably experienced something in the past that shaped them and needs resolving in the present or future. They may think about it once in a while to plant seeds and drive up tension.
As for the future, think of your character’s objective and motivation. What they want and why they want it. Maybe the wound/need (past) and the resulting objective/motivation (future) tie together into something the character can pursue in the present. (Hint hint: They should!)
Bringing It All Together
Think about your chapter endings. Ideally, this is where you’re really reminding your readers of the loops open in your story. I like to have characters either learn something new in the present, or set themselves to really pursue their future goals. This adds instant narrative tension.
Have you developed your character’s wound, need, objective, and motivation? If not, drop everything and start daydreaming.
Are you struggling with narrative tension in your picture book or novel? Let me be your freelance editor and we can find it together.
Picture book illustrators need an illustration query letter to break into the field. You have several extra considerations when crafting an illustrator query letter and starting to pitch your illustration services, so here’s how you will want to approach the topic of pitching yourself and your art.
Getting Work as An Illustrator
There are several ways to break into picture book illustration. The first (and best) is creating a picture book project from scratch. A lot of picture books these days are sold as author-illustrator projects. Why? This makes things easy for a publisher. They deal with one creator, the art and text tend to have more complex interplay, and they don’t have to go through the arduous process of matching a text to an artist.
But you can also try your hand at an illustration query letter if you want to enter a publisher’s stable of potential illustrators (they all have one). This is the more circuitous route, with (often) less pay-off. If you don’t have a picture book project ready to go, though, this is what you’ll have to do. The bare minimum you need is a portfolio.
Picture Book Illustration Portfolio
Before you think about writing an illustrator query letter, you will need to assemble some materials. A strong illustrator portfolio needs to be available and viewable online (more on this later). As a bare minimum, it should contain:
6 to 8 fully finished illustrations
Different styles, if you have them
Different compositions, if you can, with some close-ups, and some wide angle scenes
Different subjects, from settings to characters
A special focus on characters and faces–portraying emotions is key for picture book illustrations
If you don’t have this kind of work available yet, you aren’t ready to pitch your portfolio around. Concentrate there, first.
Making Your Illustration Portfolio Available
There are two main ways to showcase your illustration work. The bare minimum is an illustration portfolio that’s viewable online. Many websites, like Wix and Squarespace, can help you put together a visually appealing, easy-to-navigate website for cheap. (I personally use Squarespace for my editorial website and a WordPress blog hosted independently for this website. I highly recommend Squarespace for ease of use. I’ve been using WordPress for over a decade and am comfortable with it, but it tends to have more moving parts.)
Since most literary agents and publishers don’t accept unsolicited email attachments, having your work hosted online so you can direct them to a website is key.
Mailings and Other Opportunities for Illustrators
The other approach is to target literary agents, artist reps, and publishers with postcards. (Artist reps are specialized literary agents who work with illustrators. Some illustrators opt to get a literary agent, and those are usually illustrators who are also interested in writing their own books. Some, who are interested primarily in illustration work, target art reps instead.) Use a website like Vistaprint (though do spring for better quality paper so that your art is reproduced faithfully and in more vivid color) to print postcard mailings. (I recommend Vistaprint for the first few mailings because they’re cheap and run promotions, but for quality reasons, you’ll want to move on from them eventually.)
Use books like Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market to find and target literary agencies, artist representatives, and publishers (aim for the art director role at houses) with your postcard mailings. Showcase one to three of your top pieces and include a way to contact you on the back of the postcard.
A third way to showcase your art is to go to conferences that feature portfolio showcases or join the SCBWI, which has an area for illustrators to create galleries. There are a lot of other places to showcase art online, like creating a portfolio with Deviant Art, for example, but the SCBWI and conferences with illustrator opportunities are very targeted to the publishing business.
(For every activity you do, consider what you want to get out of it. Are you looking for representation for your art? Are you looking to connect directly with people who might be looking for illustrators to hire, like self-published authors? (Check out more tips on self-publishing.) Are you looking to do all kinds of illustration, from editorial to picture book, or to target picture books exclusively? Some of these questions and answers are beyond the scope of this blog post, but food for thought. More thoughts on illustrating your own children’s book here.
The Illustrator Query Letter Made Simple
If you are pitching a picture book project along with your illustration talents in the query letter, you will want to follow my advice for the picture book query, but also add a paragraph that contains any illustration credits you have (magazines, blogs, etc. count!) and links the recipient to your online portfolio.
If you have a dummy of your picture book, you will need to transmit it somehow since, again, most agents and publishers don’t accept unsolicited attachments. Have a PDF available and upload it to your website, but don’t make it widely available. Instead, put a direct download link in your illustration query (or make the file password protected and send credentials). You can also use tools like Google Docs and Dropbox to generate a link to a file, but make sure the links don’t expire.
If you are just sending an illustrator query letter to literary agents, art reps, and publishers that pitches your general talents, you will want to keep it very simple. You don’t have a story to pitch, so instead give an abridged resume of your experience and a link to your online portfolio. Easy peasy! What will really set you apart here is a strong sense of your publishing history (so work on getting illustration jobs) and your online portfolio (so spend valuable time developing it).
I work with illustrators, too, as a picture book editor, so don’t hesitate to reach out for feedback on your art!
Picture book manuscript format flummoxes a lot of aspiring children’s book writers because there is so much potential variety. In my career, I have seen hundreds of examples of picture book format. To help you stand out in the slush as polished and professional, I’ve developed a picture book manuscript format handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers. (Need advice on actually creating a picture book?)
Picture Book Manuscript Format
Picture book manuscript format tends to vary WIDELY. Some writers have it down. Others think they’re paginating correctly if they allocate a separate manuscript page to each line, resulting in a 32-page Word document that contains 300 words. (More info on picture book word count.) What if a picture book manuscript template existed? It would certainly streamline things. As is, some writers include illustration notes, others stay far away. How do you paginate a children’s book? How do you format illustration notes correctly? This resource answers those questions (and here are more thoughts on illustration notes in your children’s book manuscript).
Remember that picture book format is just one small component of a successful children’s book submission. You also have your picture book query letter, and, well, the most important thing: an awesome manuscript! Don’t focus so much on picture book manuscript format that you lose sight of character, plot, and writing style. Those are going to take you a lot further than a nice-looking, polished file … but the latter certainly doesn’t hurt.
As a picture book editor, I work with writers on all aspects of the picture book craft, from creating a compelling children’s book manuscript (in proper picture book format, of course!) to nailing the query letter. Contact me for personal, actionable advice on your project.
There are quite a few ways to think about picture book structure. Here, I’m going to present a looser “Problem and Solution” structure, and a more specific page-by-page breakdown that you might find interesting.
The Basics of Picture Book Structure
Keep in mind that you are working with 24, 32, or 40 pages for most picture books, with 32 being the hands-down favorite. Take three or four pages away because you need to accommodate front matter (like the copyright and title pages), and I’d say you have about 28 usable pages to work with.
When you are planning your picture book, imagine telling the story in individual pages (either the right or left side of the book, “profile” view) or spreads (both pages, “landscape view”).
How do you fill those pages? Spend five of them describing the character’s favorite ice cream flavor and how nice they are? NOPE. You need to dive right into story without wasting too much time. Preferably, you will jump straight into action. Here are two examples of common picture book structure that you can work with.
Picture Book Structure: Problem and Solution
When I was doing some speaking on picture books in 2012, I wrote a talk that incorporated simple Problem and Solution picture book structure. Basically, your character is introduced in terms of a problem they’re having. Then they make several attempts to solve the problem, before some kind of resolution. It looks like this, assuming that your book starts on page 4 because of front matter:
Page 7 to 8:Raise the stakes (establish why the conflict fights the character, what happens if they don’t get what they want, etc.)
Page 9 to 18: First two attempts to solve the conflict, story stakes rising
Page 19 to 26: Third and biggest attempt
Pages 27 to 29: Climax and success hanging in the balance
Pages 30 to 31 or 32: Resolution, reversal, final image (whether you go to page 32 depends on if you end the story on the right side of the page or after one more page turn)
Note: These page number prescriptions are a starting point for helping you map out your thinking, they are not a hard-and-fast rule.
Character Development in Picture Book Structure
Nobody cares what your character’s name is or what their favorite ice cream flavor is. Sorry. You do, but nobody else does. That’s not what makes them a character. Fancy Nancy was a character not because she liked poodles but because her whole driving passion in life was making ordinary things fancy. This is a characteristic that will fire up reader imaginations.
So once you’ve established a character with an objective (something they want) and motivation (why they want it), you can give them a conflict that grates against who they are. This makes the conflict more powerful, and gives them extra reason to want to solve it. Is also establishes stakes–what happens if they aren’t successful, why it matters.
Otherwise, if readers don’t understand why your specific conflict is a big deal for your specific character, your whole story won’t matter. But if you create a strong foundation that ties character to plot, their attempts to solve the conflict will be noble, and the classic Problem and Solution picture book structure will work well for you.
A Reminder About Preaching in Picture Books
But keep in mind something I mentioned above. Their attempts to solve the conflict. That means you’re writing a proactive protagonist who is going to drive the story.
This idea for picture book structure comes entirely from Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s HOW TO WRITE A CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK: VOLUME I: STRUCTURE. Her writing on the topic of picture books is definitely worth investigating. I’ll summarize the structure here but won’t reveal several fine-point components, in fairness to their creator.
The Components of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Book Structure
This is a looser wrapper and more applicable to different types of story. It has a lot in common with the Problem and Solution structure, but there are some nuances. Here’s how it goes:
Act I: the Beginning or the set-up, about 20% of the story or 5-7 pages
Plot Twist I: a plot twist that separates the Beginning from the Middle
Act II: the Middle, or the primary action, about 60% of the story
Midpoint: a moment in the middle where the story splits into a “before” and an “after”
Plot Twist II: a plot twist that separates the Middle from the Ending
Act III: this contains the resolution or the Ending, about 20% of the story, or 5-7 pages
What I really like about this Symmetrical Paradigm is that it inspires writers to carefully consider what separates the different sections of their book, the plot twists and midpoint, which provide emotional layers to the character and story.
Examples of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Books
Bine-Stock cites many classic examples in her book, and her explanations are worth looking into. They include:
There are exceptions to every rule. While the above are good options for narrative-style picture books, those aren’t the only ones around. Non-fiction picture books are their own animal, and need to be organized according to the narrative structure of their subject matter (for example, in a picture book biography, the subject’s life is going to provide its own flow).
Concept picture books or picture books for very young readers often have their own structure, and it tends to be very repetitive. Alphabet books are obviously organized according to … the alphabet. And concept books like DUCK RABBIT by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld follow a Problem and Solution framework but only insofar as there’s a question asked, and then variations on an answer (or question) are given over and over. If you examine that example, there isn’t really a resolution at all.
Let’s dig into your own picture book project. Hire me as your picture book editor and get advice customized to your manuscript.
If you want to write children’s books, writing child characters has to be a special interest, and always top of mind. The thing is, children are different from adults. For a lot of wonderful reasons. For some people, it’s very easy to channel their childhoods onto the page. For others, it takes constant work and course-correction. Here are some tips.
Writing Child Characters Believably
Nailing the mindset of a child the same age as your protagonist is crucial. As I write in Writing Irresistible Kidlit, and as I’ve said at many conferences across the country, kids have amazing built-in BS detectors. It’s hard to ring true with them because they are so absorbed in their experience, they’ll be able to pick out those who can’t connect to it very easily. (It’s the bane of every parent’s existence to be called out for not understanding, after all.)
For a lot of writers attracted to children’s books, this comes rather naturally. There is something about a young child’s experience that they remember from their own lives. They remember being a child and have something they want to say about it. Or they have a child the age of their protagonist to connect with. Something about parenting children has inspired them.
No matter where you stand, it’s always a good idea to get back in touch with your inner child–because that’s key when writing for children.
Remember Your Childhood
You may want to bean me with a yoga mat for this suggestion, but I am a big fan of journaling to help you get into (or out of) a particular headspace. When trying to connect with your inner child, don’t hesitate to write letters to that age of child, write letters from that age of child, or write diary entries as that child. Don’t try too hard to think, don’t judge yourself for what you’re writing or its quality.
Simply write. (Ha ha, easier said than done.)
Soon enough, you may find that words are starting to flow and ideas, memories, or feelings may surface after a long, deep sleep. The key isn’t just to do this once. If you want to write for a certain age group, do this over and over and concentrate on what it was like to belong to that age group.
Also, and this goes without saying, this is one of those exercises that only works if you do it. Thinking about doing it and doing it aren’t the same thing.
Connect With Modern Kids
Not in a creepy way, obviously. But another piece of the puzzle if your childhood muscles are rusty is to be in the same room as living, breathing children for a while. Volunteer for story time at the library, hang out with nieces and nephews, offer to host your teen’s next sleepover or sports party. Don’t lurk, but don’t close your listening ears or your observation eyes, either.
Childhood is different today than it was in your time, even if your time was a few years ago. A lot of the feelings might be the same, but the plot points are new. There are different issues at play. The world is different. Scarier. Bigger. Smaller. Bullies can do their dirty work on a screen or with guns instead of with their fists, for example.
Channel your inner child, but talk to contemporary children as well. They’re fonts of information and they will be more than willing to share if they believe you to be genuinely interested in their experiences.
Read, Read, Read When Writing Young Characters
Have I beat this dead horse into the ground yet? Read. Even as you’re journaling to connect with your former self, and hanging out with actual kids the age of your characters, you’ll want to see who else is working in your space, and what they’re doing.
If you’re not already reading in your chosen category, what the heck are you waiting for? If you’re at a total loss for great books, start with award winners. These are writers at the top of their game, and all kinds of age groups, genres and styles are represented. Check out the Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Newbery, Printz, Belpré, Stonewall, Morris award winner and honor books, and more. Here’s a whole list of all the awards given by ALA. This is certainly not the end-all, be-all of books published that you should be reading, but if you’re desperate for a reading list and don’t know where to start, this will lead you down a great rabbit hole of your future favorite authors.
Writing Picture Book Characters
Special considerations for writing picture book characters (and, to an extent, early reader and chapter book) include remembering that these kids are still very much developing. Their worlds are quite small. They have a family and home that fill up most of their lives. They are learning a lot and being told what to do constantly by parents, teachers, siblings, etc.
As such, your books for this age group need to empower and inspire. Kids need to be put in the starring role, to solve their own problems. Well-meaning and wise adults cannot solve everything for them. For these ages, play on universal themes like love, loss, friendship, overcoming challenges, and trying to find what makes you special. These ideas will resonate in a big way with little kids who are still extremely egocentric. (This is not a slight. Developmentally speaking, young kids have a hard time differentiating that others are different from them and not simply there to suit their needs until they’re two or three.)
Think of what’s important to the littlest kids in your life. Writing young characters for picture book and connecting with children the age of your readers is especially important when writing for the youngest age groups, because you may not have very distinct memories of what it’s like to live in the moment and feel everything as intensely as little readers do.
Writing Middle Grade Characters
I love writing young characters for this age group. Nowhere else is the split between child and grown-up felt so acutely. Middle school-aged readers (and those slightly younger) are in frenzy of activity around developing their identities. Yet they also crave a safe haven when life gets to be too much, or when they get in over their heads. To all the world, they might be confident young citizens…but sometimes they’d much rather run and hide under their covers or have Mama bring them hot chocolate after a rough day.
Identity, friendships, and realizing that the world has shades of gray (including their suddenly fallible parents) are key themes for middle schoolers. Issues like communication, bullying, and figuring out one’s own moral code and integrity will come up a lot in the most emotionally resonant plots.
Though many of us probably don’t want to go back to middle school–it was such a cruel and confusing time–this is the proving ground for your middle grade characters. Where they figure out who they are, who they want to be, and how to start bridging those gaps. If the split between childhood and teenage-dom isn’t felt in your MG fiction, put this idea on your back burner as you revise.
Writing Young Adult Characters
Teens aren’t just miniature adults with fewer responsibilities. They certainly can seem that way sometimes, but assuming this is a big disservice to the age group. Teens don’t want to read your romanticized version of teendom. They experience everything in larger-than-life terms (which makes for great fiction). Their problems are incredibly real to them. And they don’t have the tools necessary to put their lives in context yet, or deal with their problems in healthy ways.
Remember, teens were kids just a few years ago, even if they’ll do anything to distance themselves from that idea and prove that they know better. At the same time, teens do have moments of clarity where they’re aware of their limitation. This vulnerability is an incredible thing to write into. It’s what makes YA so alive and electric.
The teen years are full of defining experiences, big questions, big fractures, and the seeds that will stay with a person for their entire lives. Who were you when you forged your identity? How do your teen characters grapple with this responsibility–if they want to touch it at all? How are they still children, deep down? This split-personality element of YA is so interesting to write.
No matter how old your characters, or how you get into the headspace of writing them, you just need to keep authenticity in mind. Write from an authentic place, and you will attract readers who value vulnerability, truth, and genuine prose. Sorry to go all Brené Brown on y’all, but I like to be reminded every once in a while of what we all aspire to.
Are you striking the right tone, voice, and emotion in your children’s fiction? Hire me as your developmental editor for anything from picture books to young adult novels.
Many writers get tripped up on picture book writing style: What kind of syntax should you aim for? What type of words to use? Should you worry about reading levels? What the heck is a Lexile score? Learn how to write a children’s picture book that impresses literary agents and publishers.
Why Picture Book Writing Style Matters
Children’s books are a unique subset of publishing because you’re dealing with many different age groups and reading levels. When you write a novel for adult readers, you don’t really have to think about this stuff. It’s presumed that most people will be pretty proficient readers, otherwise they’re probably not seeking out your average literary fiction novel.
When you write for young readers, you do have to take reading level into consideration. Not so much when you’re writing young adult fiction, because those readers are already well-developed, but it’s something to think about in every category leading up to YA.
Embracing the Picture Book Writing Style
Unfortunately, I’m not a big proponent for strictly writing to Lexile scores, nor will I provide you with a vocabulary “green light” list for picture books. I’m the wrong resource for that sort of thing. I believe in teaching more open-ended concepts that allow writers to make their own decision.
So to me, this is the heart of the matter: The biggest consideration when it comes to picture book writing style is that your language and syntax are accessible to the audience. These issues are especially important if you’re writing children’s rhyming books.
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, most picture book writers could use a reminder of who your audience actually is for the 0-5 age group that typically reads picture books. This is perhaps a misleading question. Because here, your readers are:
Adults who are reading the book aloud to a very antsy toddler-aged child with limited attention span, or, far behind them, in second place,
Kids who are only just beginning to read independently.
Write for Your Audience, or Your Audience’s Audience
“Well, you’ve confirmed it. I’m writing for adults when I write picture books,” you might be thinking. “So what’s the problem with my clunky syntax and advanced word choice and sentences that stretch on for entire paragraphs? Adults can take it.”
Adults might be able to take it. But their antsy audience (with limited attention span) won’t. And even if an adult could take it the first three times, by the seventh reading of the night, they might tire of flat, complicated prose as well.
The biggest sins I see when it comes to picture book writing style are these long, convoluted sentences. Wondering how to write a children’s picture book? KISS! Keep it simple, silly! Big, complex sentences do not belong in writing for the youngest listeners and readers. Believe me when I say that your adult readers, child listeners, or first-time independent readers want short, energetic, snappy prose.
It’s not that young readers/listeners aren’t capable of understanding great complexity. They are. But there’s a difference between complexity of idea or story or emotion, and complexity of sentence. You want the former, not the latter.
How to Address Picture Book Writing Style Issues
In almost all cases, the solution is simple: Read your work aloud. I don’t care if you feel silly doing it. Print out your manuscript and pace around the room and read. Or, better yet, ask someone to read it to you. (More info on read aloud books here.)
Mark where they stumble. (You know your work well, so you’re unlikely to falter. Someone who hasn’t read the actual sentences will be a much better test of rhythm and flow.) Mark where they run out of breath in the middle of a sentence.
Remember that picture books are read aloud more often than not over their target audience’s life cycle. Do not pass “go,” do not dare submit, do not dare go one more day without reading all of your picture book manuscripts out loud for real.
And if you find long-winded, clunky, dry, or otherwise uninspiring syntax? Chop it up. Swap out your business memo words like “caused” and “exited” and “vehicle.” Then read the draft aloud again.
You’re writing for young readers. You’re allowed to be a little more hands on!
Take some of the guesswork out of the writing and revision process. I can be your picture book editor on one or multiple manuscripts!
How should a writer approach political children’s books? I received an interesting inquiry today from a potential editorial client. (Just as I was casting around for blog ideas! Hooray!) The writer has written a book for young children and, before sending me the manuscript, warned me that it had a specific political bent about Donald Trump. This writer wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t be offended. While this is considerate of the client, it’s not my job, as an editor, to bring my own political biases into the editorial process.
But the question did get me thinking: What’s the role of politics in children’s books? Especially books for younger readers? Here’s what I came up with.
Political Children’s Books: The Real Concerns
When I come across books that have any kind of bias, whether it’s political, religious, philosophical, etc. it’s never my job to comment on the actual content.
My concerns, instead, are the following:
Does the political element work in the context of the story? Is it necessary or is it gratuitous?
Is the message and its packaging appropriate for the intended audience?
How might this political element affect pitch and marketability?
This is the same way in which I would treat an “issue book.” For example, if there is a book where the character happens to be a certain sexual orientation, I’m always asking, “Is there more to the story than this element, or is this the central focus?” I ask this because I doubt that a book where politics is at the very center, or sexual orientation is at the very center, and nothing else is going on, is going to be very marketable. Readers expect multiple layers from a story, so if it’s just “a political book” or just “an LGBT book” with no other significant plot or character arcs, then I worry that it’ll fall flat. A story cannot stand on one element alone.
Another way of thinking about it is this: If I remove the political element, what’s left? If the answer is, “Nothing,” then you may have written a rant or an opinion piece or a manifesto. But a story? Maybe not.
Depending on what role the element plays, and the writer’s execution in including it, a political element in fiction could be either an asset or a liability.
The Marketability of Politics in Children’s Fiction
The other issue to consider regarding political children’s books is that of marketability. This consists of two parts:
In children’s fiction, you have the additional element of your audience’s age to consider (read more about identifying audience here). Sometimes, politics in children’s books plays well. Consider dystopian YA novels. All of those authoritarian governments have a political message, and most of those stories have something to say about ideas of human rights and individual freedom. Plus, the YA audience is going to be more aware of current events, and more receptive to themes that lend themselves to the dystopian genre.
But a picture book about federal regulation shutting down a lemonade stand, bolstered by a discussion of big government? I just don’t know if a typical picture book reader (3-5 years old) would find that very relevant. You might be speaking to the adult reading the book, but that disenfranchises the core audience (the kid) and I doubt you’ll get very far.
You also have to think about the potential publisher. Most major houses like to make money. If they publish polarizing fiction, they may alienate potential customers. Sure, there are a lot of left- or right-leaning houses, editors, or imprints, but you should at least recognize that your opportunities to place the manuscript are going to be limited if it has an overt stance.
So How Do You Include Politics in Children’s Books Successfully?
All this being said, you still have a message for young readers. These are, after all, political days, and your idea probably feels very relevant and timely to you.
Go ahead and include your political message. But also give careful consideration to writing believable child characters who minimize preaching. You might want to go Wizard of Oz with allegory, or disguise the political force (an oppressive student government at school, for example). Make sure there’s more to the story than the message. There should be compelling characters and high-stakes plots driving political children’s books.
Make sure it’s appropriate and relevant to your audience. Is a three-year-old really going to be fired up about Grandpa Joe’s long discussion of tax reform? Will a nine-year-old understand the intricacies of your Cold War references?
In the same vein, search for agents, editors, and imprints who are open to politics in children’s books. An agent who has a few books about social justice on their list might be much more willing to “go there” with you, for example.
Finally, check your motives regarding your drive to write political children’s books. Story must come first. If your main interest is in preaching or converting or soapboxing, you’re likely not coming to the page with the right intentions. No matter which side of the aisle you’re sitting on, save the grandstanding for your Twitter. Political element aside, you still need to practice the storytelling craft.
Do you want to make sure your manuscript is compelling without being preachy? Hire me as your children’s book editor and we can convey your message along with compelling characters and a high-stakes plot.