“I have an idea for a childrens book and I’m not really sure where to start.”
The simple answer is you start by writing the book. In children’s literature more so than any other writing the work is almost exclusively “on-spec”. This means, you have to start by writing the story in the words you imagine they should appear on the page before you submit them to agents, publishers, editors, etc. And getting started really is as easy and as hard as that.
But as you’d expect, it’s not that simple.
Children’s books are strange, complex organisms. It’s one thing to say, “I have an idea so I’ll write a book,” and another to successfully turn an idea into the kind of words needed to reach your readers.
For starters, there is a broad range of children’s books primarily established by reader age. So before you begin writing you should ask yourself: Is this a book parents will read to their babies or toddlers? Is it a book for early readers to read together with established readers? Is it an early reader read alone? Is it a middle grader, able reader? Is it a tween or preteen chapter book? Is it a Y.A novel?
Establish the age and reading ability you think your idea is best suited to reach because each style of book is written in very different ways.
Toddler & Baby Books aka Board Books (30-150 words)
There are a couple of different types of Board Books, some are picture books printed in board book format, but others are skills-based introducing vocabulary, numbers, colours, etc. Board Books should have very few words to a page because little readers are often more eager to turn the page then to wait until long passages have been read. They introduce babies and toddlers to the concept of books as something fun to see, explore, and enjoy and are printed to withstand mess and mouthing.
Young Children’s Picture Books (300-600 words)
This is perhaps the most common book type meant when a writer thinks about writing for children so I’m going to save it for now and come back to it in more detail later.
Early Reader Shared Reading Picture Books (400-1000 words)
This is the domain of Aulexic. We focus primarily on picture books written to be read by established readers to and with children who have language and literacy difficulties such as dyslexia. They follow the same concepts of traditional picture books but have richer vocabularies and more rhythmic and rhyming construction that encourages predictive reading and joyful repetition. They can also introduce talking points and more complex storyline because the comprehension is supported by sharing the reading experience with an able reader and are written for older children who have deep interest but limited literary foundation.
Early Reader Read Alone (level 1 = 100-600 words, up to higher levels that reach into 5,000 words)
These books require many of the traits of the early reader shared reading but are much more restrictive in vocabulary. It is vital to use 99% words assumed to be known by readers based on their established reading level. These books may have fewer pictures but early levels definitely have fewer words than an Early Reader Shared Reading book because the early reader will tire quickly as they develop skills in decoding, working memory, and comprehension.
Chapter Book (4,000-15,000 words)
Chapter books are leaning much more toward novel format. By now they are reading primarily black text on white or cream paper. These books may include some hand-drawn-style illustrations but images are not dominant on the page and there are generally far more words than pictures. The chapters are kept short so that emerging readers have opportunities to rest between sections.
Middle Grader (15,000-40,000 words)
A step up from chapter books are the middle graders. These generally have no illustrations unless it is a decorative chapter divider. Chapters are kept short and tight.
Y.A. Novel (40,000-80,000 words)
This is the closest variation of children’s book to what is considered “just a book”. But Y.A. Novels are still written for readers who are not yet adults and need to be written with an awareness of the fragile development still in progress in its young reader. These books can touch on some serious topics, they can be emotion-rich, they often focus on a very centric teen protagonist making decisions they feel are life or death within the viewpoint of the narrator who is often also the protagonist. They are usually very intense and can get risqué. But it is important to remember your reader is not an adult and still requires sensitivity so you should avoid explicit content in language, sex, and violence.
Back To Picture Books
Bright and colourful, the picture book brings together expressive language with beautiful illustrations. If you write and illustrate you may be able to present a very talented whole package for publishers and publishing, but you may be an author who gets paired with a talented illustrator or an illustrator paired with a writer.
In traditional publishing, an author who does not illustrate their own work has very little influence on illustration. Their domain is the words and exclusively the words. You write the words, turn them over to your publisher who pairs your words with an illustrator. You don’t usually get an opportunity to give notes on the images you want and in many cases cannot reject the illustrations that are chosen for your book. The two worlds are vitally linked in the book but surgically separated in production.
In self-publishing, picture books can be very exciting to create because you can team up with or commission your illustrator and guide the artistry as well as the words. When I write as Bec J. Smith for Aulexic I start by brainstorming story concept and outlining the story with my children, Kaylie (14) and Joshua (10), then draw up storyboards of each page.
We often make this activity a day trip excursion. For example, book one we brainstormed in the one-hour drive to the beach. I spent the few hours they played in the ocean drawing storyboards and firming up the concept with their suggestions and support. For book two, we spent the day at Perth Zoo and outlined the story while touring the animals. The next day I drew up the storyboards in a three hour ‘writing’ block at our regular Sunday write in at Armadale Library.
I then gather photographs and write one-sentence descriptions to accompany each storyboard. All of this goes to the illustrator I’ve commissioned. I found him on Fiverr.com, he lives in Indonesia and English is his second language so it is important that I express what I want in a very visual way. But it’s amazing because he takes my very rudimentary (aka terrible) sketches and turns them into magical art.
Once I have the illustrations I use Adobe InDesign to layout the picture book and then construct the words and language to fit the pictures. In this way, the concept informs illustration but illustration informs text. It becomes a true symbiosis between the two vital parts of the whole picture book process.
The Simple Not Simple
So, as you can see there isn’t really a clean and easy answer to, “how do I start?” The industry is huge and regardless of the route you plan to take there is a LOT to learn. And, depending on the route you take, the process can vary considerably. But you do need to prioritise creation, because you’ll learn fast through doing, and being willing to make mistakes, and in learning in bites the bits and pieces you need to know as you need to know them.
It’s great to get tips, advice, and guidance along the way, so if you have a question about writing books for children or publishing, drop me an email and I’ll tell you more!