Have you wondered how to write a children’s book? A lot of people do! The idea of crafting a sweet or silly tale that delights young minds and hearts is a compelling invitation.
Maybe you already have an idea about subject matter or a memorable character in mind. Perhaps you are inspired by favorite books from long ago (Judy Blume, anyone?). Frequent guidelines suggest just 500 to 1000 words in the average picture book—and many people who are not children's book writers wonder how difficult this could be.
Harder than you think.
Children's author Margaret Meacham sums it up well:
“Well-written picture books are works of art that demand an intuitive sense of child appeal, and like poetry, a firm command of language.”
In this article, you'll learn all about how to write a children's book with writing tips that will help you craft your writing for the littlest reader.
How I Became a Children’s Book Author
I never dreamt of being a picture book author. I became one unexpectedly.
How this started was I wrote, illustrated, and self-published my first children’s book, The Gift of an Angel, in 1997—long before self-publishing was a thing.
I was recovering from brain surgery in my twenties with a lot of down time. Inspired by my large circle of support—earth angels, I called them—I wrote a book about the belief in a guardian angel for every child, printed a few thousand copies of my book at a local shop (I was optimistic!), and began peddling them to gift shops and book stores around town.
Emails came to my inbox telling me how my feelings were their feelings—a huge “Ah-ha!” moment for me. In one year, I sold 10,000 copies, which quickly lit the fire in me to create more books that honored life’s emotions and relationships.
One book became two. And two became seventy-plus with millions sold.
For sixteen years, I co-ran my own publishing company with my husband before selling my book line in 2010 to Sourcebooks, Inc., the largest independent, women-owned publisher in North America.
With them, I still create and learn daily how writing children’s books performs in the business. I also understand how a children's book, in the business of publishing, needs to sell to a target market with a benefit to the buyer and reader.
And that distribution–how and where you’re going to sell it—is everything.
If you want to become a children's book author, you can't separate the writing from the business.
The Making of a Children's Book
There’s a lot of thought, preparation and nuance that goes into creating a successful, sellable children’s book that engages all types of children and, equally important, connects with parents, teachers, or caring adults who will it read over and over (sometimes at 9:00pm, when they are done reading).
This separates the books that publishing houses, book editors, and readers choose for a child’s bookshelf versus the ones buried and abandoned in the bottom of a toy trunk, or not bought at all. Or not published.
I want to help you write a successful children's book. I want to share what I’ve learned about writing for children—from where to get ideas and illustrations to how to publish and market—from my twenty-plus years as a bestselling book author.
Throughout my journey, my personal mission as a writer hasn’t wavered: To create books that help you share your heart and connect with those you love.
This knowing what you want the experience of your books to be can help focus your creating and help you build a clear brand as a writer.
3 Key Factors to Consider Before You Write a Children's Book
Before beginning your dive into children’s book writing, there are three key factors you need to know and consider.
1. Book Category
When you walk into the children’s section at a bookstore or large retailer, you will see several categories of books that comprise this department, shelved in different areas.
The target age ranges are rough guides to a child’s age, maturity and reading proficiency that will dictate a buying decision:
- Board book (newborn – 3)
- Illustrated picture book (ages 2-8)
- Easy reader and chapter book (ages 6-12)
- Middle grade book (ages 8-12)
- Young adult book (span the younger and older adolescent years of 12-25, depending on content)
I suggest you wander into a bookstore or retail book department and familiarize yourself with the different types of children’s books, their page and/or word count, complexity and use of graphics. You will get to see, too, the great variety of book design and book format within each broader book category.
2. Target Audience
One of the more challenging aspects of writing for children is to meet your audience where they are in terms of topic, word choice, writing style, and comprehension.
Specifically, are you painting a picture through words and illustration that makes sense to your reader? Does it have some harder words but not too hard as to be frustrating? What topics do the child reader's parent, caregiver, or teacher have on their list?
Often we get close to an idea because it is personal to us. We need to ask ourselves, “Who else will care?”
Know why you're writing your children's book, and you'll probably have more success writing it.
Find supporters and mentors to motivate and encourage you. Some of these might include:
- The Write Practice blog (I am newly writing a series on this topic.)
- Take a writing class or join a writer’s group in your community to learn more about the craft of writing and to gain feedback on your ideas.
- Seek out one of the many online groups focused on writing, publishing, marketing. Several popular groups I belong to include Children's Book Authors and Illustrators: Publishing, Marketing and Selling, Binders Seeking Literary Agents and Children's Book Authors, Illustrators & Self Publishing.and Black Children's Book Authors and Illustrators. The generous sharing is so helpful and encouraging in what can be a tough industry.
- Join a literary organization that has local chapters and/or an annual conference, for example, The Society of Children's Book Authors and Illustrators (SCBWI)
- Engage with a teacher, librarian, fellow parent or book professional who can offer insight into the concerns and interests of today’s families
How to Write a Children’s Book: The Nitty Gritty Details
Given my long tenure as a children's book author, I have been privy to the sales numbers of many titles through the years.
Some great sellers, of course, are expected (celebrity authors) and others are baffling (Why is that book about hedgehogs eating donuts so popular?). Most are the tangible outcome of an author following these eight steps to writing a successful children's book.
Note: Since my experience and success lies in illustrated picture books, I am speaking below to this specific category. However, I believe any children's writer can benefit from these suggestions that address the basics of creating a book that connects with its intended audience and sells.
8 Important Steps to Writing a Successful Children's Book
1. Know Your Story Intention
I find children's picture books are divided into two main types: emotion sharing (I LOVE YOU SO…, THE WONDERFUL THINGS YOU WILL BE, ALL BECAUSE YOU MATTER) and story telling (SOUL FOOD SUNDAY, THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT, GIRAFFE'S CAN'T DANCE).
To help find your story intention, ask yourself a few of these questions”
- What do I want my reader to know at the end of my book? (The ABC's of Black History)
- How do I want my reader to feel at the end of my book? (Empowered to own their worth and pursue their dreams)
- What do I want my reader to do at the end of my book? (Brainstorm a way they can help take care of the planet in small ways)
- What do I want my reader to understand at the end of my book? (The definition of a refugee and how we can support them in our community)
2. Choose a Universal Theme or Niche Message
What your book idea is about will directly inform who wants to buy it. One of my go-to lines about my own work is:
“I write for the unique everybody. Our stories are different and our feelings a lot the same.”
When you set out to write your book, ask yourself what topic is timely and holds universal appeal (i.e., love, diversity, empathy, anxiety, life skills, grief) or which theme captures a niche topic like divorce, adoption, immigration, climate, or blended families.
To help you clarify the universal theme or niche message in your picture book story idea, you might consider using the X as told through Y approach.
Memoir coach Marion Roach offers an excellent formula that can be applied to kids books as well:
“It's about X as told through Y.”
The X is the universal, the Y is the story. Using Lisa Katzenberg's picture book, IT WILL BE OKAY, for example, her story is “about empathy and kindness as told through a zebra helping his worried giraffe friend.”
The story structure and character development will follow that specific character helping his friend.
3. Choose a book title and cover image with high salability
Imagine yourself standing in a bookstore surrounded by thousands of competing titles. Think of your perfect title and cover image as your way of jumping up and down saying, “Pick me! Pick me!”
A good book cover design is your clear promise to the reader.
In a fraction of a second, you need to tell your potential reader what your book is about and the tone they can expect (sentimental or funny, for example).
Your best title isn't always the most creative title. Clarity is queen. WHEN ANIMALS KISS GOODNIGHT. BE BRAVE LITTLE ONE. HAIR LOVE. Your choice of book illustration goes a long way to communicate this promise, too!
A silly monster or dancing elephant conveys humor while a child tucked in bed hugging a teddy bear communicates a sweet bedtime tale. Similarly, are you choosing to depict your book characters with people or animals — or nothing at all? (Check out the unique bestseller THE BOOK WITH NO PICTURES.)
The use of bright images is key, too, to draw your reader in. Each choice you make contributes to your clear promise.
Some book titles can be enhanced with a descriptive, powerful subtitle. For example, Dan Santat's picture book, AFTER THE FALL featuring a cute egg has the subtitle How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again.
This additional book description quickly tells you it's a story of resilience. A recent title from Sourcebooks is called OUR WORLD IS A FAMILY with children of all nationalities on the cover. Its subtitle—Our Community Can Change the World— quickly communicates a story of inclusivity, connection and kindness.
In the book industry, this holistic impact of your book concept is referred to as the book “package.” Does the package connect with the intended reader? And often traditional publishers will test a few options with virtual focus groups before committing to a final choice.
Regardless of how you choose to publish, I suggest a quick exercise you can do when pondering your book idea:Brainstorm a potential title and subtitle for your picture book, referring back to your Story Intention to focus your thoughts.
Using Canva, freepick.com, Google images or even sketching it yourself, you can gather some inspiration imagery. Now, share these few tidbits with a trusted friend or two and ask them what they believe your book is about.
Do you hear an answer that circles around your intention? You're on the right track!
4. Write for Your Target Reader
As a picture book author, your are giving a child and caring adult (your target audience) a “pleasant reading experience.” (In the words of my publisher!) But think of your book, too, as a conduit for connection, learning, and growth.
So many parents, teachers and grown ups use children's books as gateways to bigger conversations, for example, family values, a recent hardship, or an aspirational behavior.
To give your book its best chance at “being so much more,” you'll want to pay special attention to word choice, cadence, and complexity to ensure it as “enjoyable and easy to ingest” as possible.
Early childhood educators reiterate, too, how using rhyme and repetition of words and ideas helps children develop early literacy skills and boost brain development.
As you can see, children's books have a big, important job to do! A single sentence can be so rich with meaning and teaching.
5. Create your Story Arc
I love the concept of the six word memoir: say a lot with few words. That's the heart of a good children's book, too.
You're dealing with the short attention span of a child and often the adult reader, too. (“It's time for bed!”) This means you need to:
- Engage, and
- Wrap up in 500-ish words spread over thirty-two pages
Don't spend a lot of time setting the stage for your story. Start in the action. If writing a board book where the pages will be cardboard, you reduce page count to twenty-four pages.
A good way to start is to brainstorm a book outline and the main takeaways of your story (again, your Story Intention).
Next draw an semi-circle on a piece of paper (think upside down ‘u') and jot down thoughts on your beginning, middle and end. If your picture book is the expected thirty-two pages, aim to use one to two spreads (a full spread is the left and right page together) to begin your story and another one to two to bring it to a close.
This leaves you a nice, long middle to tell your story and/or create and resolve conflict. Creating your own book layout or “book dummy”—even if rough—is a great way to help you visualize your story.
Using a real life example from my USA Today bestselling I LOVE YOU ALL WAYS, a board book to convey love, the first page is this:
“In case you ever wonder in the busy of our days, exactly how you're loved by me, I think you'll be amazed.”
Spreads two through nine tell all the ways while two spreads wrap it up:
“Top to bottom, inside through, you're the certain of my days. No need to ever wonder more … I love you all ways.”
6. Find a Professional Illustrator
Yes, more decisions! Artwork is key for children's books, as illustrations from a professional illustrator help tell your story, boost a child's comprehension and enhance literacy.
Is your message best supported by people or animals? The children's book market loves animals for their ability to appeal to diverse families.
Believe it or not, some animals sell better than others! “Bears are evergreen,” says Art Director Jordan Kost. “With brown/grizzly being the most popular.”
You'll want to choose what art style conveys the emotion of your story, whether soft watercolor, bright pastels, contemporary collage or simple line art. So much art is created digitally, which is easier for revisions but one thing doesn't change: good illustrations can make or break a picture book.
If you don't illustrate yourself, you will learn that traditional publishers will choose a professional illustrator for your manuscript. If, however, you are self-publishing, you will need to find your own through various resources like online groups, local colleges, trade associations and/or a talented friend.
Be sure, however, that your illustrator is very good. Nothing screams amateur like poor illustration. As for cost, you'll find some illustrators charge per page, per project or want an split of the sales revenue. This is all negotiable.
7. Choose a Publishing Path
As you're writing, you'll need to decide which publishing path you with to pursue. There are two main paths: traditional publishing and self-publishing.
Many authors aspire to be published by the “big five,” but this is a challenging road for first-time authors. And one that can take several years pitching, editing, printing to marketing and selling.
If you sold your manuscript today, you might see it in stores three years from now. Plus, most large publishers will only look at agented submissions and even then, they want to know your sales potential in the marketplace. In other words, do you have built-in ways you can start getting traction for your book?
This is commonly called “your platform.” Are you already known in any particular industries? Are you aligned with a certain cause? Do you have a large social media following? Are you an educator already connecting with students and families? Are you a psychologist who writes and speaks on social emotional issues?
And even if your answer is no, no and no—you can still pitch what you WILL do should a publisher choose to invest in your work.
For example, you will speak to local classrooms, host local events and exhibit your work at festivals and farmer's markets.
If traditional publishing is your dream, however, you'll want to first research finding a literary agent. Or perhaps set your sights on a smaller publishing house who accepts un-agented manuscripts and is more willing to grow together.
Gaining popularity with authors is self-publishing, which allows you to get your book for children into the marketplace sooner, but comes with the learning curve of navigating the most popular self-publishing platforms: Ingram Spark and Amazon's KDP which both offer numerous tutorials to get you on the path to self-publishing.
In addition, this path will also require you to hire your own professional editor to ensure you are moving forward with a tight manuscript as well as a book designer to lay it out. A developmental editor can speak to your big picture idea and theme versus a copy editor who critiques line by line.
8. Sell, Sell, Sell
No matter how you publish your book— traditional or self-published — you will quickly learn that authors need to be marketers as well.
I advise aspiring authors to create an “expertise” around their writing, if possible. Something you are known for that will help you focus your selling efforts. Are you the kindness expert? Do you play a musical instrument? Can you connect with an organization that shares a cause or passion?
For me, this is the Epilepsy Foundation as I grew up with a seizure disorder. I also do workshops at education and literacy conferences, giving ideas about art projects around my books. Author Susan Verde teaches yoga and mindfulness to little ones to showcase her books about peace, love and kindness.
Writer and restaurateur Mary Nihn created a super-successful (self-published) Ninja Life Hacks book series. And schoolteacher Shannon Olson self-publishes books with messages to her students that she couldn't find in the marketplace.
These eight steps summarize much of the thought that goes into crafting a successful children's book. The good news is there is guidance waiting for you in many places starting right here at The Write Practice as well as my suggestions in the ‘Supporters' section above.
One final thought is to prepare yourself for the long game. Success is built over time as more people become aware of you and your books. I'm twenty-plus years into this industry and still a beginner in so many ways. The industry and marketplace are ever changing.
Want to Learn More? Check Out These Children's Book Articles
I've shared a lot in this article on how to write a children's book—and still have a lot more to share! Below is a list of topics that I plan to cover in a special blog series on writing children's books.
Through them, I hope to take away the mystique of writing and publishing children’s picture books.
I also will provide practical tools that will help you go from idea to book whether your plan is to share it with your own family, your local community or with the world.
Where to Get Ideas for a Children’s Book
The title of one of my bestselling books, If I Could Keep You Little, is an exact phrase I said to my then six-year-old during a bedtime conversation.
While many writers do find ideas close to home, you can discover inspiration everywhere when you exist in “receiving mode”—approaching life with a curious, open, and playful mind. Find inspiration for your book in this article.
Defining Your Target Market
Writing to sell is a business and like marketing any successful product, you need to know your target buyer which, for picture books, is the grown up.
Compare this to chapter books, for example, where the potential readers are likely a parent/child combo. Having a clear sense of your reader dictates everything from topic to word choice to page count. Use the tips to find your market in this article.
How Do I Start Writing my Children’s Book?
By starting. In all seriousness, I understand how paralyzing the blank page can be.
Over time, I've developed some tricks and tips for jumpstarting my creativity and moving my mind into that right brain space where words and ideas flow more easily, and I share them here.
To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme
We've heard it said that publishers don't like rhyming picture books. Not true. What's more accurate is that publishers don't want a bad rhyming book which happens when rhyming is forced or the poetic meter is off (emphasizing the same syllable in each line).
A book in rhyme has many benefits. Rhyming helps babies and children learn about words, sounds and language formation. But writing rhyme that is “joyfully readable” is an art unto itself. Plus, are you telling a story that should rhyme? Find out in this article and when and why to rhyme here.
Also check out this list of my favorite rhyming books!
How to Illustrate a Children's Book (or Find One)
Illustrations are central to a successful picture book, offering readers a “yes and” element that helps boost their ability to understand a storyline and increase their comprehension. Illustration style is another key decision.
Cute little bears in pastel watercolors conveys a different emotion than a diverse cast of children in bold collage. Book illustration is a unique skill.
Depending on your budget, you can find book illustrators in several ways from local colleges to licensing agencies. You'll need to decide, too, if you will purchase the artwork from the book illustrator outright or arrange a royalty deal based on sales.
Read more about illustrations here.
Is Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing Better for my Children’s Book?
Before you start writing, you may already be thinking about publishing. Do you go it alone or query a publisher? Recent years have seen a proliferation of options for the independent writer (Ingram Spark and Amazon's KDP, for example), and so many choices can be overwhelming.
Like with any decision, you learn about the pros and cons based on what's important to you as a creator.
You can learn more about the differences between traditional and self-publishing in this article.
Finding a Children's Book Literary Agent (or Not)
If you choose to pursue a traditional path of publishing, you will often need to find an agent to represent your work to a publisher. Think of an agent as a personal advocate but most important, they are a salesperson for the product of you and your writing.
When you put the relationship into business terms, you'll quickly understand why you need to show yourself as a worthy investment of an agent's time and commitment.
I answer the most asked questions about agents here.
How to Market a Children's Book
Think of being a children's book author as twenty percent creating and eighty percent marketing. While my year is punctuated with starting new projects, I spend the bulk of my time looking for opportunities to promote and sell my books.
This need to market yourself is the same no matter how you publish your book. I've tried lots of things through the years as well as watched other authors do the same.
You can learn more about this in my article 12 Tips for Marketing Your Children's Book here.
Brand-Building for Children’s Book Authors
“Brand” is one of those buzz words you hear a lot about. Nike is a brand. And Apple. But an author? Yes! Think of an author brand as the multi-faceted “experience of you.”
Your books are the obvious embodiment of your brand, and so are these ancillary things — logo, tagline, website design, social media content, in-person events, personal interactions, and licensed merchandise.
Some strong children's book author brands include the late Eric Carle and Amy K. Rosenthal, Adam Wallace, and Sandra Boyton to name a few. In the self-publishing arena, Mary Nihn has created a rock-solid brand story for herself and her books.
You can learn more about this in my article about how I built my brand here.
How to Make Money as a Children's Book Author
“Are you rich?” asked the kindergartner. Seems I get this question once at every school event. While we know the definition of “rich,” varies, I do think people want to know if one can make money being a kids book author. My elusive answer is: it depends.
A traditionally published picture book will receive an advance anywhere between $5000 to $15,000 and more, depending on the author's longevity and the book's salability. Whether one sees additional royalties depends on the ability to “earn out the advance.”
Does your book sell in the mass market? The volume here can help things, too. If you are self-publishing, there is no advance, naturally, but you do keep a higher portion of each sale.
Many authors look for additional ways to supplement their author income through other employment, school visits, workshops, etc.
You can learn more about this in my article about income streams here.
Best Advice for Aspiring Authors Writing a Book for Kids
One of my favorite quotes is this: “You can only be alive in experience.” Which means you can only know by knowing. You can only gain wisdom by doing.
That said, we can all learn from others. I wanted to know what some of the folks I know in the industry — fellow authors, editors, art directors, and publishers—would tell offer you as far as advice.
You can check out all the industry insider advice here.
Writing a Children's Book Isn't Easy, But It Can Be Done
If writing and/or publishing a children's picture book is on your wish list, it can be done. Recently I received a note from an aspiring author. She shared a few paragraphs with me that needed revision:
“Is there any hope for me?” she asked.
“Of course,” I replied. “Writing takes learning and practicing like tackling any new endeavor.”
Even the most accomplished writers need guidance and editing.
My hope is that with my insights, shared on The Write Practice blog, you can create a happy ending of learning how to write a children's book—and put that learning into the makings of your future book.
When you do, you will bring your best book ideas for children into the world.
Have you tried to write a children's book? How did it go? Let us know in the comments.
It's your turn! Share your idea for a children’s book that you want to write with a brief description of the message it conveys.
For example, I have a book called Be Brave Little One. Before writing this story, my intention was to write a book about courage that conveyed to children that bravery is a choice that shows up in all different ways.
And after you share your idea, be sure to share feedback on other writers' ideas, too!
I'm Marianne Richmond—writer, artist and inspirationalist. My words have touched millions over the past two decades through my children's books and gift products.
Basically I put love into words and help you connect with the people + moments that matter. You can find me on my website, Facebook, and Twitter (@M_Richmond21).