Do you dream of writing and publishing a children’s book but don’t know where to begin?
Don’t worry; most successful children’s authors felt the same when they first started out. But armed with the right knowledge and a healthy determination to succeed, there’s no reason why you can’t reach your goals.
And who knows, you might even become the next Roald Dahl!
How to Write a Children’s Book And Get it Published?
Below, I’ll explain the basics of writing and publishing a children’s book by breaking the process down into nine actionable steps.
By the end of this post, you’ll be ready to start your journey to becoming a fully-fledged children’s author.
So, without further ado, let’s get started with step one…
1. Choose Your Target Audience
Before you begin the writing process, the first thing you’ll need to consider is the audience you’re trying to reach.
How Old Are They?
This is a crucial decision that will determine almost every other aspect of your book.
Children’s literature spans a huge age range, and each demographic has a different market, so it’s important to do your research to ensure you’re choosing the right one.
While there are no hard and fast industry rules, the general guidelines below can help you pin down the age range for your target audience.
- Age 0-5: Picture Books
Picture books combine simple language with eye-catching illustrations, and usually, they’re designed to be read out loud by a parent or other caregiver.
There’s a lot of variety across this age range. Books for young infants have a very low word count and rely heavily on illustrations to carry the story while teaching simple vocabulary along the way.
They often contain elements like pop-ups, sounds, and textures, which encourage babies to develop fine motor skills, object recognition, and language development.
Books for the higher end of this age range have fewer additional elements and more words, but most sit under the 500-word mark.
Here are a few classic examples of children’s picture books that you might remember from your own childhood:
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
- Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown
- Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell
- Age 5-8: Early Readers
After picture books, the next step up for children is early readers.
These books are designed to help children practice their vocabulary and gain confidence in reading independently.
Early readers still contain plenty of eye-catching illustrations, but the word count tends to be higher; anywhere from 1000-3000 words is the industry norm.
These books are often written as a series, so kids can devour one after the other and develop a love of reading early on.
Here are a few examples of popular early reader books for children:
- Age 6-9: First Chapter Books
Once children can read independently, the next step up is chapter books.
Some chapter books contain illustrations, but when they do, they tend to be less frequent, serving as a marker to give visual context and break up the story.
The language is carefully crafted, making it simple enough for children to read on their own without coming up against frustratingly big words.
The average length of a children’s chapter book is anywhere between 6,000 to 12,000 words, but some books aimed at the older kids in this age group can contain as many as 20,000 words.
Here are a few examples of classic children’s chapter books:
- The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin
- The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
- Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
- Age 8–12: Middle-Grade Books
Middle-grade books are similar to first-chapter books; however, they’re more advanced and offer a greater challenge to young readers.
There are fewer illustrations, and when they do appear, they’re used to mark key moments in the story or sit alongside a chapter heading.
Most middle-grade books contain an average of 30,000 to 50,000 words, allowing for a slower-paced plot, deeper character development, and in-depth story arcs.
Middle-grade books often involve light PG themes, such as a first kiss or a fight with a school bully, but of course, sex and violence are still strictly out of the question.
Here are a few iconic middle-grade books that have taken the world of children’s literature by storm:
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
- Age 12-18: Young Adult (YA) Novels
Young Adult novels are the final bridge between children’s books and adult literature. This is a pretty broad age range, with sub-groups for tweens and older teens, but the general principles remain the same.
Young adult novels usually contain no illustrations and are typically between 50,000 and 100,000 words long.
Themes of sex, violence, horror, and death are no longer off the cards, particularly in the older end of the demographic. However, they omit most of the gory details found in a true adult novel.
The key difference between YA and fully-fledged adult fiction is that YA novels are told in an adolescent context. Often, they’re coming-of-age stories where teenagers face the challenges of the adult world for the first time.
Here are some examples of popular young adult novels:
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Research By Reading
Once you’ve chosen your target audience, the next step is to read as many books in that age level as possible. This will help you learn what kind of themes, characters, and storylines are already popular and identify any gaps in the market that you can fill.
2. Find a Theme That Kids (And Parents) Will Love
There are tons of exciting, elaborate, and original children’s books out there. Still, once you strip back these stories to the bare bones, there’s a universal theme that all children can connect to—for example, ideas about friendship, kindness, forgiveness, or conquering fears.
So, when choosing a theme for your story, ask yourself the following questions:
- What message or lesson can children take away from this book?
- Is the message or lesson age-appropriate and something children can relate to?
- How can I deliver the message or lesson in a unique and engaging way that children will love?
If you’re struggling to choose a theme for your book, think back to the types of stories that you enjoyed reading when you were young. What was it about those books that piqued your interest and kept you engaged? And how can you apply the elements from these books to your own story in an original way?
Another important thing to remember is that while it’s crucial to craft a story children will love, it should also appeal to parents, especially when writing for a younger demographic. After all, parents are the ones buying the books, so make sure to keep them in mind during the writing process.
3. Choose Your Protagonist Wisely
Your main character is the anchor of your story. The most iconic children’s books of all time star an equally iconic protagonist; just think of Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, Charlie Bucket, and Harry Potter. But what is it about these famous characters that make them so enduring?
They’re a Little Older Than The Reader
Most children prefer to read a story about a child slightly older than them who still experiences events relatable to their own life.
For example, if your target reader is eight years old, the protagonist might be nine or ten. This slight age gap helps young readers by giving them a role model to look up to, like an older sibling.
They Have Strengths And Weaknesses
A great children’s book character will have strengths that make them stand out and weaknesses they need to overcome.
For example, if your theme centers around conquering fears, then maybe your protagonist is a shy math whizz who struggles to make friends in school. Perhaps there’s a school disco coming up, and they’re nervous about attending. But when they ultimately decide to be brave and step outside their comfort zone, your main character ends up having a great time and making a new friend.
They Encounter Real-World Problems
Even if your protagonist is an alien and your story is set in outer space, it’s important that your characters face real-world challenges and situations within this context.
So, be sure to research your target demographic, so you can speak to their experiences and make the story relatable to them.
4. Create a Story Arc
Now that you know your target audience, you’ve chosen your theme, and you’ve nailed down your main character, it’s time to plan a story arc.
One example of a commonly used story arc in children’s literature is as follows…
Introduce your main character, and set the scene. Who are they? What are they doing? Where are they doing it, and who with?
This is often referred to as the ‘stasis’ phase of the story, where your character is living out their everyday life.
An incident occurs that changes the character’s situation, providing a jumping-off point for the rest of the story. For example, when Harry Potter receives his mysterious invitation letter to Hogwarts, or Charlie Bucket finds the golden ticket in a Wonka bar.
The incident prompts a response or ‘quest,’ for example; if your protagonist found an old treasure map, they might head out on a quest across the ocean to find where the treasure is buried.
Surprises can take the form of obstacles, like a broken sail on a boat, or they can be pleasant events, such as a new friend showing up at just the right time.
These surprise elements make up the majority of the middle part of the plot.
This is the crux of the story, where your main character comes up against the most significant challenge of all. Tension is its highest, and everything rides on one particular outcome.
Now, returning to the example of the quest for buried treasure, the main character might find themselves captured by a group of pirates or caught in a terrible storm at sea.
Following the climax, the protagonist now has a change of perspective. Perhaps their experience taught them a valuable lesson about facing their fears, or maybe they offered kindness to a stranger and, as a result, gained a new friend.
This is where the underlying moral of the story is revealed.
The example above is a basic, commonly used story arc found in many popular children’s books, but it’s certainly not the only approach you can take.
For more ideas and inspiration, take a look at some of the narrative crafting formats from the Writer’s Digest.
5. Write Your First Draft
Now that you’ve mapped out your story arc, it’s finally time to put pen to paper (or open up a new word document).
Create The Ugly First Draft (TUFD)
Many first-time authors struggle to get started as self-doubt and writer’s block set in. But remember, no one else is seeing your work at this stage, so feel free to let your ideas flow out onto the page, warts and all.
Take a leaf out of bestselling author Anne Handley’s book (Everybody Writes) and create an Ugly First Draft.
Don’t stop to correct your spelling or grammar, and try not to overthink it too much. The key here is to remain in a state of flow without the roadblocks of doubt in the way.
6. Refine And Edit
Once you’ve let your ideas spew out into an Ugly First Draft, it’s time to unleash your inner critic and tidy up your work.
Here are a few things to remember.
Every Word Counts
This golden rule of writing is especially true in children’s literature when the word count is usually much shorter than in a full-length novel. If a word or sentence doesn’t add value, hit the delete button.
Breathe Life Into Your Characters
Even the shortest children’s stories need dynamic and unique characters, so don’t skimp on the subtleties. Does your protagonist have a nervous habit, a special keepsake, or a catchphrase they repeat throughout the story? Consider the elements of their personality that make them unique, and write these into your plot.
Pay attention to the variation of your characters, too. Do they all look and sound the same? Or do they use different vocabulary and syntax or look a little different from one another? Where appropriate, try to bring the diversity of the real world into your storyline.
Avoid Changing Tenses
Switching between tenses unnecessarily is an easy trap to fall into, so make a conscious effort to remain consistent. If your first few lines are written in the present tense, then, where appropriate, stick to it throughout.
Keep The Story Moving
Don’t hover on one scene for too long. Instead, maintain a steady, swift pace and use subtle transitions to keep readers engaged.
Also, try to avoid overly long chunks of dialogue. This is true even in adult literature, but when we’re dealing with the notoriously short attention spans of children, it’s especially important to bear in mind.
Read Your Words Out Loud
Sometimes during the editing process, words begin to look weird and jumbled, and sentences don’t seem right. So, try reading your words out loud to see how they sound.
This simple trick can help you gain a new perspective on your writing and pinpoint any errors that you might have missed.
Throw in a Little Something For The Grownups, Too
Of course, your main priority is to entertain your readers, not their parents, but if you’re writing for younger children, then including a subtle pun or joke to keep the adults entertained is always a good idea (as long as it’s appropriate, of course!)
Go Over Your Work With a Fine-Tooth Comb
Once you’ve crafted the nuts and bolts of your story and refined your first draft, it’s time to perform your final self-edits.
Look out for spelling errors, grammar issues, and other inconsistencies, and cut out any unnecessary fluff. Remember, every word needs to add value; if it doesn’t, cut it out.
Read, re-read, and re-read your manuscript again. Then, do the same the next day, and the day after that, until you’re satisfied, it’s right.
7. Get Feedback
Once you’re happy with your final self-edit, it’s time to bite the bullet and ask others for their feedback.
The first and most obvious people to approach are your friends and family, but be sure to choose them wisely; those closest to us often want to avoid hurting our feelings, which isn’t ideal if you want honest, constructive feedback.
So, now is the time to call in the help of your brutally honest best friend or your mother, the people who will tell it like it really is.
But ultimately, the most valuable feedback of all will come from your target audience, so be sure to also test out your material on children (and their parents) for a true gauge of the quality of your work.
8. Consider Hiring a Pro
If you’re still not 100% confident in your manuscript, consider hiring a professional children’s book editor. Of course, this isn’t a viable option for everyone. But if your budget allows, it’s well worth the extra expense.
Editors have years of experience in what makes a great children’s story. Plus, they know the ins and outs of the market and can help you create a commercially viable product that is much more likely to sell.
9. Publish Your Book
So, now that you’ve finished the creative process and your polished manuscript is ready to publish, there are two routes you can go down; self-publishing or traditional publishing.
Self-publishing is becoming an increasingly popular option for authors of all kinds, and for a good reason.
When you self-publish, you’re in charge of the entire process and have the final say on every element of your book.
You can choose your own illustrator, or if you have artistic skills, you can even illustrate the story yourself.
Plus, you’re in full control of the marketing side of things, and these days, there are countless platforms out there to showcase your work.
But self-publishing also has some downsides, too. It’s a time and labor-intensive process, and if you’ve never published your own work before, there’s a lot to learn in order to be successful.
Luckily, there are plenty of free resources online to help you along the way, including forums where self-publishing rookies and pros can join together to share tips and advice.
Going down the traditional publishing route removes a lot of the leg work, and if you find a good publisher, it can also open doors to success that traditional self-publishing can’t.
But there are a few things to consider. These days, very few publishers accept submissions directly from the author. Instead, you’ll need to hire a literary agent to approach publishers for you. Agents have insider industry knowledge, and they know exactly the kind of publishers who will appreciate your work.
They’ll also negotiate the very best deal on your behalf; after all, the more you get paid, the more they get paid, so they’re rooting for your success.
Another factor to consider is that most traditional publishers will handle the illustration side of things. This cuts down costs for you and ensures top-quality artwork that will do your story the justice it deserves.
But the downside is that you’ll have less creative input, so if you’re set on illustrating the book yourself, or you want to ask a friend to do it, then self-publishing might be a better route for you.
Writing a children’s book and getting it published can seem like an overwhelming task, but it doesn’t have to be.
By breaking the process down into bite-sized chunks and taking a systematic approach to each one, there’s no reason that you can’t realize your dream.
So, if you’re ready to pen the next children’s classic, hopefully, this guide will help you to get started.