Picture books have a definite format, and you must know this format to write them. The concept of doing a picture book can be difficult to form a mental image in your head. Think of the entire book starting out as an enormous sheet of paper, cut up in multiples of 8. Board books are 16 pages, 14 pages of text. Picture books are 24 (20 pages of text) or 32 pages (26-28 pages of text). Over half of all picture books are 32-page format.
Text and pictures are laid out in spreads. A spread is two pages that spread across the book when it is open. Sometimes there is text on one side of the spread and a picture on the other. Sometimes there is text and pictures on both sides. And occasionally the text goes across the top of two pages. If page 1 is the copyright page and page 2 is the title page, then page 3 is where the text begins. Pages 4 and 5 would then make up the first full spread. Spreads have equal pieces of writing on them. If you have 26 pages of text, you will have 13 or 14 spreads.
You can order my pamphlet on “How to Write a Picture Book” electronically on my website at www.christiancommunicator.com/critique-rates/how-to-pamphlets/.
Now, let’s go through each age group and talk about the writing opportunities in children’s books.
The main market for preschoolers is picture books. These are usually 500-2,000 words. Most picture books that you will write for young children will be told in story form. They usually have beautiful, color illustrations that play a significant role in telling the story.
First you need a hook. Young children have short attention spans. You need a lead that will grab your reader’s interest immediately. Always have a theme sentence. Form this before you begin writing. Sometimes you won’t state the theme sentence as such in the body of your book, but it should be in your mind at all times. Don’t put anything in your book that doesn’t enhance your theme or is unnecessary. Every word must count. Write tightly.
The purpose of these books is for the parent to read them to the child, so keep in mind that you are selling to the parent. You have two to three seconds to hook that mom or dad. In the first paragraph, readers need to meet the main character who is doing something interesting. Every page must contain action. Each page usually contains an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. But occasionally you might have one word of text on a page for emphasis.
Then you will have either a list of topics to be covered, or a hint of what the book will contain. This is all general information. Then you need a transition. From here you move to the specifics of the points to be covered in the body of your book. Then back to the general with a summary and a strong ending. Be careful not to end the book abruptly. The child needs a concrete solution to the problem with a dynamic take-away message hidden inside. Now write a catchy title.
If you are beginning a writing career, I would not recommend starting with books. I started my writing career 40+ years ago by writing church school take-home papers. This is a wide open market. Most publishing houses use about 60% freelance material in their take-home papers. Many denominational as well as nondenominational houses publish take-home papers for every age. These come out weekly—fifty-two times a year. There are many opportunities here to get published and to continue to sell your material as reprint rights over and over once it has been published the first time.
There are many things you can sell to the take-home paper market. Children’s fiction, particularly for 4th-6th and junior high is very popular. These are normally about 1,000 words in length. How-to articles, nature and domestic animal stories, and paraphrased Bible stories are included here. These are shorter, about 500-800 words. Check the Christian Writer’s Market Guide for the correct length for the particular publication you have in mind. Also, crafts, puzzles, and activities find a market here. Many adult periodicals print children’s stories as well as children’s magazines. Most children’s materials will not require a query letter because the manuscripts are so short, but check your Writer’s Market. Some magazines will require a query, but rarely will a take-home paper. Also consider writing for the online publications for children.
Once you become successful at selling to these markets, you might consider moving into curriculum. Curriculum is usually done on assignment by publishers, but they often use freelancers to do the writing. Check your denomination and see if they publish curriculum. Normally you would be assigned a quarter’s worth of material. It would be helpful to teach at the age level you are writing for and try out your material before submitting it for publication.
For all your marketing ideas, I recommend the Christian Writer’s Market Guide. This can be purchased on www.Amazon.com/. This book lists over 1,200 Christian markets. Study the markets for children and then go on the various websites of the publishing houses to see their latest books and their guidelines.
Also, another way to learn what is selling in the children’s market is to go to your local Christian store and look at the books. Ask the owner or manager what books sell the best. This will help you to become familiar with your market. Also, you can obtain copies of children’s magazines and church school take-home papers by sending an e-mail, asking for their writers guidelines and a sample copy. For take-home papers ask for their theme list. However you should check their websites first to see how much of this information is listed there.
Reading is the primary tool of learning—for the child and for you the author when writing for children. To learn more about a certain age level, go to the library and check out many books on the level you intend to write for. Read what they are reading. Also study the Internet and see what websites they are frequenting. Go to YouTube, Facebook, etc. sites if you are writing for teens. You cannot write for an age group if you don’t understand the members of that group. If you don’t like children, don’t write for them. Don’t try to preach at them—it won’t work. If you love children, then you are the one to write children’s materials.
To be effective with children and teenagers, you must know where they are coming from, what they are coping with. Meet them where they are, not where you want them to be.
Teens and preteens today are facing problems at a very early age that we never had to deal with. Drugs are available everywhere, even in the grade schools and junior highs. Surveys show that the average age a child tries alcohol is 12, marijuana is 13. Many preteens as well as teens enter centers for substance abuse. Teenage pregnancy rate is very high in spite of the availability of preventive measures.
My oldest son had lost 19 friends in violent accidents by the time he was in college. Teenage suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people today. Two-thirds of all young people have been caught in a divorce situation, bringing them feelings of guilt and abandonment.
Keep all these things in mind when writing for children and teens.
In writing for children, the first thing you must determine is the age of your audience. Are you writing for preschoolers? Are they 1-3? Are they 3-5? First through third graders? Fourth through six graders? You must mark your audience. Then, you must write to that audience. You cannot just write for children without targeting your work to a particular age. Most children’s publications are geared to a specific level: primary, junior, etc.
Then you must be totally in tune with the age level you are writing for. Know their likes and dislikes—use their language, but not words that are trendy and will be outdated in a year or two. And most of the time, you need to use words they are familiar with. Occasionally you can teach them a new word, but be sure to define it in context.
If you have children of your own or grandchildren, have them read what you write and critique it. If you don’t have children in your family the age you want to write for, find some children in your neighborhood, teach church school, or sponsor a youth group. Go to a playground or teen hangout—and listen!
When you write for children, make sure the concept you are dealing with is a childlike concept, not an adult one. Many people want to write for children because they don’t like the way young people behave. This is a mistake. You must love children to be able to write for them.
Use as few words as possible when writing for children and use words that are in their vocabulary. Write concisely in all your writing, but particularly here. Write concretely with step-by-step instructions or events. Have your story follow a logical, sequential order, avoiding flashbacks. They are hard for children to follow.
Your story should teach a lesson, without being preachy. If you try to tell your young audience what to do, they will tune you out. Yet they can learn a great deal from your characters, climbing into their skin and experiencing what the characters experience. By doing this they can learn the same lessons the characters learn along the way.
I have found that writing for children is much harder than writing for adults.
According to US Book Industry Statistics, 675 million print books were sold in the US last year. Although books sales are down, children’s book sales have remained constant. More than 50% of parents surveyed regularly read to their children between the ages of 0-5.
Children’s books usually have a longer shelf life than their adult counterparts, and Christian books have a longer shelf life than their secular counterparts. Many favorite children’s books have outlasted the life span of their authors: Black Beauty (1877), Heidi (1880), Treasure Island (1883), and Little Women (1868) are excellent examples.
Do you know who buys children’s books? 85% of the buyers are women 25-49. These books must be written for Mom as well as for Brianna and Lance. Also, girls will do what appeals to boys, and they will read about boys, but boys won’t read about girls for the most part, nor will they be interested in feminine activities. Know your audience.
Why should we write for children?
Today there are more than 2.2 billion children in the world. Children represent 27% of the world’s population. The American population more than tripled during the 20th Century. There are over 328 million people in the US, and 74.1 million of those are under the age of 18.
Each child is a potential reader of what you write.
A study by the Barna group shows that 43% of children made their professions of faith before the age of 13 and that 2 out 3 Christians professed their faith before the age of 18. The study also showed that younger children who call themselves Christians are more likely as adults to describe themselves as deeply spiritual, give more money to the church, and engage in lifestyle evangelism.
We can teach children about God and Jesus, but they need to internalize what they learn in order to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. They need to learn to own their own faith, and an excellent vehicle for this is books. We can mold these young minds and help develop their faith through what we write. What an exciting challenge!
We can meet young readers’ real needs by meeting their felt needs. We can help our young readers to identify with our characters to solve their own problems. We can’t tell them though, we must show them. They will read and see for themselves. Please keep this in mind. It is so easy to preach at them, and then you have lost them.
Our young readers need to affirm their own experiences. They need to know that others have survived the everyday problems they are struggling with. Some need to learn not to take themselves so seriously. Others need to learn to be more accountable. Our main purpose in writing is to minister to young people.
Through our writing, we can show them there is hope and love. We can show them good biblical principles. Perhaps their faith can be strengthened, but like I said before, it is their decision, not ours. They must learn to own their own faith.
Perhaps, when you get to heaven, a child or teen will tap you on the shoulder and say, “Because of you, I am here.”