1. Would you like to write a children’s book? For what age?
Before you start writing, you should first ask yourself a question: What age group is your book aimed at? Because everything else depends on it: What topics are the children interested in, how complex can the language be, how long the text and how many pictures should there be? The older the children, the more demanding the formulations can be, the more extensive the texts and the fewer pictures are necessary. And vice versa of course.
The age of the target group is one of the most important criteria for children’s books. Six-year-olds are interested in different topics than eight-year-olds. Age also plays a major role for buyers of children’s books. If you’re looking for a book for your eight-year-old niece, don’t flip through picture books or sift through young adult novels. They move purposefully towards a shelf that is labeled accordingly: Books for ages 8 and up. So you don’t have to go through hundreds of books looking for a suitable book for an eight-year-old. The division into age groups saves you time and the children the disappointment of being given a book that is not appropriate for their age.
For this reason, bookstores and publishers make sure that children’s books are age-appropriate, both in terms of subject matter and language and text length. Books are usually assigned to the following age groups:
- 0 – 2 years: picture books for the little ones
- 3 – 5 years: picture books
- 6 – 7 years: Reading books and first reading books
- 8 – 11 years: children’s novels
- from 12 years: youth novels
Of course, this classification is not always fair to the children. Some six-year-olds are interested in books that are intended for eight-year-olds, and some eight-year-olds read books that are also appropriate for six-year-olds. Nevertheless, the division into age groups provides both parents and self-reading children with an initial orientation as to what type of book is hidden behind an interesting book cover.
For publishers and bookstores, this classification is only a first orientation. With each new children’s book, depending on the topic of the story, the type and scope of the pictures and the texts, they check which age group the book is suitable for. Picture books for children from the age of 4 can be found as well as read-aloud books for children from the age of 5.
Of course, there are also many books that do not or only partially fit into this classification according to age groups. The better known the name on the cover, the broader the age group can be and the less clear it can be for which age the book is suitable. Conversely, the following applies: the more unknown the name on the cover, the more precisely the age group for which the book is suitable must be described. Because a well-known author’s name and an unclear age description is not a problem when marketing the book. But an unknown author’s name together with an unclear age description is a problem – then the parents think carefully about whether they want to pay money for a surprise package.
2. Good children’s books are written in an age-appropriate way
The language of children’s books in particular must be suitable for the respective age group. For example, picture books for children up to the age of 5 have an uncomplicated language: the texts are short, the sentences are simple and the words are understandable. Linguistic stylistic figures are well received in this age group, and rhymes, repeated words, onomatopoeia and neologisms are particularly popular.
Reading books for children from the age of 6 are already a bit more complex: they contain more extensive stories and are also a bit more linguistically demanding because they are read by adults. Here the authors like to let off steam with linguistic stylistic figures such as onomatopoeia or neologisms, which even inspire children of this age.
As soon as the children read themselves, the language must be based on the abilities of this age group. First-reading books are kept short and linguistically simple: short words, short sentences, simple sentence structure. Pre-readers often read very slowly or spell themselves from sentence to sentence. Every line has to provide exciting, funny or interesting details about the story, otherwise the children quickly lose interest. First-time readers in particular are difficult to write because the authors have to empathize with the skills and interests of first-time readers in order not to lose the children on the first few pages.
The writing style of young adult novels, on the other hand, hardly differs from books for adults. Choice of words and sentence structures correspond almost to the language found in many novels. In some exceptional cases, the authors skilfully play with youth language and achieve a unique writing style that sets these young adult novels apart from other books. But finding the right balance for youth language formulations so that the writing style appears authentic and not ridiculous is a literary masterpiece. Most novels for young people are linguistically indistinguishable from books for adults. In this way, these books can often appeal to a larger audience because they are also read by numerous adults.
3. How extensive are children’s books?
Picture books for the little ones between the ages of 0 and 2 only consist of a few pages. These usually only contain individual drawings and often do not contain any language at all. The clear and mostly simple pictures challenge the little ones to learn words like “dog, cat, mouse” and to pronounce them over and over again.
Picture books for 3 to 5 year olds are already more extensive. Picture books tell a little story on around 24 to 30 pages. Most of these books contain both pictures and text on each double page. A picture book often contains only a small amount of text, often no more than a total of up to 10,000 characters including spaces. That’s about two, three or four sentences per page or four, six or eight sentences per double page spread. Picture books are a big challenge for authors: We have to tell a complete story on 12 double pages with a maximum of 10,000 characters! Anyone who has ever tried that knows how difficult it is 🙂 Usually this means we work with a first draft, which can also be a little more extensive, and then it is shortened, shortened, shortened – of course without damaging the story ! – until the entire text corresponds to the length of a typical picture book.
Reading books, on the other hand, contain much more text. They often comprise a total of around 40,000 to 120,000 characters including spaces on around 50 to 100 book pages. This corresponds to around 30 to 80 standard pages.
Children’s novels, on the other hand, contain around 100 to 150 standard pages of text on around 100 to 200 book pages. But even thicker books are already popular with children in this age group.
Children’s books are also very similar to adult books in terms of length: they are often between 250 and 350 standard pages. This means that both the scope and the style of writing are comparable to books for adults. It’s the themes that differentiate a young adult book from an adult book, including the main characters, dialogue and worldview.
And here is an overview of the typical children’s books:
- Picture books for children between 0 and 2 years of age: simple pictures, in colour, little or no text, around 6 to 12 pages, often as a leporello (i.e. foldable like an accordion)
- Picture books for children between the ages of 3 and 5: more complex pictures that fill an entire book page or a double page, in colour, a few sentences of text per picture, around 24 to 30 pages
- Reading books for children between the ages of 6 and 7: more complex pictures, smaller and larger, in colour, up to 80 standard pages of text in total, around 70 to 130 pages
- Children’s novels for children from the age of 8, small illustrations, black and white, 100 to 150 standard pages of text, around 100 to 200 pages
- Young adult novels for young people from the age of 12, no pictures, length as adult books
And the same applies here, of course: there are a lot of children’s books that don’t fit into this grid. But the better known the name on the cover, the more likely it is that the book can “step out of line”. Conversely, the more unknown the name on the cover, the more difficult it is to market a book that cannot be assigned to one of these age groups.
4. Decide on humans or animals as the main characters
The figures and the ensemble of figures in children’s and youth books must also be appropriate for the age of the target group. If the main character of the story is a child, then the main character’s age is about a year or two older than the target audience’s age. Because children like to read stories in which the acting children are a little bit older than themselves. They are often not interested in stories with younger children, as they would rather read from older ones than from younger ones. The main characters of children’s novels from the age of 8 are often 9 years old or shortly before their 9th birthday. And the main characters of young adult novels from 14 years old are often 15 or 16 years old.
Animals are often part of the ensemble of figures in children’s books. The role animals play in the stories also varies greatly depending on the age of the target audience. Animals are often human representatives in picture books for 3 to 5 year olds and also in read-aloud books for 6 to 7 year olds: they walk on two legs, speak and act like humans, and they are often clothed. These can be animal children, for example, whose parents also appear in the stories (see Howling Owl or Little Hummel Bommel). But adult animals also often play a leading role in picture books (see Frederick and The Gruffalo).
In children’s novels from the age of 8, animals are often part of the ensemble of characters. But in the stories for older children, there are usually no human representatives, but animals that stand at the side of the main characters. Whether dogs, horses or other animals, the main characters are children who either have animals or are supported by animals (see Apple Blossom Pony Farm and The School of Magical Animals).
In books for children from the age of 10, human characters usually play the leading role. Animals stand by the child or adolescent main characters or are uncanny creatures that have to be fought. But there are also children’s novels in which animals play the leading role. In this case, the animals experience very challenging and complex adventures, be they animals living in their own wildlife (see Warrior Cats) or animals as walkers between worlds (see Woodwalkers).
5. Choose age-appropriate themes for children and teens
Children’s books are thematically based on the needs of the target group. A year’s age difference can play a big role, so there are picture books that are more suited to the needs of 3-year-olds and picture books that are more geared towards 5-year-olds. The topics are correspondingly different, depending on the development level of the children:
- Good night stories
- personal hygiene
- school stories
- horse stories
- problem issues
- Friendship & social skills (also: divorce, blended families)
- Coming of Age (growing up)
- Taboo topics (e.g. illness, death, hate, child soldiers)
- seasonal themes (Christmas, Easter, holidays)
- and much more
Books for younger children in particular often address everyday experiences such as brushing teeth, emotions (fear, anger, etc.), eating and sleeping. Later, topics like finding friends, going to school, or vacations become important. There is hardly a topic that does not concern children. Therefore, all conceivable topics can be implemented in a children’s book: including death, the parents’ divorce, the parents’ new partners, new siblings, etc. Difficult and strenuous topics in particular are treated in a child-friendly way in this way.
If a book tackles problems, solutions are offered at the end that strengthen children. Parents like it when children learn something from the books. But neither children nor parents like the pedagogical pointing finger. It is therefore important to take these messages with you carefully: you can guess them, but they are not in the foreground. Publishers also reject manuscripts if the pedagogical message is too important.
For children from the age of 7, topics related to school, free time and friendships are becoming increasingly important. Among the children’s novels from the age of 8 there are also genre-specific books, for example adventure stories, detective stories and fantasy stories are very popular.
Children’s books hardly ever leave out a topic, similar to books for adults. Topics that are burning under the nails of young people are particularly common: the circle of friends, growing up and first love. There is hardly a genre that doesn’t also exist as a young adult novel, be it tales of fate, thrillers, science fiction or fantasy.
When it comes to finding ideas and topics, children and young people are of course the best source of inspiration. In the search for new ideas, we should listen carefully, allow ourselves to be infected by their curiosity and interests, and listen carefully to their questions. This is the best way for us to find out what interests children and young people in a certain age group.
Of course, a visit to the bookshop or the library is also worthwhile. There you will find perennial favorites such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar in the picture books and current bestsellers in the children’s novels such as The School of Magical Animals. Old and new audience favorites show very nicely what children and young people are interested in at the moment and what is popular with parents, children and educators in the long run.
6. A journey into fantastic worlds
Of course, the question remains, where should the story actually take place? Where exactly do I locate my idea? Am I writing a story that takes place surrounded by everyday occurrences in our normal world? Or do I prefer to set my story in a strange world and let it take place as a fantastic adventure?
The answer to that is very diplomatic: both are well received. Children are happy when they recognize their own world in the stories, but they also find it wonderful to dive into completely foreign worlds.
Parents and children like to read stories that take place in our normal world because they show their own life with all the ups and downs, with all the funny and sad moments. The children recognize the description of everyday problems, and based on a story they can talk, laugh or even cry about their problems. In this way, the books help parents and children to talk about difficult or conflictual topics, about fears and worries, but also about illness and death.
Picture books can also show children people and situations that they have not experienced before, giving them a deeper understanding of life and the world. Absurd stories are also well received, such as that of the little mole who wanted to know who hit his head. The children can have a good laugh and at the same time look at the legacies of different animal species with inquisitiveness.
Children also like to be taken into unknown worlds. That’s why imaginative stories and unusual figures are very popular, such as talking animals, imaginary creatures such as witches and fairies, objects with a soul or children with supernatural abilities. The more surprising, the better. But the age of the target group also plays a major role in fantastic stories. While the youngest let Princess Lillifee kidnap them into unknown worlds, older ones love the ghost hunters.
7. Choose a good narrative point of view
Picture books, short stories for children and books to be read aloud are mostly written in the authorial narrative perspective. That is, an omniscient narrative voice describes the events.
Children’s novels are usually written in the first or third person (so-called personal narrative perspective). The narrative is thus limited to the perception of one person. The person’s thoughts and feelings can be portrayed very closely. In adult books, this person can change: the so-called personal multi-perspective.
Multiple perspectives can sometimes be found in children’s books, but they are rather rare in children’s books. Children’s books are usually told from the point of view of just one character: an animal, an object, a child or a young person. The stories are rarely told from an adult’s point of view.
8. How to find the right tense for your book
The point in time or the period in which a story takes place should be carefully selected. This also includes the time stretch, that is, how much time elapses from the beginning of the story to its end and the consequences that arise from this. The longer the stretch of time in a book, the more time jumps are needed to be built into the story. Flashbacks, on the other hand, are rare in children’s books because they tear the children out of the flow of reading and that is why many authors do without them.
The tense in which the novel is written is related to the time period. Adult books are often written in the past tense:
- she said
- he smelled
- she read
In a flashback, the tense changes: in the case of the past to the pre-past, in the case of the present to the pre-present. For this reason alone, flashbacks are a challenge and are rarely found in children’s and young adult books.
9. Tell the story vividly and vividly
While young adult books are similar to adult books in storytelling, children’s novels focus on the most important events. Long descriptions of clothing, appearance, location, etc. are usually avoided. However, the following applies to all age groups: the books must be written in a lively manner. And lively writing means: dramatic writing, also known as “show, don’t tell” in Anglo-Saxon countries.
When writing fictional material, two types of storytelling are distinguished: narrative storytelling and scenic storytelling. In narrative storytelling, content and information are conveyed with simple words. The scenic narration aims to create an image in the mind of the reader.
Both narrative styles can be found in current children’s and youth books. Our expectations of the visual are increasing through films and images, and accordingly it can be observed that the importance of scenic storytelling has increased in recent decades.
The scenic storytelling
In narrative storytelling, events are described or explained. Fairy tales are often written narratively:
Hansel and Gretel got lost in the forest. It was dark and cold there, and they were very afraid.
In scenic narration, the events are “shown” through dialogues and actions. Accordingly, this type of storytelling is also called show don’t tell. This is what a fairy tale would look like if it were written as a drama:
Gretel trembled and her pale face stood out against the night-black tree trunks. “I’m tired,” she whispered.
Hansel wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “We have to move on,” he urged.
In scenic narration, one tries to bring the events to life with the text. We describe pictorially and “show” what we see in front of our inner eyes. In order for the scenic writing to be successful, we address all five senses: We describe what the characters in the story hear, what they see, smell, taste and feel. In concrete terms, this means that we don’t write: Jürgen was angry (= tell), but we write: Jürgen drew his eyebrows together and clenched his fist (= show).
Using scenic and narrative storytelling correctly
In novels and short stories, scenically written passages and narrative passages usually alternate, with the scenically written portion usually predominating. Important passages, the action of which is an important part of the story, are usually written scenically. Passages that are told in a narrative way often serve as a transition: they convey information or summarize chronological processes.
The narrative way of telling is always more compressed than the scenic telling. So she gets by with fewer words. This can also be seen in the passage from the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel.
You should also use both narrative styles in your own stories. It is best to describe the events in a narrative way, which are not so important for the current story, but which have to be told so that the reader can follow what is happening. For example, when a character gets into a car to go to a certain place. If we were to tell it scenically, it would take up a lot of space: we would have to describe how the character leaves the apartment, goes to the car, puts the key in the lock, etc. But that’s just information so that the readers know how the character moved to another place, you should describe this part of the events only very briefly in a sentence or half-sentence.
On the other hand, important parts of a scene should be told scenically. This creates an image in the minds of the readers that is associated with emotions. Therefore, this part of the scene is remembered longer and given more weight.
10. Write good dialogue
A vividly told story needs dialogue. You might think the most important thing about dialogue is what is said. But the opposite is the case: dialogues thrive on what is not said. The most common rookie mistake: the characters talk too much. It often helps to shorten dialogues until they are just understandable. A few words are usually enough for the children to be able to follow the story. Anything beyond that is considered boring by many.
Back to our example of Hansel and Gretel.
Too much talk here:
Gretel trembled and her pale face stood out against the night-black tree trunks. “It’s so cold here and we don’t even know where we are. Besides, I’m tired,” she whispered.
Hansel wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “It will soon be midnight and if we don’t find our way home quickly, we’ll have to spend the night in the forest. There we are at the mercy of the wild animals. We don’t have time, we have to move on,” he urged.
The spoken word can be reduced to a minimum:
Gretel trembled and her pale face stood out against the night-black tree trunks. “I’m tired,” she whispered.
Hansel wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “We have to move on,” he urged.
In the dialogues, the repetition of “he said” and “she said” is fine. Alternatively, one can use other words such as “yell, whisper, hiss, reply, mean” and many more. You can also simply omit these words. So that it is clear who has just spoken, there is often an action after what has been said:
“This is my seat.” Paul scowled at him.
11. How to describe the scene of the event
The setting is the place where a scene takes place. This place shapes the atmosphere of a scene in a very special way and thus also the atmosphere of a story. For example, if you describe a playground, the scene looks very different, depending on whether the playground is sandwiched between skyscrapers or in the middle of the forest. Depending on which atmosphere complements the scene better or gives it more depth or character, you should choose the appropriate location for your scene.
So that the children and young people can get their own picture of the scene, you should appeal to many senses when describing it: What does the scene look like, what can you hear there, what can you feel there – for example the wind on your face – and what does it smell like there . You shouldn’t appeal to all your senses with every description, as it will seem too schematic and soon become monotonous. Sometimes two or three words are enough to describe a feeling or an impression.
When describing, you should always single out the sensations that are most impressive. For example, if you are describing a scene in a greenhouse, smell may be the best way to characterize the place. Then the focus should be on the smell, complemented by the description of what a character sees and hears.
12. The narrative structure of children’s books
Depending on the age of the children and the type of books, the stories are structured very differently and are told differently.
Picture books for the little ones only have a small size and the stories are told in just a few pages. A special character is often the focus, and we accompany him on his way over several double pages of the book. For example, the character asks a question at the beginning of the picture book and we experience how she searches for the answer and of course finds it at the end of the story.
When it comes to textbooks, there are two typical concepts. There are reading books that consist of several stories. Each story can be read as a bedtime story in five to ten minutes. Other reading books consist of several chapters. Each chapter tells an episode of a chapter-spanning story. Again, the length of a chapter is about the length of a bedtime story that can be read in five to ten minutes before going to bed (see The Little Dragon Coconut). At the end of the chapter, the episode is complete enough for the parents to put the book aside and the child to rest.
This structure can also be found in children’s novels from the age of 8 (see Wir Kinder aus dem Möwenweg). But the older the target group, the more the books are structured like children’s books: they tell a story over several chapters in a row (see Here comes Lola!). Many children’s novels have a mixture of both: the book tells a big connected story and each chapter contains one (largely) self-contained episode (see Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone).
13. How about the pictures?
The younger the children, the more pictures there are in the books and the less text:
- Picture books for the little ones consist almost exclusively of pictures. In picture books for 3 to 5 year olds, the story is told through pictures, supported by little text.
- Even with typical read-aloud books there are still many pictures that illustrate a story. But the text is already much more extensive than in picture books and verbosely tells numerous stories or episodes of a story.
- The pictures also take up a lot of space in the first-reading books, and the numerous colored illustrations encourage the children to continue reading.
- The older the children, the more the pictures fade into the background and the texts become more important. Children’s novels from the age of 8 often only contain small, black and white drawings, supplemented by pictorial symbols such as stars or tendrils.
- As a rule, children’s books for children aged ten and older no longer contain any pictures.
If you want to offer your book to a publisher, you don’t have to worry about illustrations. Because publishers take care of the pictures themselves and also regulate the payment of the illustrators. (Future) children’s book authors usually only apply to agencies and publishers with their text.
If you want to publish your book yourself, you should look for professional illustrations. If you search for “Children’s book illustrations” you will find numerous websites of illustrators, which usually show numerous work samples. This makes it easy to find out whether the illustrators already have experience with children’s books and whether their style fits the planned book. Depending on the design and the individual contract, a picture usually costs between 30 and 150 euros. The larger the picture and the more detailed, the greater the effort and the higher the fee.