After opening the Meranaw storywriting contest, some interested writers asked for tips on writing for children. This is a great question, as children’s picture books are such a unique category.
First (as with any story), start with a strong character and plot. Is the character interesting enough to make kids want to read more? Is your plot clear enough to summarize in two sentences?
Children’s stories remind me of poems: they seem simple, yet aren’t boring. A memorable children’s story enchants children, but also appeals to the adults who usually buy or read the stories to the kids. It tackles the big themes of growing up — friendship, identity, the power of imagination, loss, relating to parents, being different, relating to one’s emotions — but in a way that a 6-year-old can understand.
Of the many great tips out there, I thought these were the most helpful (adapted from the “Dummies’ Guide to Writing for Children”).
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Tips for Writing Books for Younger Children
The rules for writing books for younger children (ages 2–8) are different from the rules for writing books for middle graders or young adults. Keep the following commandments in mind. You may be able to dance around one or two, but you must have a good reason.)
• It’s okay to be different from others, but it’s not easy.
• Bad guys never win. The good guy must come out on top in the end.
• Extremes rule (the world is black or white, not both — most children ages 10 and under can be quite literal).
• All characters should be drawn with both good points and weaknesses. No one is just one or the other — even the good and the bad guy.
• It’s fine for something to be scary, but it can never touch a little kid’s body.
• Little people can triumph over big people.
• Poopoo, peepee, tushies, passing gas, burping, underwear — they’re all hilarious.
• Turning things upside down is funny — as long as those things make sense in the first place right side up.
• Magic can occur as a logical reaction to an action.
• Regular children can perform extraordinary feats.
• Regular children can go on implausible missions sanctioned (or not) by adults in charge.
• Read your story to children you’re not related to. Do they like it? Are they bored? What do they think the story is about?
What Not to Do when Writing Children’s Books
Just as writing children’s books has a unique set of rules to follow (you know that the good guy or gal always wins), there are some things you should never do — never! Don’t even consider doing any of the following in a book for children:
• Write books that preach or lecture.
• Talk down to children as if they’re small, idiotic adults.
• Write books that have no real story (nor a plot with beginning, middle, end).
• Pack picture books with lots of text.
• Create characters who are boring or unnecessary to the development of the story.
• Create main characters who have a problem they don’t solve themselves or who don’t change throughout the course of the story.
• Tell instead of showing by using narrative as a soapbox.
For more great tips: