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Children's books | Factsheets


WritersServices Factsheet no 12 by Michael Legat

Writing children's books

Many writers hoping to be published turn to children’s books as an easy option, but find that it is in fact one of the most difficult genres.

  • The market for children’s books is far from saturated, but competition is intense and to arouse a publisher’s interest you need to produce work which is original in content or approach, and which meets the demands of editors, librarians, booksellers and parents (all of whom need to be considered at the same time as the interests of the child).
  • The primary requirement is that you should have a clear idea of the age group at which your work is aimed. Vocabulary, content and length must be right on target.
  • Children of this 21st century are more sophisticated than most of those in previous generations, thanks to the ubiquitous television and the more liberal society in which we live. Adults do not talk down to children as they used to, and pas devant les enfants is rarely heard. Nevertheless, the vocabulary used in books for four-year-olds is obviously restricted in comparison with that intended for eight-year-olds, and in fact vocabularies change and increase as the child grows. This does not mean that you cannot include a difficult word occasionally, following in the footsteps, as it were, of Beatrix Potter’s celebrated use of ‘soporific’.
  • When considering the content of a book for children, political correctness is essential. In particular you should be careful to avoid sexism and racism. Be aware that we live in a multi-racial society in which one-parent families are commonplace, and that the days are long gone of books aimed at middle-class children living in a nursery and looked after by a Nanny.
  • The length of the text in children’s books varies from nil to 7,500 or more, depending on the age which is aimed at. Check appropriate lengths in a library or bookshop. Most picture story-books consist of 16 or 24 pages, four of which are used as endpapers securing the printed pages to the boards in which they are bound.
  • Books for younger children are always illustrated. Unless you are an artist of outstanding ability you should not include your own pictures when submitting a children’s book to a publisher, and that goes for relatives and friends too. You can however indicate where illustrations should appear and what they should depict. Publishers are good at marrying authors to suitable artists, and vice versa.
  • In books for children (and for that matter, those intended for adults) it is important to have heroes or heroines with whom the reader can identify. To write a successful children’s book, the author must be aware of what it is like to be a child. How long is it since you saw the underside of a table? In books for older children, if there is a problem of some kind to be solved, the solution must be found by the young people in the story, rather than by grown-ups.
  • It is probably wise to avoid anthropomorphic heroes and heroines, which are currently out of favour, so The Tale of Timothy Teapot, or Caroline Computer’s Christmas are unlikely to appeal. And, with apologies to Ratty and Mole, and Pooh, and Peter Rabbit, you should avoid giving human characteristics to animals, whether alive or stuffed.
  • When submitting work to publishers some writers (especially grandmothers) tell them that the children to whom the material has been read loved every word. Publishers regard such statements with caution, knowing that the relationship between the reader and the read-to undoubtedly increases the pleasure the story gives.


This factsheet links to Writing for Pleasure and Profit

© Michael Legat 2001