Omega Writers

“I could write that”: What you need to know about writing children’s books

By Penny Reeve

I bet you’ve had that familiar moment when you’ve read a children’s book with a young person, closed the cover and thought to yourself: ‘Sure, I could write that!’

Yes, children’s books are short. They’re snappy, fun and often repetitive. They can appear deceptively simple. But as any writer knows, writing well in any genre takes more than a scrappy first draft on the back of a serviette napkin. And writing children’s books is no different. In fact, if you’re going to give writing for children a try, here are a few things you need to know first:

Writing children’s books can be VERY difficult, especially picture books

The average word count of an Australian picture book is less than 600 words. The shorter, the better. But don’t let this fool you for easy. Picture books must be clever, poetic and beautifully written. AND, they’re very rarely illustrated by their author. This is because publishers like being able to match text to artist and bring out the unique depth from both mediums.

To get a feel for how picture books work, get into the habit of adding a few to each library outing. Study the way text and illustration complement each other. What does the text say? What does the artwork communicate? What sort of language is used?

Each different type of children’s book requires a different type of writing

Children’s books fall into several categories: picture books (discussed above), early readers/chapter books, middle grade and young adult novels.

Early readers (or chapter books) are fast moving, easy-to-read ‘first novels’ for junior readers. They contain interesting characters, exciting plots and are formatted in ‘chapters’.

Middle grade novels have longer narratives. They offer greater scope for character development and their plots and sub-plots engaging, surprising and tightly written.

YA novels can be edgy, complex, moving and powerful.

Before you start writing, learn all you can about the genre you’d like to write in. Borrow books from the library on writing for children. Rosanne Hawke’s Riding the Wind is a great resource to start with.

Children’s books explore many topics, including the difficult ones, but they always offer hope

Children’s literature can tackle almost every topic of theme imaginable! There are picture books about birthday parties, the death of a grandparent and a big bad mood. Middle grade novels explore homelessness, friendships and bullying. YA novels are about relationships, forced marriage and fantasy worlds (sometimes simultaneously).

What makes all the difference however, is the tone of the story and the acute awareness the author has to the needs of the child reader. Sensitivity, empathy and respect must accompany all writing for children, no matter the topic. A children’s writer must NEVER write down to a child and all children’s books need a satisfying, authentic happy ending (or at least an ending that points to hope).

Consider the themes and topics in your favourite children’s books. How are these ideas tackled with sensitivity, empathy and respect? How do their endings satisfy without belittling content, character or the very real experiences of the reader?

Do you have more questions about writing for children? Pop them in the comments below for Penny to try to answer. And keep an eye out for Children’s and YA Workshop streams at the Omega Writer’s Conference.

Penny Reeve is the author of more than 20 books for children, including picture books, novels and non-fiction. She writes to empower children to respond to the complex, fascinating and sometimes difficult world we live in. Her latest novel, Out of the Cages, written as Penny Jaye, is a story about human trafficking and won the 2019 CALEB YA Fiction category.