By Susan Roberts
With Contributions by Emily Evans-Miller and Daniel Wheatley
Here at Mascot, we know children’s books. From our first book, Hello Hokie Bird! to our runaway hit, Bo: Commander in Leash, to the hundreds of diverse projects we’ve brought to life for our authors, we know what makes these unique projects succeed. While all of our production editors are experienced in the genre, PE Susan Roberts is our in-house expert on all things children’s books. We asked for her best writing advice and she had some great wisdom to share.
Susan’s Checklist for Writing a Successful Children’s Book:
- Read in the genre! One of the best ways to get familiar with writing any genre of book is to read as widely as possible. Read the classics, but also be sure that you sample some of the latest titles in your genre too–it’s a great way to stay up-to-date on trends and see what publishing houses are picking up. To get you started, here are some of our non-Mascot Books favorites: Hug Machine by Scott Campbell, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, and Squids Will Be Squids by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.
- Do not sacrifice your story for rhyme. Rhyme is one of the most useful tools for helping children learn and is a common style in children’s books, but it can become intrusive if not done well. Don’t let your rhyme scheme determine your plot, and if your rhyme doesn’t come naturally, don’t be afraid to switch it up!
- Don’t patronize kids–they’re more intuitive than you’d expect! Adult authors are often counseled to “trust the reader.” The same applies for kids. They’re perceptive and are more than capable of picking up on emotional takeaways and simple subplots. Don’t over-explain or oversimplify.
- Make use of your illustrations to tell your story. Can something you’ve explained in text be shown in illustration? If so, let your illustrations do the talking.
- Length is important. Make sure the word count is appropriate for your audience. For picture books, we recommend staying around 1000-1,500 words. There are absolutely longer books out there, but it can be difficult for kids to focus for longer stories (and tough for parents at bedtime, too!).
- Read your book aloud when you edit. This is a great way to check that both the flow of your story and the cadence of your language makes sense. Most children’s books are read out loud, either by a parent or teacher or by the child themselves. You can use this strategy to identify run on sentences, awkward dialogue, and rhymes that don’t quite fit.
- Read your book to kids. Kids are honest about what they like and don’t like, so they’ll be your best (and probably toughest) critics. There’s no better way to test if your book can hold a child’s attention then by putting it in front of them.
- Stay consistent. If you rhyme one page, rhyme the rest. If you are building a new world, make sure the rules of that universe are the same throughout the book. Continuity is another important teaching tool, and disruptions can throw the reader out of your story.
- Be mindful of your vocabulary. It’s okay to use big words and challenge your readers–it’s part of how children learn–but be careful not to use words that are too far outside of your target reader’s reading level.
- Work with a strong editor. While first drafts often come together in solitude, revising should be a collaborative process. Seek advice from an editor you trust about what works and doesn’t work. Make sure the person you’re working with reads or has experience with children’s books, and don’t be afraid to seek advice from more than one person! Your story is your own, but these outside perspectives will help you shape your draft and create your best book.
If you’ve written a children’s book, we want to hear your advice for new authors. Let us know on Facebook or Twitter by tagging us @Mascotbooks.