Children’s Writing: The Basics
A Workshop by G. Francis Johnson
A Workshop by G. Francis Johnson
Hello fellow children’s writers!
My name is Gail Johnson (the name you see above is my pen name). I was born in Derby, England in 1955 – the same year that Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California and that the board game Scrabble debuted. Maybe that’s why I find writing for children so natural. I have written for Highlights for Children and was a finalist for the 2002 SCBWI/Judy Blume Contemporary Novel Grant for my middle grade story, Isabelle’s Garden. In Fall 2004, my first picture book, Has Anybody Lost A Glove?, was published by Boyds Mills Press.
I live with my two sons in Abingdon, Maryland, where I continue to write stories for children to love.
Children’s writing is one of the most rewarding forms of writing. A well-written children’s story will stay with the reader into adulthood and be passed on from generation to generation. Many think that if they can write adults, they can write for children easily. That all one need do is “dumb-down” the language for a child to understand. Fortunately, writing for children is more complex (children are smart!) and requires not only writing skill but also thorough knowledge how such stories are constructed.
Two things I’ll mention at the outset that can improve your children’s writing:
Read children’s books – I cannot emphasize this enough especially for new children’s book writers. It’s amazing how many people who write for children will say that they never read children’s books yet this is the best way to study how successful children’s books are constructed. I know of one workshop where the participants are required to read 100 picture books (not as bad as it sounds since picture books are usually less than 1000 words). The workshop leader does this because she realizes the importance of understanding how picture books work.
Observe children – This may be easier for some than for others. When my children were younger it was easy because I could watch them and their friends any time I wanted. Now I have to be more creative. The easiest way is to go to a park or attend a child’s birthday party. When I worked in the church nursery on Sundays I got an intimate look at kids’ behavior. However you do it this is a wonderful way to hear children’s dialogue and possibly get an idea for your next story.
Types of Children’s Books
Children’s books have different categories and characteristics based on age group and reading level. In some instances the age groups overlap.
Board Books: These are, for many children, their first introduction to books. They are made for the very young, age 6 months – 2 years, and are made of sturdy cardboard to make it easy to turn the pages and to protect them from damage. Board books are very simple in concept and have very few (25-50) or no words. They are tough to sell to publishers who usually create them in-house as tie-ins to TV shows, movies or existing works.
Picture Books: Usually when writers think of doing a children’s book, this is the kind of book to which they gravitate. A picture book (PB), as the name implies, is primarily made up of pictures; vivid images that help children aged 4-8 understand the words in the story. For that reason, your story must offer at least 12-14 picture “opportunities” otherwise it won’t work as a PB. A PB is one of the most challenging children’s books to write because you must tell your complete story, with a solid beginning, middle and ending, in 1,000 words or less (usually more like 500-800). There are exceptions to this rule, for instance, the picture storybook (1,200- 2,000 words) which is for a slightly older age group and generally harder to sell. By the way, if you have a rhyming picture book make sure the rhyme is solid and flows smoothly. Read rhyming PB’s to see what I mean. Also, contrary to popular belief, unless you are self-publishing you do not need to find an illustrator; the publisher will choose the one they feel is best for your story. If you are an accomplished illustrator, you can submit illustrations with your story however, it’s best to submit only one or the other initially.
Easy Readers: These books are for children just beginning to read. They are usually 2,500 to 5,000 words made up of short sentences with simple vocabularies and simple (yet involving) plots. They often have pictures, but less than a PB.
Early Chapter Books: These introduce children aged 7-10 to books divided into chapters. Word counts vary considerably—5,000 to 25,000 words (usually 15,000 or less). The subjects often focus on family, school, and humor (think Captain Underpants).
Middle Grade Novels: For children aged 8-12, this is considered the “Golden Age of Reading.” These books require a strong hero or heroine that children can identify with who is able to solve they own conflicts. Middle Grade novels are often historical. Word counts are variable; the story dictates the length.
Young Adult Novels: These books are generally as long as adult novels but with subjects of interest to teens. These days YA books are quite edgy dealing with serious subjects matter. Again, your protagonist should be someone teens can relate to.
Magazine Articles – Toddlers 10-50 words; Preschoolers 100-800 words; Grade school 400-2,300 words, Teens 750-2,500 words. Articles and stories are short and lively; non-fiction is tightly focused. You should read a few copies of the magazine you’re interested in publishing in to get an idea of its editorial focus. Check their writing guidelines (either online or write for them).
I’ve highlighted mainly fiction here but any of the guidelines above can apply to non-fiction as well. In fact, there is a very lively market for non-fiction books and articles so you may want to consider taking this route to publication.
When I sent my manuscript for Has Anybody Lost A Glove? for Lee & Low’s New Voices Award, I thought it was ready—it wasn’t. What helped me tremendously was my online critique group. They were able to point out areas of weakness in my story that I was unable to see. I give them a lot of credit with helping to make my story publishable. Not every critique group will be that effective. When seeking a critique group it’s nice to have a mix of published and non-published authors, however, the main thing is that you get feedback that is substantive not shallow.
I often get the question from aspiring children’s writers, “Do I need an agent?” Well, that depends. I, and many other authors I know, was able to get published without an agent. Many publishers will accept unsolicited manuscripts; you discover this by studying their writing guidelines (to be discussed below). Other publishers, mainly the larger houses (Random House, Scholastic, etc.) may only accept submissions from agents or published authors. In my opinion, if you can submit to publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts, especially at the outset, do so to avoid paying a percentage to an agent. Once you’re more established and have more books under your belt, it may behoove you to acquire an agent who can help target your submissions and negotiate your contracts.
Choosing the Right Publisher
This to me is one of the most important decisions you can make with regard to your writing. If you do not have an agent it’s up to you to decide which publisher is best for your manuscript. You don’t want to send your middle grade novel to a publisher that only does non-fiction or submit your edgy YA to a house that only does picture books. I credit my thorough research of publishers with selling my book to the first house I submitted to. There are various ways in which you can determine where to send your manuscript.
Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market
The Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market (CWIM) is published annually and is probably the most comprehensive guide not only for publishers’ guidelines and contacts but for great advice for the aspiring children’s writer. Its only drawback is that because it is published annually it doesn’t reflect changes that occur during the year in the highly volatile world of publishing.
Catalogs and websites are probably the best way to see what types of books a particular house publishes. The information included here is usually up-to-date and reliable. You will often find the publishers submission guidelines on their website but not always. In some cases you’ll need to send a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) for their guidelines and/or catalog.
Twice a year (Spring and Fall), Publisher’s Weekly has issues that focus on children’s writing and lists upcoming titles being released that season. This is another useful way to see what types of books are being released by a particular publisher.
Go to the library and look for books like yours to see who publishes them; also, search Amazon. Not only will you find out who’s publishing what but you’ll find out how many other books are out there like yours which will give you an idea of likelihood of your story’s being picked up.
Preparing Your Manuscript for Submission
Once you’ve determined that your manuscript is ready to face the world don’t ruin your chances by sending a sloppy submission. In general, your manuscript should be on plain, white paper, 1 – 1 ½ inch margins all around, double-spaced, in a readable font (12 pt., Times Roman or Courier). Include your name and contact information in the upper left corner and your approximate word count in the upper right corner on the first page. In the middle of the first page type the title and author’s name. For a comprehensive guide to manuscript format go to
For virtually all submissions you will need a cover letter. Keep it clear and concise. Avoid hyping your book or yourself. Editors only want a brief description of your story and relevant information about you. Again, a great guide to cover letters can be found here:
For longer works and non-fiction you’ll usually need to submit a query letter before you send your manuscript. This is merely a way to find out if the publisher wants to see your work. It saves the publisher time by giving them a brief summary that hopefully will pique their interest for more. Here’s a guide for writing query letters: http://www.institutechildrenslit.com/rx/ws07/cleverqueries.shtml.
I generally send all my submissions in a 9x11 envelope with a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Make sure you include enough postage for the size of your manuscript. Some authors include a postcard where the person who receives the manuscript can indicate that it was received and when and just pop it back to you in the mail. This way would know that your manuscript has reached its destination.
Exclusive vs. Multiple Submissions
Depending on the publisher, it can often take months to find out if they want—or don’t want—your story. (Glove took six months and my latest rejection took longer than that.) To shorten the waiting period, some writers do multiple submissions, that is, sending their manuscript to more than one publisher at a time. Before you do this, be certain to check the publishers’ guidelines; some do not accept multiple submissions. They don’t want to deal with the possibility having to compete with another publisher for your story. Those that do accept multiple submissions prefer to be notified; you would include this information in your cover letter.
Here are a few resources to help you along in your writing journey. This list is by no means exhaustive but it will get you started on finding more resources of your own.
Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) – http://www.scbwi.org
National Writers Union – www.nwu.org
Author’s Guild – http://www.authorsguild.org/
SCBWI annual conferences (see website above)
Chautauqua & Highlights Foundation workshops – http://www.highlightsfoundation.org/
Kindling Words (for published authors only) – http://www.kindlingwords.org/
Children's Writing Biz
Nonfiction for Kids
African American Children’s Writers & Illustrators
Young Adult Writers
The Purple Crayon
It’s been a pleasure providing you with information and resources to help you with your children’s writing. I pray that you will be blessed with good fortune on your writing journey. Feel free to contact me with any questions or for advice. Yours in peace and love.
© 2007 Gail F. Johnson