Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Writing for Children

“I have an idea for a children’s book. Who should I pitch it to?”

I see this question often on writing forums and it takes willpower to refrain from posting, “Whoa, back it up, Nelly.”

Writing for children is hard, hard work. I do not advise attempting it without a thorough understanding of children’s literature. The best place to start is the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators.

Children’s literature has multiple categories based on age. There are board books, early picture books, standard picture books, easy readers, transition books, chapter books, etc. Picture books in particular have specific page and layout restrictions. There are language expectations based on target audience. You can find a list of categories at Write For Kids.

At the very least, you should peruse Writing Children's Books for Dummies and the current version of the Children's Writers and Illustrators Market book.

Go into a bookstore and head to the children’s section. The first thing you will notice is it is full of “classic” children’s books, the books parents of baby boomers read to them. Then there are successful series by writers such as Mercer Mayer's Little Critter series and Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Berenstain Bear series.

There are shelves of Little Golden Books. Disney has rows of spin off books. There is a special category for marketing-related books that tie in to specific movies, products, or television cartoons, such as Barbie, My Little Pony, Sesame Street, and Dora the Explorer, etc. Publishers in this category hire their own writers or contract with specific freelancers. Unless you have their permission, and it is highly unlikely they’ll give it to you, you can forget “fan fiction” or spin offs.

I have critiqued a few stories meant for children. There was usually a kernel that could have made a wonderful children’s story, but the writer was unwilling to switch the focus away from the adult characters or adjust the words to suit the audience.

"I am writing a children's book. I need an artist willing to split the profits with me."

This is another post I see often. Illustrating a book is a specific skill set. There is nothing worse than a children's book with amateur artwork.

Illustrations require a high level of craft. Artists are not willing to put in the man hours for free, nor should they be expected to. There is no guarantee your book will sell one copy, much less the thousands it would take to pay them back for their efforts. You can commission an artist to do work for you, but expect to pay hundreds of dollars per image for their time and expertise. You may not share the same vision.

If you go the traditional route, publishers prefer their own illustrators. In most instances, the writer does not interact with the illustrator directly. There are examples of brilliant collaboration and, once in a while, a brilliant writer/illustrator comes along. That is not the usual case.

If you wish to join the ranks of illustrious children’s book writers or illustrators, keep in mind that the gates to the children’s market are higher and thicker than the entry into genre fiction markets.

I'm not saying you can't do it on your own or even publish it on your own. These days, with POD technology being what it is, it is possible. In fact, I'd go so far to say as a book written by you would make an excellent gift for your children or grandchildren if you have the talent. You can find stock art images on many sites. Some are free. Others have fee and licensing options, just search for "stock images." You can visit Deviant Art and scroll through the hundreds of artists there. Some offer their work for free, others charge. You can find artists willing to draw illustrations for a fee.

However, if you want to break into the professional market, it won't be easy.

It is a small community. Networking is as important as a full understanding of the craft. I advise joining SCBWI and attending conferences, taking classes (online or in person), and exploring the rich world of children’s literature before picking up your pencil.

Unless, you just want to doodle for your own enjoyment, in which case I highly recommend starting with the Prismacolor line of erasable pencils.

Diana Hurwitz
 is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. I run a submissions mailbox for a children's book publisher and my best advice is to connect to the kidlit publishers you like via social media first. The smaller ones will want to see your social media presence anyway before they take you into the fold. I also cannot stress enough to follow their guidelines religiously - if they say no rhyming text, don't send any! All that said, I should mention that the largest kidlit agency now accepts PB manuscripts ONLY if the author is the illustrator too. No single authors, no single illustrators.

    1. Wow, that is a significant change in the industry, Dani. What about authors who have no artistic skill? Are they without a market?

    2. Not without a market, Maryann -- there's always self-publishing. We're just (as usual) stuck without agent and trad publisher interest, which is nothing new. Personally I'm glad not to be bothering with what agents and other publishers want, and having to adhere to other people's guidelines. I prefer to call the shots. ;-)

    3. Interesting change of mind. Maybe they are trying to go cheaper: pay one person for both talents? Interesting. There have been some very successful illustrator/writers. I would be so lucky to have both skills! Writing is hard enough. :)

    4. That's just Adams Literary - they vet their submissions for PBs this way. It's actually kind of a brilliant idea. As to publishing a PB - I'd go the traditional route. Printing color is damned expensive, especially if you go green. $50,000 and up on a small run of books.

  2. Very helpful article, Diana. I do hope authors interested in writing for children find this. I shared it on social media. :-)

  3. This is a great article, Diana. A writer might assume, because of the age of the audience, that writing for children is a piece of cake. Obviously, this isn't so. I've never tried writing for children, but I do include youngsters among characters in my stories. Even then, it can be a challenge to make them realistic and come across as three-dimensional kids.

    1. I think that is the biggest misconception: that a young audience means simplistic storytelling, when it truth it is very hard to write well for children. There are so many moving pieces to consider, far more than genre writing.

    2. I think I might write a follow-up post from my experience as an acquisitions editor for kidlit. First rule most often broken: don't write a story aimed at adults cloaked in a picture book format. Instant rejection.

  4. Since I don't read kid's books, it would be difficult to make the transition to writing one.


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