Remember reading Dr. Seuss as a child? The children’s books with oversized pages, rich with color and stylized text. The sturdy cover bent at the corners from being dragged around and propped open dozens of times. Fingerprints pressed into the glossy paper.
Children’s books contain magic other books cannot replicate. Strong, relatable characters coupled with artwork draws children and parents alike into the story.
How do you capture that magic to write your own children’s book?
I’m glad you asked.
Unlocking the story
Don’t forget that a children’s story is still a story. The basic format you’re operating within isn’t changing. Just some rules and expectations.
With that in mind, it is imperative that you hold to storytelling norms. A children’s book still needs a beginning, middle, and end. Showing is still more important than telling. Picking a theme and holding to it is still a necessity.
The basic design of your story won’t be changing. So, start out like any storyteller with some outlining and basic character design. Treat these children’s books just like a novel or screenplay or any other written work.
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What is unique about children’s books?
Weak characters will ruin any story, but for a children’s book in particular, you need characters who elicit a strong and immediate emotional reaction. If your audience doesn’t connect with the character immediately, they won’t stay interested in the story.
While all the elements of your book deserve attention, be sure to spend time considering how you’ll represent your characters. The characters are who your readers (kids) will associate with most. You can use this representation to consciously make that connection much more clearly than a novelist can.
And because your story won’t have the length or depth of a novel, the connection must be made quickly.
Again, every book should have a clear goal. For a novel, it’s the culmination of the plot, for a memoir, it’s the revelation of life.
And for a children’s book, that goal is almost always an education in some fashion. Even if your children’s book is focused more on entertaining than educating, layering in education elements will help kids engage with the content. And it adds value, something important for marketing your children’s book.
Most children’s books will lean heavily on illustrations to drive the story, with text accompanying as a supplement. Remember too that there almost always wants to be some elements that educate, and the text is a great way to add this content.
Think about how the book will be read—is your children’s book aimed at kids who will read themselves? Or are you aiming at a younger audience who will be read to by parents or teachers? Either way, you need to make the illustrations informative and clear, coupled with easy-to-follow text.
Building a Children’s Book
This is thankfully easier to tackle. You’ll be looking at a few different sizes, all using essentially the same design.
Children’s books normally use the 8.5 x 11 or A4 format for a large portrait book or they use a square format, normally 8.5 x 8.5. You’ll definitely be using full-color interior printing.
The last crucial piece of the actual build is the font. I don’t want to say anything definitive because a children’s book is much more open than a novel or textbook in terms of acceptable fonts. I would lean toward clean, sans-serif fonts that are easy to read and look good at larger point sizes. Helvetica and Gill Sans are two commonly used fonts for interior type.
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Putting it Together
Are you writing and illustrating? Just writing? An illustrator with an idea that needs fleshing out?
From the very start of your children’s book project, you need a solid idea of how the pieces will come together. If you plan to write and illustrate, you’ve got a leg up on controlling the design work, but you still must carefully plan your book.
Don’t overlook the cost to self-publish a children’s book either; part of the planning process should involve budgeting for editing, design, and printing. For children’s books, you’ll need to carefully review the book before making them available for sale. That means proof copies, another factor that can increase the cost to self-publish a children’s book.
More than a typical book, design, and planning are crucial to creating a children’s book. Creating a children’s book is an exercise in effective content marketing. Because content marketers know that getting and keeping someone’s attention involves thorough planning and intentional execution. You won’t have space within the work to elaborate or explore ideas. Concision and clarity is of the utmost importance.
Here’s a quick rundown of some important pieces of the children’s book design:
- Written Story – write out the story along the same lines as a short story. Detail the scenes, the surrounding, and the characters. Take care to pay special attention to the dialog and plot direction.
- Story Board – once you have the basic elements laid out, storyboard to plan the pages. Start sketching page art (even if you won’t be illustrating this is a good idea). You need to get a very clear vision of the way the story will look at this stage.
- Illustration – the art in your children’s book is vital. The pictures will catch kids’ attention and move them through the story. As such, you can’t skimp on the illustrations. If you’re doing them yourself get as much education about children’s book illustrations as you can find. If you’re hiring out, vet the artists and be sure to see plenty of samples before deciding.
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Solving the Puzzle
Creating any book is a grueling process. Children’s books are grueling while being a puzzle. You need to craft all the content just like any book, but you have to solve the problem of ‘how do I assemble this for a reader very different than me?’
Researching—so reading—other children’s books, especially popular ones, provides invaluable insight into what works for children’s books. Think about how the book hits those three key elements as you read through it:
How does the author make the characters emotionally charged and compelling? What message is the book teaching? How is the design working to serve both the character and the message?
Amid those requirements, you have to find a way to make it amusing. That might end up being the trickiest part of all. Ever heard of a somber children’s book? Not likely. You can deal with complex issues, but the tone has to remain light. Otherwise, you risk losing your audience.
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Self-publishing your Children’s book
All of the above advice is well and good. Lots of work, sure. But not impossible.
Now you have to get it published.
Self-publishing is a great option because you can control all aspects of the project and use print-on-demand to keep overhead low. The other side of this is the cost to prepare the book. Hiring an Illustrator can be very expensive.
Don’t let that stop you though. There are some great resources out there. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is a great place to learn more about creating children’s books and even offers an Illustrator’s Gallery to help find an illustrator for your book.
Like all self-motivated endeavors, there will be a lot of work involved, but if you will put in the work, the reward can be tremendous!
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Selling your Children’s book
Much like a self-published novel, selling your children’s book will be most successful if you can do it directly through a network of interested readers.
Now that gets challenging since this means you either need to establish connections with schools or kid’s groups, or you need a captive local audience (such as a bookstore connection) you can leverage. Both situations likely mean a lot of legwork on your end.
Children’s book authors have an edge over the novelist when selling by hand though. You can schedule a reading (again, you must establish connections to leverage first) at the local bookstore or library and literally read your book while showing the pictures. If it’s good, you’ve suddenly got a group of children excited about your book, which will translate into a group of parents excited about your book.
Driving traffic to a website to order can be more difficult, but not impossible. The cornerstone of your children’s book marketing efforts will always be your connections—those you have established and those you build through in-person readings.
The happily ever after…
If you’re dedicated to your story and ready to shoulder the work involved in crafting a children’s book, self-publishing is a great way to get the book into print. Get your ideas in motion, start storyboarding those pages, and share your story with some eager young minds with a lot to learn and a craving for stories!
Paul is the Content Marketing Manager at Lulu. When he's not entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.