Writing for Children: Guidelines for Children’s Books
Self- or indie-publishing of children’s books is a costly venture. Children’s books are still consumed in print, rather than digitally–especially picture books. Be prepared to pay thousands USD for your full-color illustrations, cover art, design, and printing. To ensure a profitable selling price, source a printer in the Far East. Make sure your designer knows to lay out the title page properly to pass inspection through customs (hint: make sure you indicate country of origin at the appropriate point size.) Remember the other considerations to make in deciding whether to self-publish.
For the rest of this article, I’ll be focusing on the choice of Traditional publishing of children’s books.
Do You Like to Write for Children?
Children’s book publishers have general and specific parameters for manuscript length, content, vocabulary, and other restrictions. Publishers vary in whether they accept direct submissions or prefer working with agent-sourced manuscripts. Usually the smaller houses are the former, the larger houses the latter. They can vary as well as in what they pay in advances and royalties, and whether the royalty is on net or gross sales.
An excellent resource for both authors and illustrators to learn about specific publishers’ editorial and submissions guidelines is the annually updated reference book, Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, edited by Chuck Sambuchino and published by Writer’s Digest Books. Check your local library for a copy, or go online. Because publishing needs and personnel change, it is best to use the most up-to-date versions of the book. Otherwise it can be a waste of time.
The “Do Not Submit Art with Manuscripts” Writing for Children Rule
Children’s book publishers prefer to receive children’s book manuscripts from authors without any illustrations, with few exceptions. Manuscripts should be formatted just like any other book manuscript: 1” to 1.5” margins all around, with a cover page featuring the book title in ALL CAPS, the author’s name and contact information on the title page, use leading (space before and space after) to provide spaces between elements on the cover page, not carriage returns; the manuscript should be double-spaced, no extra spaces before or after paragraphs, no extra space after periods. If you are a trained poet submitting correctly formatted poetry as the text, it is OK to set that up with returns after each line as required by the poetry. Throughout the manuscript, repeat the author’s name, BOOK TITLE in ALL CAPS, and the page number up in the header of each subsequent page.
With few exceptions, children’s book manuscripts need to be good enough to stand alone without reference or suggestion of any illustrations—while at the same time, lending itself well to illustration.
Publishers are Manufacturers
Just send your manuscript, text only, if you are a writer and not an illustrator. It is best not to go looking for an artist to illustrate your manuscript — not even to get a rough concept sketch. Unless you’re related to a professional illustrator, presenting your writing with amateur artwork not only reflects poorly on you, but could kill the deal altogether.
Remember, publishers are manufacturers, creating lots of different products from raw materials. In the case of children’s publishing, that means both manuscripts and illustrations. Publishers have teams of professionally trained in-house editors and marketing staff who look at the raw material (your manuscript) and decide together how to design and package a new book using other raw materials at their disposal (illustrations.) They may suggest an artist whose work would be complimentary not only to your story, but to other books in their catalog, that will help all the books sell better. They have a stable of artists they know, trust, and work with regularly. They may have a top-selling illustrator who will get paired with your manuscript. That would be their goal, since selling books is how they make their money. Artists like to have their own vision for the work, without the influence of other artists. Also there is the matter of contract: illustrators share space not only on the cover and title page with the author, but they split the commission, too. They are under contract with the publisher, as the illustrator of the book. As manufacturers, publishers want to choose with whom they write contracts for illustrations.
Exceptions to the “Do Not Submit Art with Manuscripts” Rule
The biggest exception to the “Do Not Submit Art with Manuscript” rule are authors who are themselves illustrators. In fact, that is a huge exception.
“Children’s publishers are always trying to turn their illustrators into author-illustrators,” said Madeline Smoot, publisher at CBAY Books and former editorial director for children’s books at Blooming Tree Press. “It’s much easier. Authors who illustrate don’t need a separate contract, don’t have to split their royalties with anyone else, and the whole publishing process goes quicker” than when working with separate artists, she said recently at the Chicago Writing Workshop.
Other exceptions can include familial author-illustrator teams: husband-wife, parent-child, or sibling-sibling. In this case, you would query and submit the work together, as a duo.
But if you are a solo author, unrelated to a professional artist, and you’re not an illustrator yourself, just focus on making your manuscript the best it can be. Yes, you can, for yourself, create a 32-page mockup with stick-figure concept sketches — and this is highly recommended, just for yourself to see where the text breaks might show up. Here’s an article about that.
Bottom line: it is best not to go looking for illustrations to “accompany” your story. It could actually hurt your chances. If, on the other hand, you have decent artistic ability but simply lack the training, it would be worthwhile to invest in a course in how to illustrate books; as both author and illustrator, you won’t have to split the royalties.
Guidelines to Writing for Children by Age Level, Word Count, Book Page Length, Notes
Here are targets to aim for in writing for children, organized by age level and book type. Note: these are general guidelines. Every publisher has specific guidelines for how to submit manuscripts and illustrations. Some publishers accept direct submission from authors; the larger publishers usually prefer representation by an agent. An excellent resource to find out is Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market.
Ages: Birth to Age 2
Word Count: 0 to 32
Book Length: 24, 32, or 48 pp (32 pp standard)
Board books are those very thick, nearly indestructible books babies love to chew on. They usually address concepts like colors, the alphabet, numbers, families, brushing teeth, going to bed, using the potty, and so on. They may or may not have words or sentences, and may be derivative of picture books for older children. More experiential than literary, board books are usually printed on stiff thick cardboard and might incorporate other manufactured elements to provide tactile, hide-and-seek, or other sensory experience, such as flaps, fabrics, scratch and sniff, die cut-outs, ropes, shiny metal, soft plastic, crinkly plastic, fur, sliding parts, bells, buzzers, etc. A higher percentage of board books are designed and written by single author-illustrators, rather than author illustrator duos. Some best-selling author-illustrators whose board books are derivative of larger picture books include Linley Dodd, Sandra Boynton, and Eric Carle.
Narrative Picture Book
Ages: Parents + Ages 2-5
Word Count: 300-500
Book Length: 32 pp (Standard)
When people say they want to write a children’s book, what they usually mean is this: a narrative picture book–a lavishly illustrated, oversized, hardcover book. Should be simple, to write, right? Think again! You need to have a kid-like, believable, flawed main character who grows and changes over time; the story must have a strong hook, be solid, age-appropriate, be told in three acts with a beginning, middle, and end; the story must appeal to two audiences equally: both the parent, who will be reading the book to the child, and the child himself; the story must lend itself to being read out loud, over and over again. The book must be ruthlessly edited, lend itself to illustration without describing scenes too much or too little. And you must make that all work within 300 to 600 words.
“Children’s book length has been steadily dropping in word count,” said Smoot. “If you can do it 300 words, that’s a great target these days.”
Picture books have a long acquisition cycle— delivery of finished printed books usually takes close to 3 years. That’s to give the illustrator time to complete the illustrations, create the book layout, send out the galleys for CIP registration and reviews, print, ship, and deliver from overseas.
What About Rhyme?
While it is possible to tell your story in rhyme, don’t do it unless you are an accomplished master poet who has studied, knows all, and is expert in the execution of the precise rules of whatever form of poetry you are choosing for your story. If you are just winging it, forget it. It won’t fly with the editors. In that case, rewrite it into prose.
Some Subgenres of Narrative Picture Books:
- Concept Picture (is narrative, about a concept)
- Fairy Tales
- Wordless Picture Books
- Postmodern Metafictive (modern retelling of old stories, mostly for parental benefit)
Ages: Ages 4-7
Word Count: 100-2,000 over four levels
Book Length: varies
Before writing an Easy Reader, study the publishers’ lists for vocabulary restrictions, at each reading level. These books are not in much demand these days, particularly from first-time authors, because the books are costly to produce, do not command a high price, have a lot of competition from existing series tied to television shows like Dora the Explorer and other series that may have hundreds of books in them, and the books don’t tend to sell well. They’re just not very profitable. Easy readers come in multiple levels, from first readers to level 4 chapter books, ranging from counts of 100 to 2,000 words.
Ages: Ages 5-8
Word Count: 8,000 to 12,000 words
Book Length: varies
Lightly illustrated, these books are “egocentric” meaning the reader is very specifically the same age as the protagonist, who stays the same age and in the same grade level throughout an entire series—which can be very long. This is to make the books appealing to both the very precocious fast readers, as well as the slower readers. A sample is The Magic Treehouse series.
Ages 10-11 and 12-13
Word Count: 30,000 to 60,000 ±
These are full-blown novels, with the age of the protagonist being the age of the reader. They’re marked by being very straightforward without any tangents, single point of view, and no romance of any kind for the younger audience, and with very mild romance for the older kids, with hand-holding. Books in the fantasy genre can typically go longer, up to 90,000 words.
Teen/Young Adult (YA)
Ages: 11-14 and 15-18
Word Count: 70,000 to 120,000
These are marked by sweet romances when protagonists are at the lower age level, and somewhat steamier romances when they are a little older. These authors and titles tend to appeal to both a teenage audience and older women as well. Examples are Cassandra Claire’s Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series, and the Twilight Series.
How do you know if your story idea is better suited for a picture book or a magazine story? Here a good discussion here about that.