5 Essential Tips For Creating A Children’s Book

It’s always brilliant to hear lessons learned from other writers and I know a lot of you are writing for children, so I’m sure this post by Jo Ann Kairys, co-author of Sunbelievable will be helpful.

My son and I wrote the first draft of a children’s story over 2 years ago. Never did we imagine there would be dozens of re-writes.

We were inspired by his daughters, then ages 5 and 3, as they entertained each other with vivid imagination and storytelling. Each of us, accomplished authors on academic topics, thought we could easily transform their amusing dialogue into a children’s book.

Not so fast!

Those early steps led to quite an adventure—not just writing—but more importantly, the process of creating a unique product for a crowded children’s book market. After all, in 2009 alone, almost 22,000 children’s books were published in the U.S.

Undaunted, we took the plunge with unbridled enthusiasm and learned from our mistakes along the way. It was a humbling experience. Here are tips for avoiding similar mistakes and creating a high quality children’s picture book that will make you proud.

1. Don’t take writing skills for granted.

Our first draft turned into 5, then 20, then we lost count. Okay, so we loved the basic story idea, but it didn’t have the key ingredients of a compelling story—a problem to overcome, trouble happening, trouble resolved. Mostly it lacked a powerful, memorable message. So I took an online writing course geared toward children’s picture books, and that made the critical difference. It offered 24/7 feedback from 15 other writers and the course instructor, and an in-depth look at story techniques such as rhyming, plot structure and character development. It also focused on story pace, cadence and a reason for telling. We revised many more times, even days before the book went to press. In the end, our technical writing skills proved more of a hindrance than a help, with the exception of editing and proofreading.

2. Develop a meaningful message.

From the beginning, we were narrowly focused on what I call “inside attractors.” The kids were cute, made up wildly funny stories, laughed hysterically at their own fantasies and drew us naturally into their humorous storytelling. While fun and engaging, their antics had no particular message, or what I call “external attractors.” Who else but us would laugh at their clowning around and think they were appealing to a wide audience of young readers or their parents? Basically, what was the point of the story? Since the main characters tease each other about a natural phenomenon—in this case, the Sun—why not capitalize on their curiosity and add facts about the real Sun? This led to the “external attractor” concept, enhancing the story to include a learning opportunity, making it both fun and educational. Think about the potential appeal to teachers and libraries with this more expanded dimension. The message becomes entertaining as well as functional.

3. Can you sum up the message in a short sentence?

Marketers often refer to this as the “elevator pitch,” and it’s challenging. While creating your story, think about how you’ll relate the message in 30 seconds. For example, this book helps school children learn ways to avoid bullying, or this book teaches young children about respecting other cultures. While writing, continue to ask if you’re on message. It’s hard to admit that we didn’t create the message until the story was almost finalized. Classic cart-before-the-horse approach. Then it took some time to sum it up. And that meant more story revisions and even more time!

4. Work with professionals on illustrations.

I began illustrating the story using Photoshop CS3. The software was completely new to me and I was no artist. I wasted at least 6 months trying to do it myself, learning the basics. Eventually, I began consulting with a Photoshop instructor and a graphic design expert. The story illustrations merge real children with digitally manipulated images—a digital photo collage style that’s pretty unique for children’s picture books. This may or may not prove a “winner,” but the craft is on solid ground thanks to the professionals’ instruction and knowledge.

5. Work with a professional children’s book designer.

We were happy with how the illustrations evolved as a rich visual background for the story. I had a few digital book copies made and took them to the 2-day Publishing University workshop at the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) conference in May 2011. I took advantage of every opportunity to meet one-on-one with experts from the industry. Feedback was mostly positive, but the “constructive” criticism sent me into a tailspin. For example—the story text gets lost in the illustrations, there’s no defining author platform, digital collage isn’t “mainstream” for children, the book size is too small. I felt overwhelmed and, yes, pretty discouraged. But I had a lucky break. A professional graphic design company specializing in award-winning book makeovers, agreed to take on the project. The book was good enough to be considered, so all the prior effort wasn’t completely in vain. But we could have saved a tremendous amount of time and financial resources if we started working with a book designer much earlier in the process.

Do you write for children? Do you have any tips to share?

Jo Ann Kairys and Daniel Kairys are co-authors of Sunbelievable (for ages 4-8), to be released in late September.

Does the Sun ride roller coasters? Teach fireflies to shine? Take bubble baths when eating pizza?
Sunbelievable helps young children connect storytelling with science and nature. If the Sun can ride roller coasters, anything is possible!

You can connect with Jo Ann on:
www.sunbelievable-book.com
twitter @jkairys

Top image Flickr CC Kristiewells

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Comments

  1. says

    I lost count of the times I revised my books. It’s so important to realize that you can’t just do a couple of drafts and consider it done. I also suggest children’s authors read their manuscripts to their target audience to make sure the story gets the desired reaction. Sometimes what I think is funny, the children don’t get. The input of children, teachers and librarians is invaluable.

    • says

      Thanks for this post, Joanna

      “The input of children, teachers and librarians is invaluable.” I couldn’t agree more with this comment!

      Looking at the 5 Essential Tips, one thing I think I would be wary about, however, is the quote about enhancing the story to include a learning opportunity, making it both fun and educational. While this may work for many picture books for younger readers, I’d say that for ‘older’ readers (meaning, say, 8+) deliberataley setting out to make your story ‘eductional/didactic’ should be avoided – because (‘older’!) young readers will see right throught it. That’s not to say that characters can’t learn by their mistakes etc – or that the power of, say, loyalty/friendship can’t be shown through what happens in the plot, but I’d say that to set out with a concerted aim of getting these messages across risks cramping your natural style and, potentially, overshadowing a good story – not to mention potentially alienating your savvy audience! I suppose in this sense, the same rules apply as for adult fiction. I suspect, however that the post had in mind books for much younger readers. Karen

      • says

        I write the story I want. If there ends up being a lesson, fine. If not, also fine. In my books, the lesson is usually in what the character DOESN’T do. For example:

        Did Violet say, “Excuse me…”? No, she did not.
        Did Violet say, “Pardon me….”? No, she did not.

        My books are created to make you laugh. The only one with a definative message it The Rose and the Lily, which teaches children that character is more important than beauty. Beautiful Princess Rose is hilariously horrid though.

      • says

        Hi Karen, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I struggled with the idea of making the story deliberately “educational.” The children’s storytelling about the sun, their curiosity, fun and shared imagination stood on their own and seemed “genuine” and “real.” Then, well after the core story was written, I had the opportunity to work with one of NASA’s chief scientists who suggested adding facts about the real sun. That led to the concept of creating a “theme” for this and future books for young readers–connecting children with science and nature. I wish I could say this was strategic. It evolved, like the dialogue in the story. I’ll see how it plays out as I begin the next book. I’ve learned so much from this one! I visited your website and took a look at your book. It’s beautiful! What a great accomplishment. I’ll go back in and look more closely. Hope we can stay connected! Jo Ann

    • Jo Ann says

      Hi Susan! Thanks for your comment! I couldn’t agree with you more about sharing your manuscripts with the target audience(s). Things I thought were “cute” or funny in early story drafts got no reaction at all from young children. It took a long time to understand this, though it seems intuitive. I would still go back into the story and change some things, but–next book! Adults offered wonderful feedback, all of which I incorporated into the countless drafts. I took a peek at your website and it’s wonderful. Will take an even closer look to become more familiar with your books!

  2. says

    Hi, I’m curious to know where you, as children’s book authors, connect with others in our genre. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc? What are your most important sources of ideas, news, collegial relationships around book writing and publishing? I’m trying to sort this all out for myself, so any feedback would be most appreciated! Thanks! Jo Ann

    • says

      I mainly use Twitter and blogs. I am actually in the process of getting professional help with social-networking and promotion of my books. In our phone call today he says to “engage” your audience, not push your book. I’m meeting with him next week.,

  3. says

    Why do people always think that there has to be a message or moral teaching in children’s books.
    They still can have a point without trying to educate all the time. Most of my favorite books as a child we’re nonsense, fun and liberating from an environment that was always trying to shove morals in my face. Give me freeing the child’s imagination over disguising moral education anyday.
    Love, light and peace
    Titus Kodzoman

    • says

      Hi Titus,

      I agree with you about children’s books being full of nonsense, silly stuff and fun. In my book, Sunbelievable, 99% is a story told by children about a magical sun that does hilarious, totally nonsensical things. That alone would certainly be enough. Or so I thought. In today’s competitive world of publishing, especially self-publishing, adult readers are looking for something “extra”–either to justify the cost of the printed book or to see something different that helps children learn something new. In my case, the “new” is the piece written by NASA about the real Sun. As I promote the book, I now see how that differentiates it from others–at least as far as adult buyers go. I don’t get into messages or morals, but do think educational opportunities abound. I read the book to several classes from first to fifth grade the other day. The students loved the story and were fascinated with the piece about the Sun. That was great feedback! Thanks for your comment! Jo Ann

  4. Siobahn McClintock says

    I was wanting to ask, how long and how often did it take for you to make a children’s book? I am thinking about going into the writing field and I always loved to read children’s books as a youth. Whether it be Stellaluna to Dr.Seuss books. I have always loved the stories and illustrations for those types of books.

    Is there any other advice to give to someone who’s looking into making children’s books?

    • says

      Hi Siobahn, Your question is a BIG one! It took me 3 years to create, produce and publish Sunbelievable. I started from an idea and worked my way through the whole process, learning at each step. Looking back, there are many things I could/should have done more efficiently, but it was all trial and error. My advice, start with your story idea. Think about the illustrations — what do you want and how will you achieve them? Do you want to self-publish or find an agent? Those are some beginning questions!

      • Siobahn McClintock says

        I am currently working on the story and illustrations as we speak, but I don’t have much of an artistic background so I don’t know how people will react to my drawings. I’d still like to make a book though. I’m 20 and going to college to get my feet wet, I have always liked to create stories and have a lot of ideas. I really want to lean towards the right direction and make a difference for myself and for children everywhere.

        What more would you suggest?

  5. says

    What about stories that don’t have a message, I love writing children stories and short stories, but I’m not keen on always delivering a message, it always sounds too preachy. Most of the time my stories are just fun, silly or adventurous. Can a successful children’s book be written without one these days, are these the kinds of books that publishers are looking for, well written books with a message?

  6. Bina Patel says

    Hi- I am working on a children’s book and wanted to know if you can recommend a good graphic designer? I need someone to create the images for me for my book.

    Thanks,
    Bina

  7. Amanda says

    Hi Jo Ann – I am just digging into your blog for the first time. Lots to read and explore!! Was wondering about the online course of which you mention in the post above – would you be willing to share the source/university offering the course? I am looking for precisely such a course – for upcoming authors of children’s books – and would really value a referral if you are up for offering one!

    Thanks in advance!
    amanda

  8. Shari says

    Hi, Keith –

    I’ve been a professional ghost for around 15 years now (yes, even for kiddie books) and can say that publishers lean towards books with a purpose (if not an actual “point”) because parents do, and parents are the ones who will be shelling out money for the end product.

    Occasionally, children come home and ask for a book by name. Most often, though, it’s a parent or grandparent browsing through what seems like an endless supply of books and making a choice based on something; more often than not, that “something” is educationally, morally, or socially-based.

    But developing this kind of purpose isn’t always as hard as it sounds; Dr. Seuss, for example, was extremely nonsensical (and thus greatly appealed to children), but managed to deliver some beautiful social commentary at the same time. [I do not mean to imply here that what Dr. Seuss did was not hard; in fact, no one has managed to replicate his style - what I meant was it's not as hard to have some kind of purpose while also being silly and fun as some might think].

    Too, once you’ve figured out your angle, it makes it much easier to move forward with future projects. The only time I’d advise a random/”just for fun” approach is if you really are doing it just for fun and have no interest in making your project commercially viable.

    Just my two cents. :-)

    • says

      Thanks Shari, this is helpful advice, I’m starting to learn that publishers do seem to want some kind a message within the story. I’m also starting to think that my characters and stories are better suited for comic books. Comic Books don’t require a message, just some good stories that builds on the character(s) and their world around them. That’s how I like to write, trying to come up with a message every time I write a story, would not only bore me to tears–but would limit my imagination.

  9. Nicol says

    Hi, for my personal project I am creating a book that contains piano compositions to teach the little kids how to play the piano. My goal is to make it as interesting and fun as possible to keep them motivated throughout their learning… do you have any advice? (layout, colors, pictures,etc.)

  10. Kevin says

    Hi,
    I have written several children’s stories and crated illustrations. Can you suggest a publishing program that would make it easy to attach the illustrations, adjust sizes of the art, etc. for putting these together in a book format.

  11. says

    It’s great to hear about the trials and tribulations of getting a children’s book completed. I am on a 3rd or 4th revision pass for one of my stories. I am finding out that I overwrote the story but that’s ok. The story is there and is solid, I just need to tell it in fewer words. I am finding that the story is becoming better and better the more I edit the word count. It is easier to read and follow and is coming together nicely. The cadence and rhythm are helping to emphasize story points.
    One of my secrets is to read “Where the wild things are” every now and again. This simply told story is beautiful in it’s elegance and innocence and rhythm and flow. I highly recommend you read it and compare it to your own story. Then ask yourself which is easier for a child to follow along.
    Rich Olson/children’s book illustrator
    http://braintofu1.blogspot.com

  12. Kelligrace Dettman says

    Great post, lost of good suggestions. Do you have links or anything to look up that online course or how to find the help you got.

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