Almost every author was a reader first. And this love of reading is commonly cultivated as children. Children who read become adults to write… but more than that, they become adults who think, lead, innovate, and contribute. The path to creating a great kids book has much in common with writing books for other age groups.
However, there are differences too. That’s what we’re delving into in this post, with the help of children’s book publisher Adrienne Quintana of Pink Umbrella Books.
As an author who has published both traditionally with a small press and independently, Adrienne Quintana has experience on both sides. She works with independent authors—mainly authors of children’s books—through her micro-publishing company, Pink Umbrella Books, to create products that are professional and marketable.
Adrienne is also the author of two techno-thrillers:
As a child, Adrienne confesses that she struggled with reading. However, her mother would read books out loud to her and her siblings, starting with picture books and working up to fantasy novels. This instilled in Adrienne a love of books.
Her writing career started when she wrote a children’s book, Duck Duck Moose, as a gift for a friend, had her sister illustrate it, and published it through print-on-demand. The rest, as they say, is history.
How Creating A Great Kids Book is Similar to Books for Adults
Adrienne says that like with books for adults, children’s books must have some kind of tension that moves the story forward and needs to be resolved. The problems the character faces are more simplistic and age appropriate but they help children to learn how to solve their own problems.
Another similarity between books for children and books for adults is that the main character has flaws. Not being perfect makes a character more relatable to the reader, so the reader connects with the character more easily.
So What’s Different?
The way that children’s books approach problems as a teaching moment separates them from books for adults: the story often has some kind of moral and it isn’t as subtle as it is in books for an older audience.
Children’s picture books —ahem, hence the word “picture” —are very visual. Much of the story can and should be told through pictures rather than through words.
The biggest difference between kid’s picture books and books for adults is length. Children’s picture books are normally thirty-two pages long, including the title page, imprint page, and author biography. There are two reasons for this:
- The first reason is purely technical. Books are printed and bound in sections. Each section is printed on a large sheet of paper that is then folded into either sixteen or thirty-two pages, depending on the size of the page. If you go one page over thirty-two, you’ll have a section with one printed page and thirty-one blank pages, which isn’t cost effective. And it looks bad.
- The second reason is that about thirty-two pages is just the right length to keep a child—and the adult reading the book out loud—interested.
About those words…
When you’re writing a children’s picture book, you’re not only limited in the number of pages. You’re also limited in the number of words per page. Young children quickly lose interest when there’s too much text on a page. They want to have time to take in the illustration and then they want the page turn so they can find out what happens next. (Incidentally, that page turn is like another character in the book.)
The recommended maximum number of words for a picture book for kids in the four-to-seven age range is 500 words. However, you need to keep it to a maximum of three or four sentences per page. This leaves enough space for spectacular illustrations. Those illustrations help kids to put pictures in their mind and build their imagination.
You also want to keep sentences short. And don’t use big words. Of course you want to help build up the child’s vocabulary, but they’ll lose interest if there are too many words that they don’t understand. While you’ll focus more on the words and less on the illustrations when you target children who start reading by themselves, short, simple sentences will keep them from getting frustrated and giving up reading altogether.
Common mistakes authors of kid’s books make
According to Adrienne, many children’s picture book authors work in verse when perhaps they shouldn’t. It takes skill to work in rhyme. When the words don’t trip off the tongue like they do in, for instance, a Dr. Seuss book, the person reading the book out loud will find it frustrating.
Many authors also find the limited word count of a kid’s picture book challenging. They want to say in words what could be illustrated more effectively. They also forget that even in a short book, there needs to be tension.
Let’s talk illustration
A little reality check: in a kids book, the kind of kids book we’ve been talking about, the illustrations are more important than your words. It’s the illustrations that draw people to the book in the first place.
As a picture-book author, you need to find an illustrator who gets your vision. A good place to start looking for illustrators is with the SCBWI: the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Even if you can’t afford a professional illustrator, you need professional-quality illustrations. Perhaps opt for a good illustrator who is starting out and wants to build up their portfolio.
What about buying preferences?
According to Adrienne, people still tend to prefer buying print copies of picture books in a bookstore, where they can open the book and look at the illustrations and word count. In fact, Adrienne thinks word count is the second most important marketing piece for a picture book, after the cover.
Adrienne also thinks that it’s more often grandparents, aunts and uncles who buy picture books rather than parents. And creating a great kids book, after all, is the gift that keeps on giving.
Find Adrienne and Pink Umbrella Books on Instagram and Facebook.