Looking for Answers to Commonly Asked Questions about Publishing Children’s Books?
10th Jun, 2021
Here are some FAQ’s about children’s books that I often get asked:
Which age group is appropriate for my book, and how do I best reach them?
Though picture books are aimed at kids from approximately ages three to nine, I suggest you narrow that range for your own purposes. Every book needs an ideal reader, and if you’re writing a children’s book, that reader will be at a specific stage of development.
First, take a look at the method or idea you’re promoting with your book—perhaps it’s how to be a better friend, or learning to take deep breaths, or feeling our feelings with an open heart. How old does a child need to be to comprehend your idea?
Some ideas are more universal and could be tailored to a wide range of ages. In that case, take a look at any elements of your story—such as the character(s), points of conflict, or setting—that you have already determined. Then, ask yourself, which age group will relate to them?
For instance, the idea of school, and everything associated with it (school buses, schoolmates and teachers), will be much more likely to appeal to a child over the age of five.
Then, make sure everything else in the story more or less matches a child of that same age. Set the story firmly in that child’s world, creating characters of roughly their age. Give those characters problems that your reader may need to solve in her daily life (say, giving away her favorite sticker even though she is attached to it, or feeling sad about a friend who moves away) and age-appropriate triumphs (like facing her fear by riding the school bus for the first time).
If your book is funny, make sure it’s funny for kids in your target age group. Great picture books speak to children’s unique concerns, joys and challenges. The more you can picture that ideal reader in your mind’s eye, the more likely you are to be able to achieve that end.
How many characters should I use, and how should I develop them?
Most picture books focus on one main character or protagonist, regardless of how many auxiliary characters there are in the story. At maximum, aim for two main characters.
A great rule to follow is to keep fewer than five names in your story. This will help ensure that each of the characters you name will mean something to your reader.
The protagonist is usually a child. In some cases, the main character will be something else that represents a child—like an anthropomorphised animal (e.g. The Berenstain Bears) or even an inanimate object (e.g. The Little Engine That Could, who gave us the classic self-help motto, “I think I can! I think I can!”).
The auxiliary characters are usually other children, wise adults, or non-human but adult-like characters (e.g. The Giving Tree) who offer the protagonist guidance.
Be sure to give all your characters easily identifiable features (physical features, catch phrases, or personality traits) and then refer back to those features over and over again. Children love repetition!
Remember: simple is best. The more your reader can understand your characters, the more she will identify with them.
I want to teach something. How do I set it to a story arc?
At the heart of nearly every story is a conflict that needs to be resolved. In the case of a children’s book, we recommend that the protagonist’s conflict be their need to learn something. One or more auxiliary characters will help them learn it—either by directly explaining it to them, or by guiding them through a process of self-discovery.
If your concept is very simple and you need to build more story around it, consider having your story reach a few, even very subtle, mini-conflicts before the final conflict. In all cases, the story will likely end with the resolution of the primary learning conflict you’ve chosen.
How long should my book be?
Unlike adult books, children’s books are very uniform. The majority of picture books contain precisely 32 pages, about 28 of which are story. The other pages are made up of front matter, such as title page, copyright page, etc. Each set of two pages is called a spread, and most stories have 14 of them.
The number of words distributed throughout those 14 spreads varies based on the ideal reader’s age. Younger readers will appreciate books of 300-800 words, while school-aged children can usually handle 800-1200 words. At the absolute maximum, a picture book should be 2000 words. (And if you’ve ever tried to read to kids at bedtime when you, yourself, are exhausted, you’ll know why!)
Should I get an editor?
Ok, I bet you already know what I’m going to say: Yes. You should get an editor.
Even—in fact, especially—if you’re going to try to pitch your book to a publisher.
It’s not easy to convey something important in fewer than 2000 words, and your editor’s job is to make sure that each one counts. As renowned author Eric Carle openly admits, “Children’s books are harder to write.” Roald Dahl, who wrote both children’s books and adult fiction, stated that children’s books are “deceptively simple.” Making a story both sufficiently simple and sufficiently compelling requires you to strike a delicate balance.
Some authors will choose to bring their draft to someone who works with children, such as a teacher, parent, or nanny, to determine whether their draft is age-appropriate before they consult an editor. This makes a lot of sense, and I support it!
But after that, please find an editor with experience in picture books to help you hone each word. Your editor can help you with factors like rhythm and balance, ensuring all 14 spreads of your book are compelling.
Finally, many editors can help you develop your idea into a first draft.
How do I prepare my manuscript for an illustrator?
First off, your manuscript should be completely finished with the editing process before an illustrator gets involved.
That said, you can be thinking about and planning for your illustrations all along the way!
An art log is a simple document that helps the author explain their vision to the illustrator. While there’s no one way to do it, a simple format is to create a basic table in a document.The art log will help you convey what’s happening between the words, even before the illustrations are created.
Here is an example:
Donk the donkey lived on Donkey Farm with his mum, his dad, his brothers and his sisters.
Every day, the farmer would yell at all the donkeys in his rough scary voice, “Move, you stubborn donkeys! Why, oh why are you so stubborn?”
Page 1-Picture of Donk and his family , in the background the farmer is shouting at other donkeys
Should I hire an illustrator myself? If so, where do I find one?
This depends on how you plan to publish.
Most traditional publishers will provide an illustrator of their choosing. Since they are taking a fairly big risk on publishing the book, they will want to control its look.
In fact, most publishers would rather not see illustrations in your proposal, unless you’re working with a seasoned, previously published children’s book illustrator.
Self-publishing authors, on the other hand, will need to find an illustrator on their own. I recommend you find one who has children’s book illustration in her background. The illustrations should match your book’s tone, target age, and message. An experienced illustrator will know how to make that happen.
Prices vary widely, but in general, you can expect to pay more for traditional, hand-drawn or painted illustrations than you will for digital ones. It can be very tricky to convey your vision to another person, so you may need to explore working with several illustrators before you find the perfect match. Once you feel you’ve landed on the right one, I recommend hiring the illustrator to create 1-2 pages to start. That way you’ll be able to see if you like their work as much as you had hoped, before engaging them to illustrate the entire book.
I got my illustrator from Fiverr, the best decision I have ever made!