How to Write a Children's book - Writing Tips from our Children’s Editors

From an Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, based in our New York offices:

Working in children’s publishing can be a funny thing sometimes. People outside of the industry often assume that “children’s books” automatically means “picture books.” While many of my co-workers specialize in picture books, I work mostly on novels – middle grade and teen fiction. When I mention that to friends or acquaintances, however, I am often met with the belief that children’s books can never be as intense, literary, or important as adult books.

Au contraire! I am often amazed by the incredible literature that I am presented with as an editor of children’s books. The best middle grade and teen novels are insightful and delightful –true works of art. As a leading children’s publisher, HarperCollins looks to publish books that stand out from the pack: novels with a knockout new way of looking at the world, a fresh, believable hook, and, above all, a standout voice. (Yes, that all-important voice, which other editors have blogged about on Authonomy, is ever so important in the children’s world, too). We look for manuscripts that will pull a young reader in to their pages and never let go— books that will stay with them long after the last page is turned.

While most submissions have many good qualities to recommend them, there are a few red flags that I look for when reviewing potential projects. One of my pet peeves is reading a novel that sounds like it’s been written by an adult talking to a child. I also get frustrated when writers use dialogue that sounds very much of the adult author’s time – there’s no need for a steady stream of slang from your characters, but they should definitely sound like kids and not like adults.

One activity that is always helpful if you’re trying to break into the children’s market is going to the bookstores and checking out the books that are successful. (I’d recommend starting with the bestsellers and recent award winners.) What works about them? Why do you think they’ve found their niche? Try to look at your work with the same kind of analytical eye – what kind of readers will devour your story? What will they love about it? What might give them pause? Once you can see where your book would fit on the shelves, you’re well on your way!

From another Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, based in our New York offices:

The other day I realized that actually I don’t spend a lot of time pondering the difference between books for children and adults. My goal is the same as that of any adult book editor’s – making sure that the story is being told at its highest potential. Recently HarperCollins celebrated a wonderful victory: Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book won the Newbery Medal. All the way through this book’s behind-the-scenes the subject of audience was carefully considered. It’s about a boy, yes, but you don’t have to be a boy or even a child to enjoy it. It’s a book not just for children but for everyone, a book that has as its only goal a rollicking good story, and whose accomplishment of such has been recognized with the highest award in children’s literature. A lot of beloved children’s books win fervent adult fans as well: Harry Potter, of course; more recently the Twilight series (though I myself am not a fan, you wouldn’t believe how many twenty and thirtysomething friends and relatives are crawling out of the woodworks to tell me, “I’m obsessed with Twilight”); Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a timeless example; and have you read The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins? It’s published for the teen market, but don’t let that deter you (Stephen King didn’t). It’s amazing.

In a roundabout way this brings me back to the topic of voice, that tricky, impossible-to-define yet vitally important quality that engenders such passionate debate. See, I don’t believe you should be concerned with “how kids are talking these days.” TRYING to write like a kid so often comes across as transparent on the page. “This author is ‘writing down,’” I’ll tell myself when I see too eagerly-placed slang. I don’t have a better way of describing it. “Writing down,” like “talking down”—like talking in baby talk. Don’t write how you think a kid would talk. Write like yourself—and if you’re a kid at heart, as many of those who are inspired to write for children are, it will come out exactly right.

This might sound contradictory to those long-established publisher practices of categorization and age-ranges. I know these are frequently controversial topics, but at the end of the day, all publishers want to do is get their books into the hands of kids who will love them, and that’s why these systems are in place between publishers, librarians, and booksellers. Those topics aside (and not even necessarily contradicting them) just because a book is written for a child doesn’t mean it shouldn’t also be entertaining for an adult. I’m thinking of a series I love editing, Dan Gutman’s My Weird School. These are slim paperbacks about a seven or eight year old kid and his wacky classroom adventures. There’s nothing there for a grown-up, you might think. WRONG! Every time a new manuscript comes in I read it on my way home from work and all the other commuters on the subway stare at me and my audible guffaws. Dan’s not winking at adults over his kid readers’ heads. He’s just writing a funny story. And that’s the goal! At the end of the day, a story’s a story. And the ones that will last are the ones you’ll remember and enjoy again and again, no matter what your age.