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June 30, 2024 12:00
Head in a book. Writing a children's book with tips from author and The Novelry team member Piers Torday
writing for children
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How to Write a Children’s Book

Piers Torday. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Piers Torday
October 5, 2022
October 5, 2022

Writing children’s books involves a distinct writing process compared to writing adult fiction. After all, in the adult fiction world, your target audience is based largely on your genre; from science fiction to historical fiction, adult readers of all ages are likely to come across your work if they’re looking for novels in those particular genres. On the other hand, children’s book writers have to consider genre and age. How old are your main character and their friends? And how does this define what happens to them (i.e. the plot and genre)?

Adults writing books with adult characters can draw on their recent experiences and those of people around them, whereas tapping into the ups and downs of a child's life can require us to explore more distant childhood memories.

If you want to write learn how to write a children's book, it can be helpful to hear from children's book authors who've published great children's books. And that's just what this article offers, with tips from Piers Torday, a renowned children's fiction writer who has been dubbed ‘the master of children's fiction' by the Sunday Times and won The Guardian's Children Fiction Prize.

To whet your appetite, Piers gives us his top tips on writing middle grade children's books. Whether you're writing your first children's book or your fifteenth, these tips should help you practice writing for children to create your own great story and set you up for future success with readers of all age ranges!

 

My experience writing children's books

I write full-length fiction mainly for children in the age range of around eight to twelve, although a few confident young readers of six have read my books, as have young adult readers and adults. But those fast-moving years between the age range of eight and twelve can be – for some – a golden reading stretch.

These children are rapidly developing, equipped with expanding imaginations and endless curiosity, not yet too inhibited by self-consciousness. They are reading to discover so much for the first time, reading voraciously to work out what they like and don't like, often reading like they have all the time in the world.

This age bracket has a category, derived from the US educational system, ‘middle grade' fiction. But there is nothing middle grade-ish in the least about a canon that stretches from E. Nesbit to Katherine Rundell, that has given millions of us our very first glimpse of what it might mean to be the hero of our own story – whoever we are, wherever we come from, in a fictional universe of multitudes, that whether fabulously fantastical or rigorously real, all have at their heart, burning and bright, the same golden star.

The star that shines with hope that better worlds yet can be made, and better still, they, the reader, have the capacity to forge them. Just to ignite one spark of that radiant light in a reader's imagination is an achievement because – as you will recall from your own most treasured childhood reading – once lit, they can burn eternal.

Before you set off into the dark in search of that star for the first time, here is a light or two. I hope these tips might help other writers who, like me, are awed by the joy and potential of writing children's books.

The star at the heart of middle grade fiction shines with hope that better worlds yet can be made, and better still, they, the reader, have the capacity to forge them. Just to ignite one spark of that radiant light in a reader's imagination is an achievement, because – as you will recall from your own most treasured childhood reading – once lit, they can burn eternal.

Rather than focusing on practicalities like the word count, whether to write in the present tense or past or how much you must double-check for spelling mistakes before submitting (but please do), I'm going to think about the writing process, character development, story structure and how you can make sure your children's book is interesting to you, to your target age range and hopefully even to their parents!

How to write a children's book

Here are five top tips for writing a great children's book about:

  1. Begin at the beginning
  2. Don't go into the woods without a map
  3. Stay on that path, Little Red!
  4. Follow the characters
  5. And… Don't forget to play!

1. Begin at the beginning

What excited you most as a child? Which rabbit holes did your instinctive curiosity most often lead you down, and what did you hope to discover there? What feeling did you yearn to understand more roundly?

If you can return to the site of your foundational childhood experiences, both real and literary, and rekindle the emotions they inspired, you can begin to remember what works for child readers on the page. Think about the first children's book that really impacted you – what makes it so special?

Ideally, you should still love children's books! Even better, you read stories to children or even better teach children so as to be in regular contact with kids books and young readers. Of course, you need to remember that now you are the provider, not the consumer. But by focusing on what your child self might want to read more than anything else in the world – be it a wholly absorbing fantasy quest, impeccably devised whodunnit, a moral lesson or a richly reassuring assessment of family/school life – you stand a chance of gifting that pleasure authentically to the next generation of young readers.

Think about the first children's book that really impacted you – what makes it so special?

2. Don't go into the woods without a map when writing a children's book

Once you have some idea of what you want to write children's books about, you may decide to first design and build to scale a miniature replica of the fictional universe in your head, occupying three basement floors, created in painstaking detail, a feat of imaginative virtuosity that takes a decade of your life and ends up being a global social media sensation and ultimately donated to the V&A (maybe you have a future as a professional illustrator, too?).

Alternatively, you may scrawl some hasty bullet points or a few sentences on the back of a pizza leaflet.

Or, perhaps like most of us, you will outline your children's book somewhere on the scale between those two extremes.

Do whatever works for you. Plan each chapter, or establish simply a beginning, middle and end. But whatever you do, remember this. Like your characters, you are setting off on a real adventure, over the arctic wastes of the blank page, into the dark and twisting woods of the imagination. Based on my experience and books written, I strongly advise you to at least know:

  • Where, why and how your story begins. Know the very beginning!
  • Where, why and how (roughly) you imagine it ending
  • Some idea of how to get there… Because otherwise, you will get lost, and not in a good way. I suggest a minimum of at least three moments, scenes or way stations in your head, at least to start with…

Children of course want to find the way themselves, but they do sometimes need a hand. You need to be one step ahead, that's all.

how to write a children's book course


3. Stay on that path, Little Red!

If this is your first children's book, beware the beasts in the bushes.

The wolves who whisper, halfway through your exploratory first draft, ‘Why are you writing this stunningly original and imaginative book, when you could be writing a book just like all the others? You do know that all bestsellers need to be identical?' (They really don't.)

The bats who squeak in your ear, ‘Oh dear! I'm not sure complete strangers you barely know on social media would approve of that!'

And the naughty wild boars, trotting behind you, with their tails in the air, licking their chops, ‘I think this book could be so much bigger! It's not just about finding the golden amulet/solving the murder etc, it's about ending world poverty too. And climate change. And all mental health. Oh, and that brilliant story about your neighbours. This could be the book of your life! Everything you ever wanted to say!'

STAY ON THE CHOSEN PATH UNTIL YOU GET TO THE END.

Then, of course, once you have a first draft done, you can make all sorts of changes, major and minor – but with the benefit of hindsight, not lost in the shadows of making your way. And you can always ask Grandma her advice too!

Remember, many young readers are deluged with content from multiple avenues. They don't need your book to be about everything and all things to all people. They want the perspective that only you can bring. And, of course, a great story.

4. Follow the characters

However detailed or loose your plan, however firm your resolve… You are in fact only drafting a book, not actually leading a polar expedition, and it is quite normal to get lost or stuck trying to move the story forward.

There are now nearly as many guides to structuring a classic, satisfying genre story as there are stories. From the Hero's Journey in legendary anthropologist Joseph Campbells's The Hero with a Thousand Faces to John Yorke's Into the Woods, there is no shortage of blueprints that tantalisingly offer a formula for fool-proof storytelling. These models try to explain the success of mainly commercial movie product by retrofitting often entirely original plots to archetypes drawn from the oldest myths and fairy tales.

They are packed full of truths and wisdoms and have much to teach any writer, of any experience, about the fundamentals of storytelling. I have often consulted them, like many, and will continue to do so. But read more than one a little closely, and you will notice that – somewhat conveniently – there are as many exceptions to their systems as there are rules for writing books.

Children's books need great characters

This is because the most unforgettable children's books are driven by unforgettable characters. Relatable characters that arise not from blueprints but from unique human imaginations, an alchemical fusion of DNA, memory and experience.

The characters that work on the page are ones we care about as much as we would care about ourselves and those we love. They should be as unique. Establish your main character and their friends and foes in the reader's mind, make us care for them, explore their strengths and flaws, set them a clear objective located behind three or four seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and allow them to discover themselves through overcoming those obstacles, and you will always have an engaging journey.

Follow your character's instincts at all times through the woods. Their choices may seem eccentric, frustrating, or baffling, but accept them and you will open the door to fictional creations whose story arcs are as authentic as they are compelling.

And that's true whether you're writing for older children, really young readers, or indeed adults! No matter your target audience, being led by strong characters is always good advice. They are so often the most important element.

Follow your character's instincts at all times through the woods of the entire story. Their choices may seem eccentric, frustrating, or baffling, but accept them and you will open the door to fictional creations whose story arcs are as authentic as they are compelling.

When you come to edit, story maps can help you refine these arcs to best dramatic effect, but try to begin with hopes and flaws, not circles and arrows.

Who do young readers really want to spend time with for 300 pages?

5. And… don't forget to play!

Time out from the forest is also allowed.

You might have carefully carved out precious envelopes of time to write your children's book, balancing work and family commitments. There might be times of day or night in which you find your creative flow comes more easily, and it can be frustrating when these valuable hours feel blocked, wasted or counterproductive.

Often when adults write creatively, a part of us can be searching for that magical memory of total, intense absorption in writing stories or drawing pictures, or even just playing, reading and daydreaming as a child – when time both paused and passed effortlessly.

It was probably easier when we didn't have responsibilities or an adult's perpetual sense of time slipping through our fingers.

But sometimes it might be worth trying to recreate that childish pleasure in creative play, to help you through days when the words don't want to come – and those days are not infrequent.

Often when adults write creatively, a part of us can be searching for that magical memory of total, intense absorption in writing stories or drawing pictures, or even just playing, reading and daydreaming as a child – when time both paused and passed effortlessly.

Don't be afraid to experiment; they're only words. Forget the word count! Fixating on how many words you've written each day, or obsessing over a particular word choice, is unlikely to help loosen you up.

How to keep writing children's books even when you get stuck

Here are some great tips I've found help me, and many writers, through a tricky spot. If you have writer's block, even if you have no interest in picture books, even, in fact, if you can't draw, try drawing the roughest of sketches of a character or location. It can relax one part of the imagination and release another.

Keep it fun. Ask one character to describe people in your story – warts-and-all, no filter. You might be surprised at what comes out. You might even find that two characters have more in common that at first it seemed.

Indulge in constructive fantasy; practice writing for a different form altogether. Reimagine your story as a movie, a comic or a game. Maybe even a musical! What would you change, what would you keep? How would you break your book down into songs?

Even if nothing comes of games and exercises, being actively playful is always a better use of your precious time than staring at a blinking cursor or scrolling through the apparently effortless successes of others on social media. Plus it brings you closer to your child reader.

Whatever you write, however you choose to write, and for whatever target audience, it is a choice. No one forced you into writing a children's book (I hope!). Discovering you have the means to make stuff up for other people's entertainment is one of the greatest privileges there is. I hope you never forget to enjoy it – and then your young readers will too.

Write a children's book with a bestselling author of fiction for younger readers, like Piers Torday himself!.

Get tips here from bestselling author Katherine Rundell on the importance of children's literature and one of our children's book editors Krystle Appiah on the difference between middle grade and YA fiction!

Are you writing for young readers, or have new ideas you want to explore? Learn how to write a children's book with the stars of children's publishing at The Novelry when you join us for one of our online writing courses. We can help you come up with children's book ideas, write children's books for all age ranges including young adult books, chapter books. We can help those writing picture books too. Whether you're set on the self publishing route or traditional publishing, we can help you write your own children's book and seven secure a literary agent.

Someone writing in a notebook
Piers Torday. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Piers Torday

Piers Torday is the award-winning and bestselling author of seven books for children dubbed ‘the new master of children’s fiction’ by The Times.

Members of The Novelry team