What are the different ways I can write for children? by Katrina McKelvey
Becoming a children’s author can happen in many ways. I’ve heard loads of unique stories which included a combination of hard work, strategic moves, and luck. And just like any journey, some who start make it, and some don’t. Some take one direct path, while others weave around for years before they can see the direction they want to take.
I’m a children’s picture book author. I have five picture books—three on shelves, and two being illustrated as you read this. But I’m about to diversify into writing early chapter books. A lot of children’s authors write in different formats. The trick is to find the right one for your writing style. Each format has a criteria authors generally follow to meet the needs of that readership.
When we say ‘writing for children’, this could mean anything from board books to young adult literature (YA). This range is HUGE. So, what are the formats of children’s literature? Note: ‘format’ is different to ‘genre’.
Picture books (PB) are usually less than 500 words. But with everything in literature, there are exceptions. I honestly believe picture books are for everyone. And the reader’s age and life experience will determine what will be achieved with each reading. However, authors often have children aged 4-8 in mind when writing in this format.
Authors need to keep in mind the adults that will be with the child while they read these books. It’s the adults that will buy these books, and most often will do shared reading with them. They need to get something out of the reading experience too.
PBs are complex. Usually, an entire story (with a beginning, middle, end, complication, resolution, character journey/growth) will need to be told in less that 500 words and on 32 pages or less. It’s a very strict format but this is what makes it challenging. Picture books can be fiction, non-fiction, a concept book, or a combination.
PBs are also costly to produce. Those big, glossy, colourful pages are expensive so publishers have to truly adore a PB for it to get through to publication. This is why so many picture book manuscripts don’t make it through.
Let’s talk illustrations. It may take years for an author to get 500 words perfect—but it also takes an illustrator hours and hours which leads to months and months of long days to illustrate one book. The author and illustrator team are crucial to the success of the book. The story-telling style and illustration style have to match. The illustrations need to add another layer of storytelling to the text—known as visual literacy. Illustrations need to do more than mimic the text. And it can take a while for an author to understand they need to leave room for the illustrations to do their job. Authors don’t need to describe a character or setting. Illustrators help convey a character’s personality and feelings. Words and illustrations need to work seamlessly together.
In addition, authors need to hand over their story without telling the illustrator how to do their job. This is a BIG issue for some authors. I can relate. It took me a while to trust my publishers and illustrators and let their talents add to mine.
Picture books need to be surprising, challenging, fun, engaging, clever, relatable, and authentic. Oh, and did I mention all this needs to be done in less than 500 words?
Junior Fiction (JF):
Junior Fiction (JF) has three main categories: early chapter books, middle grade (MG), and young adult (YA).
1) Early Chapter Books
Children who are reading early chapter books are becoming independent readers. They are moving away from reading with guidance, so they need to feel successful. They need to be able to decode while also comprehending and enjoying the story. Early chapter books are full of lovely, easy language, have a simple action-packed plot, and have wonderful characters that will help the reader experience an amazing journey. Humour is often used as well. The word count can be as low as 1500 words and up to 10 000 words. This low word count lets the reader finish a book in one – two sittings. Generally, the readership is from 7-10 years old.
2) Middle Grade (MG)
These books can be 10 000 – 50 000 words long. Kids are usually 8-12 years old (Years 3 – 6). The themes are usually more complex. Wonderful, strong characters are woven in good, slightly more complicated plots, with loads of action and adventure. Pace is fast. There will be more secondary characters too.
3) Young Adult (YA)
This format can be between 60 000 – 90 000 words. This readership is mainly high school aged children though some older primary aged children will be reading these. These stories contain very deep, confronting themes but without detailed descriptions. Loads of adults enjoy reading these too as they tend to be shorter than adult fiction but fast paced with challenging and thought-provoking themes. Fantasy and Science Fiction tend to be popular genres with this readership.
When writing junior fiction, authors need to work out a few things:
- Am I writing a series or a stand-alone title?
- If I’m writing a series, can my books be read out of order?
- If I’m writing a series, will I have a narrative and/or character arc across all books?
Publishers are offering many different contracts for series at the moment. Some are signing up books one at a time waiting for sales before they commit to another. Some are offering a 2-3 book deal, then offering to extend it if successful, sometimes with an extremely short deadline for following books to be ready.
The Education market is different to the books you find in the bookshops. These books are often sold directly to schools. This is a hard market to get into at the moment. However, loads of established Australian authors started their career writing these types of books. But from what I can see from my research, you only usually get into this market by being commissioned.
When you combine loads of reading children’s literature with lots of practice, it should start to become clear which format your writing style sits best within. And you don’t have to have the same publisher for the lot. You may have one publisher producing your picture books while another is doing your JF. Is there a format described here your writing style fits within?
Katrina McKelvey is a children’s author with over ten years primary school teaching experience. She’s currently working on her first chapter book series while developing new picture book stories. She’s highly involved in the Children’s Book Council of Australia, literary conferences and festivals, and loves visiting schools. No Baths Week and Up To Something are Katrina’s recent publications, after her successful debut picture book, Dandelions. Two more picture books are coming in 2020. She loves chocolate but doesn’t like chocolate cake. She’s left-handed but plays sport right-handed. She loves tea, but dislikes coffee. Katrina lives in Newcastle, Australia with her family and a naughty puppy. Google her or visit her website: www.katrinamckelvey.com