“I want to write a book for children” gets you about as far as saying, “I want to write fiction” or “I want to write nonfiction.” It’s a start, but only that. There are many forms and genres and age groups to consider, and though you can certainly move fluidly among them, what you’re going to write right now needs more focus.
As you develop your ideas for a children’s book, be sure to answer these questions:
1. What do you want to write about?
Is your book going to be autobiographical or semiautobiographical? Is it about a natural phenomenon, or a historical event, or a social issue? It is about a cultural or artistic topic? Write a sentence no longer than any of the ones in this paragraph that summarizes what the book is about. Or step back even further and try a tagline — like the snappy phrase on a movie poster or a book’s back cover — that encapsulates the theme. (The tagline for one story I’ve been working on is simply “Believe.” Another theme is “Friends don’t hesitate.”)
2. What form will the story take?
Is the book nonfiction, explaining a scientific concept or exploring an issue from the past or present? Or is it going to be a fictional account of a scientific discovery or a story that takes place during a significant historical event or cultural movement? Either form may serve the subject matter well, but you must decide which one this project will take before you develop the narrative.
3. What’s the target demographic?
“Children’s books” is a huge category. Are you writing for beginning readers, elementary school students, preteens, or adolescents? Will children of one gender or another be more likely to read your book? Is it directed toward a certain ethnic group (but written in such a way that others don’t feel excluded)? Research reading levels and match your book’s vocabulary to the intended age range.
Decide who the ideal reader is, and check your work frequently to make sure you’re focusing on that child. If you repeatedly veer off, don’t try to force yourself to get back on target when it’s obviously not the right fit. Change the target.
4. What’s my word count?
For very young children, picture books (generally 28 pages in a 32-page book with up to a few sentences on each page) are the norm. You should be able to tell your story or account in as little as a few dozen words for preschoolers to up to several hundred for seven- or eight-year-olds. Chapter books — novels for readers this age or slightly older, might have up to a thousand words or so.
Preteens can handle up to 40,000 words or so, and young teenagers about twice that; books for older adolescents, like those for adults, are often 100,000 words or more.
5. How do I want readers to feel?
Basically, comfort young readers, and challenge older ones. For preadolescents of any age, nonfiction should not frighten children with stark facts about environmental crisis, for example, and fiction should not expose them to unhappy or uncomfortable circumstances. The violence and turmoil of the kind found in fairy tales and myths is acceptable, but real-life mayhem is off limits.
Teenagers, on the other hand, are coming to grips with reality and can more or less handle more adult-themed materials as long as it’s not explicit or bleak. Psychological issues, familial and societal friction, and other mature themes are appropriate when handled evenhandedly. Even books for adolescents, however, should have upbeat conclusions. (Comeuppance for villains or reprobates is fine, but sympathetic characters, while they should be given obstacles and ordeals to overcome and can experience physical and psychological pain, should emerge from the story intact.)