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What makes a good children’s book?

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If you’re going to be writing one, you should know what makes a good children’s book! This may seem like a too-obvious question, but I find it is often neglected by new writers.

In illustrating many children’s books, I have found that some authors don’t realize they need to study, read and practice to make their books great, and that saddens me. Publishing a book incurs costs in both money and time, so if you’re going to publish a children’s book, make it amazing!

What are the bestselling children’s books of all time?

Children’s book buyers vote with their wallets, so to speak. So in looking at the bestsellers in the children’s book niche, you’ll also learn what makes a good children’s book.

If you study enough of these, you’ll start seeing what the elements of a good children’s book are.

Here is an article with a list of the all-time bestselling children’s books.

Study quite a few of these and look for what makes each one great. Pay attention to their commonalities.

There’s another important point to keep in mind: In the last 20 years children’s books have changed. Therefore it’s important to also analyze books that have been published within the last 15 years.

Here is an article about the 50 best children’s books from 2008 to 2018. Studying these books will give you a better idea of what is popular now.

What makes a children’s book a classic?

Beyond just being a bestseller, how can we evaluate a children’s book? What makes a classic?

The definition of “classic” is: judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.

The main ingredient of any good story is that it evokes emotion.

If you think about any story you’ve loved, it’s one that took you on an emotional journey. It evoked feelings. Without that, who cares what happens, right?

The common elements of classics are described well in this article.

I found this article very insightful about the different ways to evaluate what makes a children’s book good, or a classic.

Is it hard to write a children’s book?

No… and yes.

Anyone can write a children’s book, but that doesn’t mean it will be a good children’s book.

That’s why it’s even more important that your book is good and differentiates itself. Thus it’s all the more to your benefit to read this article 😉

As I said in the intro, I see a lot of children’s books.

I believe each author has put their heart into it and wrote it because they have a story they want to share. I also believe they want their book to be great.

Does that mean it is? Sadly, no.

And I’m not just referring to poor grammar (which is unfortunately common). In short, very few people (if anyone) can sit down and write a fantastic story, worded well, and nail the elements of a good children’s book.

That’s why it’s crucial to do your research and study the elements of a good children’s book.

Elements of a good children’s book

This brings us to what should be present in a good children’s book…

Here are the elements of a good children’s book:

  • Distinctive and memorable characters
  • Believable Dialogue
  • Action and Suspense
  • Strong plot
  • Satisfying Ending
  • Enjoyable to read aloud (for younger children)
  • Appealing illustrations
  • Memorable and different

Let’s briefly discuss each of these.

Distinctive and memorable characters

Characters are arguably the most important element of a children’s book. Without a memorable character, kids won’t have an emotional connection with the book.

A great character is also the perfect foundation for a series.

Convincing dialogue

If you don’t spend time around kids, you won’t know how they talk. So hang out with kids, and listen.

If the dialogue in your writing is unnatural or not true-to-life, your book won’t be a hit.

Action and suspense

Action and suspense make your story gripping. That doesn’t mean your book has to be like a Rambo movie, but there should be activity, conflict and tension.

Of course, make it age-appropriate. A child losing their teddy can be plenty of conflict and suspense!

Strong plot

No matter how strong your characters, you still need a wonderful story. Create a conflict and have the character learn and grow as they solve it.

Smaller events along the way can add interest, like setbacks, curve balls and failed or false solutions (where the character thought they’d solved the problem, but they hadn’t).

Satisfying ending

Kids’ books are not the place for sad or unresolved endings that leave the reader hanging. While the story can take them on an adventurous ride, the ending needs to be satisfying and happy.

Enjoyable to read aloud (for reading to younger children)

Read-aloud books must be likable for the parent too. If you have all the other elements of a good children’s book in place, you’ll be much closer to achieving this goal.

But even with all that in place, you still need to read your own book aloud and make sure it flows well and feels good to read aloud. Awkward wording, endless sentences and so on don’t make for a good reading experience.

Appealing illustrations

Illustrated children’s books need attractive illustrations. You can write the best story in the world, if your illustrations are bad, it will be off-putting.

You don’t have to spend a fortune, but you do need a pro doing your illustrations.

Memorable and different

Even a good story needs something that makes it different and memorable. If not, it will probably be read once and then forgotten. You want kids to ask for your book to be read again and again.

Any, or all, of the above points will help you achieve this. Choosing an interesting theme will also go a long way.

For instance, if your story is about a chicken, consider how you can make it more interesting. A chicken that goes on a submarine adventure is much more unforgettable.

That said, a truly touching story with no unusual combinations can be just as memorable.

How to write a good children’s book

Now that we’ve established the elements of what makes a good children’s book, here are some specific pointers on how to create one. These recommendations will improve any story.

Have the right word count

A book’s length is determined by the age group it’s for. The genre also plays a role (for instance, nonfiction is usually longer than fiction for the same age group). Word counts are slightly flexible, but don’t stray far from what’s already selling.

Picture books are strict. They need to stay within the standard amount of words.

Your book will perform better if you stick to industry standards with your word count.

Here is a guide:

Category Age Group Word Count
Board books 0 – 3 0 to 200 words
Early picture books 2 – 5 200 to 500 words
Picture books 3 – 6 500 to 800 words
Older picture books 4 – 8 600 to 1,000 words
Early readers 4 – 8 1,000 to 3,000 words
Early chapter books 5 – 8 3,000 to 8,000
Chapter books 8 – 10 5,000 to 10,000
Middle grade books 8 – 12 20,000 to 50,000 words
YA books 12 – 18 50,000 to 80,000 words

If you want to know more about books for different age groups, read this article I wrote.

Begin the story fast

Your story needs to start by page three. Page one or two is even better.

Children’s books shouldn’t have backstories or long introductions. If your character gets lost in the market, don’t have five pages of driving there and shopping with mommy and daddy before he or she gets lost.

Whatever launches the story, just get right to it.

Action Step: Study five popular children’s books and see on which page the story starts.

Create an interesting problem

Every book needs a problem.

The basic recipe for any story is:

  1. Character encounters problem
  2. Character needs to overcome obstacles toward solving the problem
  3. Character solves the problem.

Within that smaller events can happen, but there needs to be one main problem, and it has to be a massive problem for the main character. As mentioned earlier, keep age in mind—for a toddler losing a teddy can be earth shattering.

The problem, and how the character overcomes it, is what makes the story interesting and makes the audience care. But only if the character really cares!

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Kids love repetition. For younger kids a lot of repetition of words or phrases works well. Think of Little Red Riding Hood speaking to the wolf.

Repetitive elements in your story structure is good for any age and part of many classic stories. The Ginger Bread Man is a good example.

You can repeat a word or phrase on a page or throughout the book, or you can repeat the story structure. This article explains it well.

Write with illustrations in mind

Writing an illustrated book is not the same as a book without illustrations. Write with that in mind.

By that I don’t mean to plan out or even envision the illustrations, but to be aware there will be illustrations that help to tell the story.

Part of your job is to create a story that will set the illustrator up to create great illustrations.

If your whole story happens in one room, the illustrator can only do so much. Illustrations need to have variation and stimulating environments and characters to be interesting.

You can still tell the story you wish to, but tweak some of it if needed to provide the illustrator with better options.

Keep the ending short

Just as you should start the story within the first two or three pages, you also need to end it fast. Keep the ending as short as you can.

As soon as the problem is resolved, the suspense is over. The story after this will no longer grip the audience.

Make it complete and satisfying, but keep it brief.

How do I find an illustrator for a children’s book?

Since you’re at GetYourBookIllustrations’ site, you already have! (Forgive my cheeky humor 😉 )

Once your manuscript is complete, this is the most important step. Illustrations can make or break your book.

This is likely the most expensive part of your publishing journey, but also the most crucial.

Spend the money to get great illustrations. The better the illustrations are, the more attractive your book will be.

Once you find an illustrator whose portfolio you like, send them some details about your project, like how many illustrations you need and which sizes. (If you’re unsure, you should be able to get help from them to figure it out over email or on a call.)

You can ask an illustrator you want to hire the following questions:

  • Do they have a contract? Ask to see a copy. (Do you or they keep the rights?)
  • What will they charge for the project?
  • How does their process work?
  • Do they offer revisions? How many?
  • What kind of timeline are you looking at for completing the illustrations?
  • Do they also do book design/layout? (else you’ll need to find and hire a book designer at the end)
  • Do they provide print and ebook ready files?

At GetYourBookIllustrations we’ll provide you with a contract that gives you full rights to the illustrations (it’s done on a work for hire basis and we retain no rights). If your illustrator does not offer this, make sure what you can and can’t do with your illustrations and if you’re happy with that.

I hope this article has set you on your way to creating a high-quality children’s book.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

  1. What is your biggest takeaway from this article?
  2. Do you have a question about what makes a good children’s book that I didn’t answer?

 

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