Children's Book

How To Write an Award-Winning Children’s Book

how to write an award-winning children's book, self-publishing a children's book, Xulon Press, Mom's Choice Awards

During the month of June, we’ve been cheerleading a segment of authors who write some of the sweetest books around: those who write children’s stories. To cap things off, we’re featuring a special guest blogger, Terry Doherty of Mom’s Choice Awards and The Reading Tub. We wanted to find out what she looks for when in an award-winning children’s book, and she was kind enough to share some of her expertise!

Writing for children seems like it would be easy, right? Kids have the most active imaginations, they’re open to any and all ideas, and of course they LOVE stories. Ask any child what that drawing looks like; without doubt there is a story to go with it.

Yet the same things that make children a great audience, also make them one of the toughest!

  • They like what they like—and let you know when they don’t.
  • They want to imagine the story their way—not be bound by the words on a page.
  • They want pictures they can explore—but not so busy they get lost.

And last but not least, they do NOT want to be treated like little kids. We don’t like it when people preach and talk down to us, so why would we expect children to settle for that?

There are so many pieces that go into crafting a beloved children’s book. There’s the story you want to tell; the way you want to tell it; and the audience!

In fact, let’s start with the audience first.

Not all children’s books are for children. There are plenty of beautiful alphabet books that are not meant for 3-year-olds to practice learning their letters. There are also lots of children’s books with messages that mean more—and make more sense—to mom and dad.

Knowing whether you’re writing the book for a parent to read with a child or for the child to read independently is crucial. It affects everything from the width of the margins and number of words on a page, to vocabulary. There are a number of tools to help with reading level, and you probably have one of them on your computer right now: Microsoft Word.

Within the “check spelling and grammar” menu is an option to “check readability.” Use that option to get the Flesch-Kincaid readability score. Knowing the reading level of your work is crucial to ensuring that you are writing for your intended reading audience.

Understanding your reading audience can help with how you tell the story, too. The maxim “show, don’t tell” is very true in children’s literature. Young listeners and readers want the power of figuring things out for themselves. Even in chapter books, they don’t want every little detail or action written out. Letting the illustrations carry some of the load goes a long way to engaging young audiences who want to add their own imagination to the imagery created in your story.

Then we come to the beginning: the story you want to tell. Sometimes it is a sweet rhyming book that is just for fun; sometimes it is something a little more serious. There are concepts and skills we want to teach children (e.g.,making friends and sibling rivalry); and things we want to help them understand (e.g., love, grief, moving).

With serious topics, our tendency as adults is to want to try to cover every aspect of feelings a child might feel. Grief is a very personal emotion, and it presents itself differently for each of us. Writing a story that tries to explain it all is likely to fall flat with young audiences (though parents may like it). In the most cherished stories, the lesson is implicit in the narrative, not explicit.

In thinking about writing, I often reflect on the advice I received when I became a mom: “talk less, listen more.” Simpler IS better. Over the years I have tended to “explain” things for my now thirteen-year-old. Yet the times she remembers best—and talks about most—are the ones where there was little or no overt parenting involved.

When it comes to writing for children, the first thing to remember is it isn’t for us—and isn’t about us. The most magnificent children’s books are the ones whose stories connect with children “where they are” developmentally and (more importantly) emotionally.

These are the books we treasure from our own childhoods. The stories that resonated with us at just the right moment and have stuck with us forever. Yours could be that story for a new generation!

Terry Doherty is the Founder and Executive Director of The Reading Tub, a 501(c)(3) that promotes family literacy. Her superpower is reading children’s and Young Adult books (about 250 a year). Terry is also the Director of Honoree Marketing for the Mom’s Choice Awards, a company that evaluates products and services for family friendliness, and also provides lifetime marketing services to its Honorees. You can follow Mom’s Choice Awards on Twitter at @MomsChoiceAward and Reading Tub at @TheReadingTub.




Brittnee Newman, Marketing & Communications Strategist for Xulon Press, has been a blogger, freelance journalist and editor for just over half a decade. She joined Xulon Press as an editor in 2012, and now supports the company within the Marketing Department. Follow her on Twitter at @XulonBrittnee.

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