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Writing For Children - Ten Tips to a Terrific Picture Book

Writing well for young readers can be deceptively difficult - almost like writing haiku. Here are ten tips to make the most out of your picture book manuscript:

1. Craft a simple, clear plot based on a single situation. What does your main character want, what's in their way, and how do they solve it in the end?

2. Tell the story from the point of view of someone the same age as your reader. The main character should ideally be a child, or a character (even if animal) of the same age or spirit as the reader, so that the reader can identify with him or her.

3. Write what you know. Research is important, but nothing will make your writing more compelling than drawing on your own knowledge and experience of people, places ands things. For example, use what you know about being a parent (or having one) to make a mother character (albeit a bunny, or an alien) seem truly authentic. Even in fantasy or historical fiction, try to infuse your characters, situations and storytelling with details from your own personal knowledge and experience to make them really come alive.

4. Jump right in. Start your story immediately, and don't take up too much time with settings or descriptions. Which grabs your attention better?

Chutney was a small white dog.


Chutney was lost.

5. Think visually. The average picture book is 32 pages long, including title pages, dedications and acknowledgments. Try laying out your manuscript in dummy format, with 16 pages folded in half to make 32 pages. What might the corresponding illustrations look like? At what point in the text will the reader turn the page? Think in terms of action - what makes your reader want to turn the page to find out what happens next?

6. Make every word count. Illustrations reveal as much about your story as words do. Choose your words carefully, and don't write what the illustrations will show. Avoid excessive use of adjectives and unnecessary detail. Economy is key - try to synthesize what you want to say into as few words as possible, artfully chosen.

7. Know your theme. What's your point? What message do you want to convey to your readers, what thoughts or feelings do you want to leave them with? Great books do more than entertain - they leave the reader with new ideas, a fresh perspective. Whether called message, moral, or point of view, your theme is best revealed through the actions of your characters and the events of the tale - as opposed to any heavy-handed "and the moral of the story is..." summations or direct address.

8. Use verse with caution. It's tempting to think that rhyme alone makes for an engaging story for a child - but many aspiring children's book authors neglect story structure for the sake of rhyme. If your story is in verse, make sure you craft a version in prose as well. Focus on finessing the story to make sure you've addressed the key points - character, plot, setting, theme - and then convert it back, to let the verse be the frosting on the cake, not the cake itself. Finally, be sure your verse is top-notch - that the rhymes are true and the meter scans consistently. Never try to bend the phrasing or emphasis to accommodate the rhyme.

9. Offer hope. OK, this is more a personal view than a professional one... but I believe children's books should ultimately be optimistic, even if the subject matter is sad. The world is hard enough. Young people need to know that there are solutions to problems, and that adversity can be overcome with faith, courage and right action. Think carefully about why you want to write for children, and what you want to leave them with. Their future may depend on it.

10. Polish, polish, polish! Because children's books are shorter than adult books, it's tempting to think you're done after the first or second draft - and rush ahead soliciting agents and publishers. But nothing can kill your chances of publication - or of success when published - faster than slipshod writing. Writing is all about re-writing. Read your book out loud to as many children in the target age range as you can. Notice what works, and what doesn't. Where do they get fidgety? What don't they understand? Read scores of books in the same genre, so you can see what makes the good ones sing. Consider hiring a freelance editor or writing consultant to evaluate your manuscript or provide a line-edit. Give it the care and professional attention it deserves. Your readers will thank you for it!

Emma Walton Hamilton is a bestselling children's book author, editor and arts educator. She has co-authored 16 books for children, four of which have been on the New York Times Bestseller List and serves as the Editorial Director of the Julie Andrews Collection publishing program. Emma works as a freelance editor and speaks regularly on arts and literacy issues. Visit: Emma Walton Hamilton

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