I really got into the mechanics and styles of writing when I started teaching for the Institute of Children’s Literature. Each week, I’d get about 30 lessons from students and I would have to go through them and edit for grammar, punctuation, and style, including age appropriateness.
People often think that writing for kids is “easier,” and in a way, maybe that’s true. It’s a bit easier to be published because it pays less but also because not everyone is cut out to write for kids. They think, Oh, heck… I can write a picture book. Nothing to it! Really? Guess again. There’s a definite structure of a picture book, just as there is for middle-graders and for kids in college, and each group has its distinctive style.
Maybe you want to write for children. That’s cool. But remember that the world of children’s writing isn’t as simple as talking animals or cute fairy tales. In fact, before you write anything for children, you must first know your audience. Let’s spend some time discussing each age group and their specific requirements. We’ll start with preschoolers, which would be kids up to five years old.
Pre-schoolers are like brand new notebooks. They are blank pages, waiting to be filled with information. Anything that interests them, even the simplest things, are amazing to them. You could write a 25 word story about a butterfly, a flower or a toy, and you might have a hit. Eric Carle did it with his books, and each one has his distinctive style.
But the important thing to remember about these early readers is that adults do all the reading for them. Parents and grandparents and other adults are the people who are choosing and buying these books, too. So, they have to like the books themselves, and they want to know that the kids they’re buying them for like the books, too.
Small children should be thrilled by what they hear as they’re being read to, and will probably make noises or seemingly interminable comments, while the story is being read to them. They will ask questions, and they will ask for that book to be read over and over and over and over again.
For this reason, pre-school materials should be kept simple, not only in content, but in style. Sentences must be short, but even with books for the youngest children, the tone should never be condescending. Here is how “picture books” break down for each age group:
- Baby books may have only one word to a page. But this is a tough market. Many of these are prepared in-house by the publishers themselves.
- Toddler books require short sentences. Vocabulary should include words that two and three-year-olds can understand and repeat.
- Four and five-year-olds want words they can pick out visually, allowing them to begin the process of learning to read.
But those are the basics. Let’s keep on talking about preschoolers tomorrow so you can get a pretty solid picture of who they are and what they want to read.