I love little kids, especially between four and about six years old. They’re just discovering everything and because everything is so new to them, they are easily excitable. The only problem is… they haven’t learned how to pay attention for long spans yet. So, you’ve got to keep things moving when writing for them. Keeping their interest is half the battle of getting them to love books.
I started with my daughter when she was 18 months old. We went to the library and she got her own card right away. Because I was researching a lot back in the day and there was no Internet to pull material from, this gave me the ability to take out 10 books at a time for her and still keep my card available for my purposes. And you know, we had to get all 10 books each time. AND, we had to read them all the minute we got home from the library. She loved that!
We had lots of picture books and her favorites were Stephen Kellogg’s Pinkerton series, any books on dinosaurs, and books about animals. So, I played to those tastes. Some of the books were longer than they should be for kids her age, but here’s a trick: Read the first sentence of each paragraph and make up the rest. Works great! She was reading by 4 and is still an avid reader today, though her tastes run a little differenly. 🙂
But if you’re writing a preschool book, a good rule of thumb for determining how long your story should be is to take the age of your intended audience and then add one minute when reading aloud. For example, if you’re writing for five-year-olds, you should write your book so that it takes six minutes to read aloud — no more.
But don’t think that all subjects will interest “pre-schoolers” in general. The two-year-old may be interested in a story about a new bird flying into the backyard. Yet, the six-year-old needs a bit more, like a mystery story that is as simple as learning a mom’s secret cookie ingredient.
You won’t have much to do with the illustrations, as we discussed yesterday, but bright, vivid colors are important in keeping them reading. Make it one thought per page for the mid-age preschoolers (3-4) so that means one sentence. For the 5 – 6 crowd, you can have more than one thought and sentence, but still keep it simple enough for them to understand without thinking too hard.
You want to challenge them by giving them more than simple words, so through in something they may not know now and again, too. You want them to ask the reader, “What does that mean?” at least once.
You really need to understand kids to write for them. If you have kids preschool age, volunteer at their preschool. Or, if you don’t have kids try hanging out near the play area at McDonald’s. I got some of my best stuff there. Listen to how they speak and act. See what they like and what toys they’re interested in. (Many of them carry a special toy around 24/7.) Take notes! It makes a huge difference when you’re writing.
A very detailed example of picture book writing is in Barbara Seuling’s book How to Write a Children’s Book and Get It Published and if you are interested in writing picture books, I encourage you to read it for some publishing insights.