Six Steps to Make Your Childrens Story Sparkle

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Return to Writing for Children · Print/Mobile-Friendly VersionYou have accomplished the unbelievable – you have completed the children’s book you have been writing. You put a lot of effort into making the characters seem real and the story had a distinct beginning, middle, and end. You are now ready to take a break and revel in your accomplishment before taking one last look at the spelling and grammar of your manuscript. After that, you will be sending your work to a particular editor that you have picked out.

We should certainly rejoice at the completion of our manuscript. However, it is also important to print out the document and put it away somewhere safe afterwards, rather than lingering on it.

Many authors err when they submit a manuscript before it is completed. Writing the words is just the start. Editing them is what shapes the manuscript into a potential book. To adequately edit a story that has taken so much effort, one must take a step back and detach their ego. To get the best results it is advised to put the manuscript away for at least a week, but two weeks is even better. Then, when reading through the story, imagine that it was written by someone else.

On this initial read-through, assess the story as a whole. Does the protagonist possess attributes that your target audience can connect with? Does the plot begin quickly with a situation that poses a problem for your protagonist? Does your protagonist manage to overcome that difficulty in a thrilling and satisfying way by the conclusion of the book? Did you put enough obstructions in the protagonist’s path, creating tension and prompting the reader to be invested in the narrative? If you responded “No” to any of these questions, your story is not yet ready for the working draft. You need to go back and keep refining your narrative and protagonist. However, if you can answer “Yes” to all of these questions, then the hard work begins. Here are six steps to aid you in perfecting your manuscript.

1. Cut as many words as possible.Writers of children’s books must adhere to the standards of the industry when it comes to word counts. Picture books for kids up to the age of eight typically contain around 1000 words, though some may be even shorter. Easy readers, intended for readers between the ages of five and nine, can range from 50 to 2500 words (depending on the preferences of the publisher and the reading level of the reader). Chapter books, which are short novels intended for readers between the ages of seven and ten, usually have 10,000 to 12,000 words. Middle grade novels (ages 8 to 12) contain around 20,000 to 25,000 words, while young adult novels (ages 12 and up) have 35,000 to 45,000 words. Though exceptions to these norms exist, new authors should generally stay close to them. For younger readers, it is important that each word contributes to the plot. When editing a book of any length, it is useful to go page by page and remove any words, phrases, scenes or characters that are not directly related to the story.

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After removing any unnecessary details, the remaining words will have greater impact. Now you can begin refining. The subsequent five steps will not only help refine what remains, but also enable you to illustrate the narrative to your audience rather than simply stating it.

2. Begin with a bang.It is important to make your first few sentences count in order to keep your readers engaged. Start your story with action, dialogue, or set the mood in a way that is so captivating that kids won’t be able to look away. Aim to begin as close as you can to the story’s turning point, when your character’s life is altered and the plot takes flight. Let’s look at some examples.

The first page Imogene’s Antlers, a picture book by David Small, reads: On Thursday, when Imogene woke up, she found she had grown antlers.The way Imogene calmly reacted to her unusual predicament is as captivating as the antlers growing from her head, which is further emphasized by the accompanying illustrations.

Barbara Seuling’s chapter book, Oh No, It’s Robert, dives right into the type of conflict the main character will face: Robert Dorfman hated math. He hated it more than going to the dentist, or eating liver, or cleaning his room.

And the first chapter of Richard Peck’s novel A Long Way from Chicago (ages 9-12) sets the time and place in a manner that’s undeniably gripping: You wouldn’t think we’d have to leave Chicago to see a dead body. We were growing up there back in the bad old days of Al Capone and Bugs Moran. Just the winter before, they’d had the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre over on North Clark Street. The city had such an evil reputation that the Thompson submachine gun was better know as a “Chicago typewriter.”

3. Go on a low-modifier diet. A few adjectives and adverbs are fine, but if you feel you must pack your sentences with modifiers, you’re not getting the most out of your nouns and verbs. Strong verbs not only show action, they can also convey physical and emotional qualities. She went across the street only tells the reader that a character moved; adverbs are necessary to provide more information (went slowly, went quickly, went reluctantly). However, if you replace went with a more specific verb, that one word contains all the subtext you need (She trudged across the street. She scampered across the street. She stumbled across the street.)

Similarly, strong, exact nouns paint a particular picture in the reader’s mind. Adjectives such as big, little, beautiful, nice, old and great are too general to be of much use. All Sam’s friends thought he lived in a big, beautiful house doesn’t show the reader how big, or how beautiful, Sam’s house really is. Sam lived in a castle, or at least that’s what his friends thoughtSam stands out from his peers as he has a different approach to life. This is clearly demonstrated when compared to his friends, who take a more traditional route. By providing this example, it provides the reader with a definite point of comparison.

4. Reveal character with descriptions. Descriptions should reveal how your protagonist operates within the setting of the story, or feels about the other characters. If the action stops cold so you can wax poetic about a sunset, then the description is more about you than your main character. You have to remain invisible — interpret all details through the eyes of your protagonist. If your character is familiar with the book’s locale, she won’t remark upon the setting as if seeing it for the first time. In Sarah, Plain and TallIn Patricia MacLachlan’s novel for 8-10 year olds, Anna contemplates her life in the prairies during the late nineteenth century. She muses about the beauty of her home and the many wonders it holds.

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I wiped my hands on my apron and went to the window. Outside, the prairie reached out and touched the places where the sky came down. Though winter was nearly over, there were patches of snow and ice everywhere. I looked at the long dirt road that crawled across the plains, remembering the morning that Mama had died, cruel and sunny.

MacLachlan’s verbs — reached out, touched, crawledAnna’s home is characterized by gentleness and love, but it is also filled with a feeling of sadness. When she looks out the window, she sees beyond the prairie and is reminded of the things she has lost. These words capture both the beauty of her home and the sorrow in her past.

Since picture books have illustrations on every page, their text contains very little description. Don’t waste precious words explaining that a character has “red, curly hair” unless the nature of her hair is a crucial plot element. But precise, sensory details can enhance the visual nature of the book while adding layers to the protagonist. Grandpa was an old, wrinkled, cranky man is a description that could come from any character that happened to spend a few minutes with Grandpa. Hannah thought Grandpa looked like the lemon she had left in the sun for her science experiment: brown, shriveled, and probably just as sour

5. Use triple-duty dialogue.Dialogue serves many purposes in a story, from providing information about the plot to giving insight into each speaker, and even showing the relationship between the characters involved. If your dialogue is too authentic, with excessive small talk or mundane accounts of events, then the text is weighed down with unnecessary conversation. To fix this, edit the dialogue to its essence and add additional details to show the characters’ feelings. Consider adding body language, vocal inflection, and physical actions to the conversation for a more vivid experience.

Each speaker has a distinct way of talking with unique speech patterns and phrasing. If you’re forced to identify the speaker for every line of dialogue in a running conversation, then you haven’t allowed your characters’ personalities to seep into their banter. This is just as true for talking animals as it is for people. In Let Sleeping Dogs LieHank the Cowdog, the security dog of the ranch, discovers a deceased chicken. The dialogue between him and his companion Drover immediately sets the plot in motion, and also demonstrates the difference in how they both view their jobs. Hank says, “This is a job for a professional, Drover, and that means me.” Drover responds, “But Hank, I thought you was a professional.” To which Hank replies, “I am. That’s why I’m here.”

“After carefully examining the evidence, I realized that this was no regular murder,” I said. “It appears to have been the work of some kind of evil entity. It’s possible that they are still here, on this ranch.” “Oh no! Maybe we should hide!” Drover started to run away, but I grabbed him before he could. “Hold on, Drover. I’m afraid I have some discouraging news for you. We have to be the first line of defense for this place. If there’s a malicious being around here, we have to capture it.” Drover trembled and looked away. “You are right about one thing,” he said softly. “It’s not good news. I’m terrified of these kinds of villains.”

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6. Pace yourself properly.Picture books are commonly composed of a sequence of scenes, each of which can be illustrated. The average length of a picture book is 32 pages, but the initial materials (title page, copyright page, etc.) require around four pages. This gives the author 28 pages for their text. The writer can mark up their manuscript in places where they think page breaks should occur, or they can enter the text onto 28 independent pages, bind them together like a book, and read the story as each page is turned. Is each page of text an inspiration for a different illustration? Is there something that appears every other page (a captivating phrase or a rise in action) that would make a child eager to read further and discover what happens next? Is the plot’s resolution held back for the concluding pages, or does the ending fail to live up to the rest of the story? Does the entire story have a pleasant flow that makes it easy to read aloud?

Children can easily read books that are heavily illustrated and feature short stories told through dialogue and action. To keep the story interesting, chapter books have slightly longer paragraphs and short chapters that span about four pages.

Middle grade and young adult novels can contain sub-plots and more description, but in any book that has chapters, it’s wise to end the chapter on an emotional note. Breaking in the middle of a tension-filled scene is a good strategy: The scratching grew louder as Jake crept down the hall. He stopped in front of the coat closet. His hand shook as he reached for the knob to open the closet door. Run! screamed a voice inside his head, but Jake’s feet felt glued to the floor. Just before he touched the knob, the door slowly swung open on its own.Conclude this chapter here, and your readers will be so absorbed in your book that they won’t want to turn on the television.

As the author of your book, you are the first and most important editor. You can use these six steps to perfect your manuscript, making it more impressive and giving yourself a chance at gaining a publishing contract.

Copyright © 2007 Laura Backes/Children’s Book Insider, LLCNo part of this article may be reproduced or shared without the author’s explicit written consent.

Laura Backes

is the author ofBest Books for Kids Who (Think They) Hate to Read, from Prima Publishing. She’s also the publisher ofChildren’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers. For more information about writing children’s books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visitChildren’s Book Insider’shome on the web at

Frequently asked questions

How long is the average children’s book?

The average children’s book ranges from 500 to 1,500 words, with an average of about 1,000 words. Most picture books are around 500 to 600 words.

How long should I spend reading a children’s book to my child?

It is recommended that you spend around 15-30 minutes reading a children’s book to your child.

What type of books are suitable for children?

Books that are suitable for children are age-appropriate, with language and content that is appropriate for their age group. Books that are educational, interesting, and engaging are also good options.

How can I encourage my child to read?

One way to encourage your child to read is to read books together. It can also help to provide a variety of materials such as magazines, newspapers, and comic books. Additionally, making books easily accessible and providing positive reinforcement for reading can help to foster a love of reading in your child.

Are there any benefits to reading children’s books?

Yes, reading children’s books can help to develop reading skills, improve language skills, increase vocabulary, and build imagination. Furthermore, reading can help children to develop empathy and critical thinking skills, as well as provide them with knowledge about the world.

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