Sunday, June 8, 2014

Twelve steps to writing an awful kids’ book.


Mea culpa.  I have been there and I have done that.  I have written awful children’s books; not just book but books, plural.  And no amount of “Hail Mary”s can fix the bad writing I’ve done (plus, I’m not Catholic).

Phew.  Feels good to get it off my chest.  These days, I sometimes turn up an old file on my hard drive and open it up, only to discover an ugly early attempt at a kids’ story.  I’m nowhere near perfect yet, but it has become easier, at least, to spot where all those early attempts went wrong.

If I ever wanted to write an awful kids’ book again, let’s just say I now know all the steps to get me there.  And having been there and done that, I’m happy to share this twelve-step plan to help you, too, create a children’s book that truly stinks. 

What?  You want to write a great kids’ book?

Don’t worry… for each of these twelve steps, I’ve offered a few tips (many from painful personal experience) on how to do it right.  You know… just in case you want to write this book:


Instead of this one:


You decide which you want to write… and then follow these twelve simple tips.


1) Write it in bad rhyme.

Or don’t, because…

I’ve already been accused of being the rhyme cops, but honestly?  I can’t help it. 

Listening to bad rhyme, for some people (helloooo!), is exactly like listening to a bunch of clashy piano chords.  Think kids won’t notice?  That they’ll love your book because the last syllables kind of match up?  Um, no. 

How can you tell if your rhyme is bad?  Hand your book to someone (preferably a stranger but anyone who hasn’t read it before) and listen to them read.  Do they stumble?  Do they have to smoosh 2 or 3 words together to make it all fit?  Do the rhymes sound off? 

As perfect as it sounds when you say it, or read it in your head, if it’s not perfect when an incompetent reader (aka an exhausted parent at bedtime) gets at it, you need to go back to the drawing board.  (Read more about fixing problems with rhyme.)

2) Make sure it only speaks to wealthy, white children.

Or don’t, because…

Kids everywhere should be able to get into your book.  No matter where they live or who they live with.  They may hear it from a teacher or come across it in a library.  Are they going to pick it up, or figure it has nothing to do with them?  (Read more about finding diversity in kids’ books)

3) Make sure it has a message and teaches great values.

Or don’t, because…

Bring whatever beliefs you want to the table, absolutely, but write your story as a story first, not as a parable, or as a Sunday-school lesson.  If it’s a terrific tale and also happens to include wonderful values, that’s great. 

Thinking of marketing your book based on its values?  Think about it first:  have you ever seen a children’s book being sold based on BAD values?  (perhaps with the exception of “Go the F* to sleep,” but that was originally intended as a joke, for parents.)

That’s because every writer – even the ones you happen to disagree with – believes they are imparting a positive message with their book.

4) Shift point of view all the time to keep things interesting.

Or don’t, because…

In real life, unless you’re schizophrenic, you see the world only through one pair of eyes.  This is the default, and it’s the simplest way to write for children.  It’s true that as kids get older, you can start playing around a little bit.  But if you’re writing for little ones, keep things simple and stick to one POV.

5) Include lots of adults in your story to step in and save your character.

Or don’t, because…

It’s just not interesting!  Just as in real life, kids prefer to solve their own problems.  Are you giving your hero a chance to BE a hero?  Wonder why most of the classics of children’s literature (Harry Potter, Great Expectations, and many more) feature protagonists who are orphans? 

Even the ones that don’t quite kill them off usually manage to get the main character’s parents out of the way so they can solve their own problems.

6) Make sure it’s super-educational.

Or don’t, because…

This is actually related to throwing in values.  Let’s say you want to write an educational book.  Since information is so cheap these days, you can just hop over to Wikipedia, grab a bunch of true facts, paste it into Microsoft Word, spit out a PDF, and voila – a children’s book.

You could do that… but please don’t.

It may be true (some facts in this type of book are; some aren’t), but it sure as heck isn’t an interesting children’s book.  Even non-fiction has to tell some kind of story, or offer kids some compelling reason to turn the page… and it can’t be just “to see the next fact.”

Throwing a bunch of factoids out there isn’t enough; you’ve got to engage kids in whatever the topic is.  (Read more about writing history and other non-fiction for children)


7) Fill it with cheap, terrible art.

Or don’t, because…

Don’t know much about art?  A lot of writers seem to think that more colourful is better when it comes to self-published children’s books.  Another no-no?  Cheaply-done pencil-crayon (colored pencils in the U.S.) illustrations that show off all the lines.  In general, the more subtle and sophisticated the art you can afford, the better. 

Hold a professionally-published book in your hands and see how the art is drawn.  Illustrations that look like paintings are the most common type from professional publishers (often, they really are paintings, full-size and then photographed and shrunk down to fit the book).  

A book full of lousy art (or lousy photos) is not a pleasure to hold in your hands – or to read to kids.  (Find out more about using photos in your children’s book.)

8) Fill every inch of the page with excitement.

Or don’t, because…

Reading a book cannot be like running a marathon – a mad dash of words crammed onto every single page.  Stop, take a breath, take a long, cool drink and relish the whitespace on your page.  Like this:




There… doesn’t a little breather feel nice sometimes?

9) Avoid reading other writers’ books so yours can be more original.

Or don’t, because…

Originality isn’t the only thing that matters… think about these three classic stories (really story models) that have been done to death, and are still retold beautifully, time and time again.

In fact, it’s highly recommended that you spend lots of time, before publishing your book, checking out the competition, or “comps.”  What other books are out there that are similar to yours? 

When I suggested this in an online message board, you’d think some people thought I was suggesting they set their story on fire.  They were indignant, and several insisted there was absolutely nothing like their story out there.  There is, believe me; your job is to find it.  (Read more about comparing apples to apples.)

Speaking of originality, what do you know about copyright, and how to protect yours?  Here’s a quick read that will introduce you to five copyright basics.


10) Show it to everybody you know for approval.

Or don’t, because…

To know you is to love you.  With the exception of my husband, who after ten years isn’t afraid to tell me when my writing sucks, most of the people you know will tell you only what you want to hear about your book.  “It’s great!” “We loved it!”

What about kids?  Sure, kids are known for their sometimes-brutal honesty, but just because they liked your book doesn’t mean it passes muster.  Sometimes, they’re just reacting to the tone of your reading, or – as with one young admirer I met last weekend – the author photo on the back of the book.

We all really need to find a few (or more) expert readers, like my husband, who aren’t afraid to tell us our story is bad.  Where can you find these precious folks?  In writers’ groups, online or in person.  If you can’t turn up something for free, it may be worth it to pay a “beta reader” and/or children’s book editors to give their honest opinion.

(Hint:  By and large, family and friends won’t find your typos, either… ask me how I know that!)

11) Speed through production so you can get your book “out there.”

Or don’t, because…

You may not be a professional publisher, but by choosing to self-publish, you ARE the publisher.  Which means you have to act like a professional even when you’re not.  Which means paying attention to things like the final production stages of the book.  If you’re working with an illustrator, this also means treating your illustrator like a professional. 

And please, please, please don’t skip the editing / proofreading stage.  Here’s me putting on my mean face:  I don’t care how many libraries you worked in or how many English classes you taught.  There are typos or grammar mistakes somewhere in your book; find them.

Okay, took off my mean face.  Thanks for bearing with me.

It’s possible that you’re not cut out for self-publishing (here are four clues you might not be).  But I don’t want to discourage anybody… if you’re willing to put in a bunch of work, it has seriously never been easier to get a great children’s book out there, into children’s hands.

12) Assume that writers write… always. 

Or don’t, because…

Writers do lots of other stuff.  Even if you already know how to write, think about taking a writing course to hone your skills or learn something new.  Don’t want to shell out for a course or join a free critique forum?  What about a book?  What if I offered you a bunch of Kindle books about writing children’s books that you can download instantly for under $10.

And don’t forget rewriting.  Sometimes leaving a book on the back burner for weeks or even months is just the thing to let it simmer in your mind so that when you go back to it, you’ll be invigorated, with a fresh, new approach.

What do all of these steps have in common?  Kids. 

Kids are smarter than we give them credit for.  They may not know exactly what the problem is – whether you rushed through your writing, skimped on editing, made the pictures garishly bright and weird, or crammed in a bunch of good-for-you messages. 

What they will is that they don’t like the book.  And they don’t want to hear it… ever again.

Which book do you want yours to be, again?

This one…?


Or this one…?


[happy baby photo credit:  Weird Beard via Wikimedia]

Yeah… me, too.

Rather than feeling overwhelmed at how many ways there are to go OFF the path, focus on audience.  Visualize the kids you’re writing for, and just sit down and type out a great book just for them.  Then, go through the list here step by step, using the links to help you out and make sure you’ve done everything you need to get where you want to go.

Step by step, let’s get headed in the right direction… together.

Did I miss any tips to help writers create their very worst kids’ book???


  1. EXCELLENT article, Jennifer.
    This will be my checklist for my next book!



As always, I love to hear from you.