Getting Started Writing Children's Books

You Can Write Children's Book author Tracey Dils gives advice for getting started in this excerpt from her book.
Publish date:

From Chapter 1: What You Need to Know to Get Started

To touch the lives of children.

That was what I wanted to do when I set out to write children's books some twenty years ago.

Of course, I had other goals too. I knew that writing children's books looked like great fun. The books I remembered from my own childhood and the ones I was reading to my own children were full of whimsy, magic, fantasy, and outrageous humor. The books I loved used language in wildly creative ways, invented incredible worlds, and developed wonderful—sometimes crazy—characters and plots. The whole idea sounded like, well, child's play. I couldn't wait to take my computer and head to that playground of children's books.

But in my heart, I wanted to write books that would inspire and touch children. And to do that, I knew that I couldn't just write them—I had to get them published.

And that's where I came to a standstill. I didn't know how to go about doing that.

That may be where you are, too. You may have some wonderful ideas about children's stories—you may even have some terrific stories written—but, like me, you've heard the tales of harried editors, their desks stacked with huge piles of manuscripts from hopeful authors. You've heard about how competitive the entire field of publishing is, and you've heard about those impersonal rejection letters.

It is true that it's not easy to publish children's books. But the more you learn about the field and the business of children's publishing, the better equipped you will be to achieve success. That's what this book is about—giving you the information and advice you need to confidently enter the field and publish your work, so that ultimately, you can touch the lives of children.

How to Keep Up

  • Read other media directed at children. You can find a selection of juvenile magazines at your library or bookstore. Most magazines are monthly, so they can respond to trends much more quickly than book publishers. You can often get a sense of what the next trend in children's book publishing is going to be by studying kid's magazines. Studying Web sites geared for children can provide even more cutting-edge information. Many of these Web sites are educational sites. Others tie in directly to product lines or books. Many children’s magazines have their own interactive sites for kids. Look for Web addresses on kid’s magazines, television shows, or even food products geared toward kids.
  • Read publishing and library trade magazines. I strongly recommend Publishers Weekly, which is the bible of the publishing industry. Daily and weekly subscriptions are available online at Each issue contains reviews, information about the publishing industry, and news about editorial appointments. Twice a year, Publishers Weekly publishes a children's announcement issue. These contain not only announcements for forthcoming children's books, but also advertisements, reviews, interviews, and market industry figures. (You can buy the announcement issue separately even if you don't have a subscription.)
  •  Read the news. Keep a file of newspaper or other articles that apply to children, the business of marketing to children, new theories of development, and your specific subject matter.
  • Talk to librarians and teachers. Keep in touch with people in your community who are closest to your target audience and to books. Pick their brains about what kids are into these days, what they are reading, and what the latest trends are. Visit Web sites and discussion boards geared to these professionals and, if possible, attend professional conferences.
  • Spend time with your target audience. Be deliberate about spending time with kids—and not just your own children. Volunteer at a school library, get involved with a church youth group, or figure out another way to get firsthand experience with kids. Investing your time and creativity into getting to know kids is the best way to learn to write for them.
  • Attend writers conferences. The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (, the large international organization for those who write and illustrate children's books, sponsors regional conferences and two large national conferences a year. Large universities and other organizations also frequently sponsor writers conferences or conferences on children’s literature. You can find these conferences in market guides, like The Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, or checking the Web sites of universities and writing organizations in your area.
  • Explore online communities. There are informative online communities both about writing for children and about children’s literature in general. A selected list of such sites appears in the appendix on page XX.
  • Be aware of trends in other media areas. Keep informed about television programs, musical groups, online phenomena, and movies that are popular among the readers you are writing for. Those trends can suggest book ideas or tie-ins, as well as give you a sense of what today's kids like.
  • Be cognizant of demographic trends. National news sources often report demographic trends. For example, the Hispanic population is growing rapidly in many areas of the United States. Other trends to follow include the aging of our population, the number of children living with their grandparents, or the number of children in single-parent homes. Watch for mentions of these trends in the news and make note of them. They will help suggest what publishers publish and what social factors are affecting young readers.


You may find it difficult to think of children's book publishing as a big business, but that's exactly what it is. Indeed, when you are pondering a book idea that is dear to your heart, it can overwhelm your creative sensibilities to even begin to consider what a big business it is. Still, knowing a little bit about how children's book publishing has evolved will help you to shape your own children's books.

Until the late 1960s, children's book publishing was a relatively small part of the overall publishing business. Publishers published only a few new children's books a year and relied on a small number of well-known authors like Dr. Seuss, E.B. White, and Robert McCloskey. The majority of their business relied on backlist titles, titles that had been published in previous years, not on new books from new authors.

All of that has dramatically changed. Children's publishing grew exponentially in the last twenty years of the twentieth century as publishers realized that real profit could be made. This growth expanded a small and cozy corner of the book world into a billion-dollar business.

By far, the most explosive growth occurred in 1997 when the Harry Potter series began with HarryPotter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by first-time author J.K. Rowling. The groundbreaking fantasy novel was first published in the United Kingdom by Bloomsbury, with Scholastic as the United States publisher. The series has sold over four hundred million copies, and the Harry Potter brand, including the books, merchandise, and movies has an estimated worth of fifteen billion dollars. It has made J.K. Rowling the highest earning novelist in history and has made unprecedented profits for her publishers.

Most importantly, Harry Potter created a revolution in the publishing industry. Reading, especially among children over eight years old, was suddenly more popular than ever before, and many people claimed that Harry Potter got more boys reading than ever before. The release of each new Harry Potter book brought droves of buyers into bookstores, discount stores, and warehouse clubs. That phenomenon wasn’t only good for the books’ publisher, it was good for all publishers since new releases brought more foot traffic into stores and more customers for all kinds of books. Finally, because the first Harry Potter volume was simultaneously on the adult and children’s bestsellers list, it proved that children’s books also had a readership among adult readers. That brought a new legitimacy to the genre of children’s literature.

Children’s book publishers, indeed all book publishers, will continue to face the same cyclical patterns that all consumer retail businesses do, but at the same time, children's publishers have become better at publishing books that make a profit. For writers, this means there are many more opportunities to get published since there are simply more books being produced. With online retailing, there are also more ways to sell books. And there are more creative opportunities, too. Publishers are trying new formats and new book/product combinations, and they are taking chances on innovative and creative topics and projects. Children's book authors are getting better financial deals and stronger publicity support.
As the children's book publishing business has grown, it has been affected by the same forces that affect adult publishing. One of the most powerful of these forces is the trend toward diversity. It's easy to see how the world of children's publishing is responding to the improved awareness of our country's diversity. Publishers are creating more and more books with characters from a wide variety of races and cultures and that are focused on multicultural themes.

Population trends have also been forces of change in children’s books. These influences aren't as easy to see, unless you know a bit about how these trends work. To illustrate these trends, demographers frequently refer to the image of a “pig in the python.” Imagine a python as it swallows a pig. Think about how the pig's mass moves through the python's body. That protrusion is very similar to bulges in the population caused by baby booms. These bulges represent the largest target audiences, and as the bulges move—or as groups become older—the target audience for books and other products changes with them. The success of Harry Potter, for instance, can partly be attributed to the bulge in the population of readers in middle grades (grades four through six) at the time the series was released. Following these trends helps publishers understand the size of their market and can help writers know where their largest opportunities lie. You can track these trends by investigating the information on the U.S. Census Bureau Web site or by reading Advertising Age, which serves the advertising industry. Finally, news sources often offer demographic tidbits on how many babies are born each year compared to other years or how many children are entering kindergarten.


This may seem overwhelming, especially if your goal is simply to write inspiring books that will touch, move, and delight young readers, but it's not as complicated as it seems. First, you need to learn the categories of children's book publishing and the requirements of each category. The next four chapters will cover these topics.

After learning more about the field of children's book publishing, you must decide where you fit into it. The best way to weave your way through this complex and changing field is to arm yourself with information. As you consider all of the various nuances, restrictions, and unwritten rules, take some time to consider the real value of what you are doing.
Think about yourself and your goals as a writer.

Then think about yourself and your goals as a writer for children.

The best way to become successful is to be true to your goals as a writer and your feelings about writing for this very special audience.

Tips From the Top

1. Take note of who publishes the children's books that you like or enjoy sharing with your own children. Jot down favorite books and publisher information for future reference. These might be publishers you will want to approach with one of your manuscripts.

2. Spend as much time as you can with the audience that you write for. Find ways to critically observe children (not your own) in various settings where they feel natural and comfortable (e.g., bookstores, libraries, malls, and parks). Take notes on what you observe.

3. Set up a writing space where you will enter your “writing mode.” Think about the various things you might have in that space to inspire you. Begin gathering the tools you will need like pens and pencils, a computer, typewriter, dictionary, and thesaurus.

4. There are people in every community with a passion for children's literature. Find out who they are and strike up a professional friendship. Seek out writers, librarians, children's bookstore owners, teachers, or parents.

5. Read children's books for all age categories—from picture books to those written for young adults. Explore contemporary titles as well as traditional favorites. Read books written for specific audiences (like the religious market) and general readership books.

Inspiration Exercises

1. Choose a favorite book from your childhood. Reread it and jot down what you think about the book now and what you think you thought about it when you first read it.

2. Select a book from your local library that was published in the 1930s or 40s, like Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink or Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, and one written today. Think about how the two books differ in style, characters, plot, and setting.

3. Consider your own life history. Are there experiences that might be the basis for a book? Are there experiences in the lives of the children you know? Begin jotting these down for future reference.

4. Glance through your newspaper and identify one or two articles about children. Try to imagine the details about those children—their daily lives, their personalities. Do the same with an article about a specific child. Make notes about your thoughts of characters, situations, or circumstances that might be good inspiration for future stories.

5. Research the various awards that are given to children’s books each year. Read a selection of the books and consider what makes each one distinctive in its category.

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