There are three things you must do to become a writer of children's books, whether fiction or nonfiction. First, you must write. Second, you must revise. Third, you must send your work out. Sometimes writers concentrate on one or two of these activities and neglect the third. Not you! You've taken the first step to becoming a real children's author — you bought this book!
Writing fiction, whether for children or adults, begins with story ideas. Sometimes these ideas come in dreams, on an airplane, when you're listening to music, or when you're singing in the shower — moments when you are free of other people, responsibilities, and distractions. Your mind floats a little, drifts a little, and you picture an image, a character, a crazy rhyme, or a line of dialogue that makes you smile. Most people let these reveries go, and they are lost forever. Not you! As a writer, you will capture these rhymes, dreams, and images by jotting them down in a small notebook that you keep close at hand. This is the first step in working with your subconscious mind. All literature comes from this hidden source — not just children's literature.
As a writer for children, you won't limit your jottings to the beautiful, harmonic, or joyful. While there is much pleasure in the music of writing, and in creating attractive characters, settings, and adventures, children's literature has a dark side, too. Think of Alice's fear of the Red Queen, or Harry Potter's terror of his nemesis Voldemort.
Children's literature is rooted in oral storytelling for both children and adults, and much of that storytelling was practiced to help people survive real challenges. Think of the stories collected in eighteenth-century Europe, tales such as “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” Do you think the giant who threatened Jack, and the wolf that threatened Red Riding Hood, represented real dangers in the world of eighteenth-century children? Or do you think those scary figures represented anxieties and insecurities — the inner demons of children who feel powerless much of the time?
Scholars argue each side of this, but writers know that stories of conflict between good and evil characters serve both purposes for children. Through good books, young readers learn to cope with threatening forces in the world around them, and within themselves.
Just as you will capture joyful moments in your notebook, so you may capture difficult experiences that will be equally useful in your writing. An unreasonable male boss, for example, cast into fiction as a nosy female neighbor, could allow you the freedom to use feelings of anger creatively. You could bring to life a memorable foe who loses out in the end. How satisfying, for both writer and reader!
If you want to write nonfiction books for children, jot down reminders of those moments when experiencing something new or learning a piece of information held special interest for you: cactus flowers that grow in the desert, foxes that live in the city, or stars that turn into black holes. Your curiosity and love of detail can lead to learning the sequences of cause and effect which led to these fascinating facts, and how they became known. This research can lead you to write true stories of natural science, history, and biography for children. What budding artist wouldn't like to read about a young Georgia O'Keeffe? What future scientist wouldn't want to learn about a rare Florida Panther and its Everglades home?
Do you dream of writing both fiction and nonfiction for children? Which do you think you would be better at? What age readers might you have a special knack for engaging? Here's an important secret: you mustn't just think about it. You must actually try it!
Begin with an experiment. Write the first paragraph (and if that goes well, the first page). Try different contexts for your ideas: a picture book, then a middle-grade novel, and then a serious young adult story. Try incorporating different elements in your story: realism, history, humor, and fantasy. Try writing an opening to your story in the voice of your main character; now try writing the same opening in the voice of an observer, or “third person” narrator. You will surprise and delight yourself with these experiments.
Above all else, you must write! What about revision and sending out your work? Don't worry, we'll get there. First, find the notebook and the pen, and start writing!