Children’s Books: What Not to Do

Guest Post by Irene Watson

The publishing world is glutted with traditionally and self-published children’s books. Everyone thinks he or she can write a children’s book, and worse, illustrate and design one. And then people try to overdo it. To create a children’s book that looks good, remember less is more, and following a few basic guidelines will result in a better product that isn’t too cutesy, aka annoying.

Writing a children’s book is hard, but so is illustrating and designing it. Yet everyone seems to think he or she can create a children’s book. Plenty has been written about why children’s book authors need feedback from children on the story before they publish a children’s book. But just as important is getting feedback on illustrations and from the adults who might actually be the ones who read the book to children. No matter how good the story might be, more than with any other type of book, how a children’s book looks is going to determine whether kids or adults want to read or buy it.

In other words, hire a professional illustrator and a professional layout and design person. In this age of computers and all kinds of graphic design programs, everyone thinks she can design her own children’s book. The result is usually a disaster made by someone who doesn’t understand that less is more. Many things need to be avoided when designing a children’s book. Based on years of experience reviewing children’s books and seeing what my children and grandchildren have and haven’t liked, here are a few tips on what not to do:

Unprofessional Artwork: With a children’s book, a picture is worth a thousand words, and trust me, little kids know the difference between good and bad art. You may not be able to tell what they are depicting in their own drawings, but they know when something “sucks.” I was discussing children’s books with a friend of mine one day who recalled a particular book he read as a child where the pictures were colored in with dots. He doesn’t remember anything about the book other than there were a bunch of animal pictures and a recurring question for each one such as, “Why was the lion unhappy?” My friend remembers his mother reading the book out loud and he repeatedly answered these questions by saying, “Because he has bugs all over him.” The dots in the illustrations looked like a swarm of flies or bees encircling the animals, which was a real turn off to him and made him not like the book—in short, the illustrations were not very good.

Lately, I’ve seen a trend in self-published children’s books to have illustrations done by children. Really? Why would an eight-year old want to read a book illustrated by an eight-year old? The kid could have drawn his own book instead. I don’t know about your kids, but the ones I’ve known have always liked good illustrations. When you have a child illustrate your book, it just looks like a mess and you often can’t even tell what the illustrations are. Almost as bad is when the author does the illustrations him- or herself. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve seen where the illustrations were done with colored pencils—I’m not talking watercolor pencils here. When reproduced, the pictures look cheap and scribbled. Sadly, a couple of times I’ve been mistaken—illustrations I thought had been done by a child actually were done by an adult—why didn’t anyone tell this person he can’t draw!

Pay the extra to have a professional artist create your illustrations. Look at samples of the person’s work before you hire him or her. It will make a big difference in how your book is viewed by children and adults alike.

Book Size: Just because it’s a children’s book doesn’t mean you can do anything you want with it. Stick to a standard size for your book. Making a book that is too big just makes it unwieldy. More than anything, consider the bookstores and libraries. Librarians and bookstore owners hate books that don’t fit on their shelves or that can’t be displayed so people can read the spine. Look for recently published books and talk to bookstore owners and parents about what books children feel comfortable holding and what sizes are practical.

Fonts: Here’s where it seems people think anything goes. “Let’s have a sixteen-point flowery pink font.” Can you hear me screaming, “NO!” Stick with black type on white background. In planning the illustrations, make it understood you want space left on each page for the words and then plan the illustrations accordingly. In fact, if you’re writing a thirty-two page children’s book, determine what text will go on each page so the illustrator can work the illustration around the text’s placement. It’s best to leave a white corner or white bottom to each page so text in a black twelve-point easy-to-read standard font can be placed there. The last thing you want is for your illustrator to make full-page illustrations with black or dark blue night skies so when the black font is placed on it, it can’t be read, and you don’t want to put a white font there and then a black font on another page. Make your font and font-size and color standard throughout the book.

Remember also that children may not be the ones reading your book. It may be read out loud to them by grandpa, who wears bifocals and can’t read small fonts or yellow typeface on a white page. Be grandparent-friendly.

Printer vs. Computer Screen: Finally, remember that colors on a computer screen are very difficult to match up with what will be printed. Your red may look orange when printed. Your blue may look darker or lighter than you planned. Discuss these issues with your printer. You want your colors to look good when printed, and you want your text still readable if a colored background is going to be a little different in print than how it looks on your computer.

Less is more when designing children’s books. Kids don’t need pink words to be imaginative. They need well-written, professional looking books that not only enrich their imaginations and teach them to read, but also teach them what a quality product looks like so they won’t grow up being mediocre in their own life pursuits. The story and the look and feel of a children’s book sets an example for children, so do it right and you won’t regret it later.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find  reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.



Posted on October 14, 2012, in Publicity & Writing. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Yes all that and "stories with no story". Authors need to go back and look up the Elements of a Story. So many self-help children's books I get are just a moralizing screed or they go nowhere. The thing most often missing is Conflict and Resolution. Go back and examine your story for all the basic elements: Character, Plot, Conflict, Setting, Theme, Point of View

  2. I couldn't agree more! I give full credit to my illustrator, Kalpart, for illustrations that have helped me sell my books – and win awards with them as well. I can draw, but I can't illustrate – and there's a big difference!!Also, as far as the size of the books – my kids and grandkids seem to select the ones that are easy to hold and carry around, so the books shouldn't be cumbersome. Furthermore, I always select the paperback versions for my books, since they are less expensive. Don't forget that lots of children's books are purchased by teachers for their classrooms – at the teacher's expense – so books that are over the $10-$13 range tend to be overlooked.

  3. Every since you reviewed my book “Dressing the Man You Love” some years ago and then interviewed me for your site, I have often copied out and stored away editorials which you have written on various subjects. I very much enjoyed this editorial on the creation of children’s books. I have written a children’s book, based on a true story, which I have had edited, and have submitted to several publishers with rather nice responses. As a former “self-publisher, I would prefer to publish this children’s book myself. In taking on something brand new, I know I will learn a great deal in the process. I agree with you completely that in order to do a children’s book well, the right illustrator, and the right book designer must be chosen. Neither the designer nor the illustrator for my last book would be right for this project, although they are both extremely talented. I like your idea of interviewing book store owners and salespersons, for insights into what parents and children like to see in a book’s illustrations and design, but I was wondering where you would recommend that I and others like me begin the search for the right illustration and book design talent to complete a project such as mine.Thank you.Betsy Durkin MatthesI hope all is going well with your treatments.I am sending you positive thoughts

  4. Thanks for the great article on writing a children's book! It is a daunting task as I am finding out'the hard way. Even though I ran the book by many children for their input, that in itself isn't alwaysenough. One MUST find the right publisher or it will break your book — and you. Taking a class inwriting for children and a graphics arts class with a good artist is an avenue. You have paid forthe class and, hence, the artist's help on your project.

  5. An interesting article, and you do cover a number of aspects that authors often miss. I spend a good deal of my time working with Children's books so I hope you don't mind if I add a couple more thoughts.Illustrations do need to be well done, but also they need to be age appropriate. What works for a 4 year old does not work for an 8 year old. It is important to decide on the age group and stick with it.Fonts and Font Size are critical components. For young readers you need simple fonts. When I see a book that uses serif fonts I want to take the author out to the wood shed and beat them with a stick. Keep with a sans serif, but again there are pitfalls out there. Simple fonts like Arial, verdana are the styles I like. Sure, they are not perfect, but no font is. Font size is also important, it needs to match the age group. Young readers need text that they can grasp. The font size is large enough that they can point at each letter and sound it out.

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