Writing Books for Preschoolers
Writing books for preschoolers presents more challenges than you might think. These books may appear easy to do because the writing style is simplistic, but achieving that simplicity can be difficult. Consider the way you normally write or speak. You naturally use complex sentence structures and a vocabulary which is too advanced for preschoolers. In order to write a book a preschooler will enjoy, you have to write consciously, with clarity, brevity, and imagination. Here are tips on how to write well for this level of reader.
Language use. Preschoolers are just beginning to understand letters and learn new words. Your use of language can help them discover more about these important concepts. When writing for this age group, it is important to remember these stories will be read aloud. The following guide lines will help you write such that preschoolers can follow the story and learn new words. Some of the offered suggestions will improve the readability of your story, making it a pleasure to read to young ones.
- Use short declarative sentences in the simple present tense (“I see white clouds.” as opposed to “I am seeing white clouds.”.) or past tense (“I saw white clouds.” as opposed to “I have seen white clouds.”.). Preschoolers do not have a sophisticated understanding of time. The brain develops the capability to grasp time concepts at about the age of 5 or 6 years old.
- Use words of less than three syllables. The average child entering kindergarten has a working vocabulary of between 500 to 1000 words. Their vocabularies consist largely of the most common one- and two- syllable words in the English language. To learn these words, the child has to hear them used many times. Kindergarten children who possess larger than average vocabularies tend to be those who have been read to steadily throughout their preschool years.
- Use simple punctuation. Skip sentence structures which require hyphens, dashes, semi-colons, and colons. Use commas only in the case of designating dialogue.
- Repeat phrases, words, or story points on purpose. This helps a child learn words and reinforces a story point. An example of a repeating story point accompanied by a repeating phrase is in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. As Goldilocks moves through the house and tries the chairs, porridge, and beds, she finds the parents’ items unsatisfactory but the baby bear’s items are “Just right!” Children also enjoy these repeating phrases because they can soon say them along with the reader.
- Use rhyming. Rhyming phrases tend to capture a child’s attention. Rhyming can be read with rhythm, which helps children learn new words.
- Use alliteration. Using the same first letter repeatedly for a few words in succession makes for compelling reading. Think about tongue twisters which are simply long alliterative phrases. “Peter Piper” and “Sally sells seashells” capture the imagination as well as the tongue as you try to say them quickly three times. You will find alliterative phrases in songs, poems, and stories intended for the younger crowd. Part of the attraction is how well these phrases trip off the tongue and the rhythm they create as you read them aloud.
- Spell out contractions. Readers at the preschool level are learning to distinguish letters, associate sounds with letters, and identify groups of letters which correspond to a word. Contractions have two features which confuse an early reader. They combine two words into one and they eliminate a letter and replace it with an apostrophe. Although commonly used in everyday speech and informal writing, contractions are considered a higher-level reading skill. Contractions do not show up in school curriculums until the second or third grade.
- Use simple numbers and colors (i.e. green rather than celadon). The numbers one through ten and the names of the colors in a rainbow are parts of the body of knowledge a child should possess before starting kindergarten.
Book Design Considerations. As an author, you do not have to worry about laying out the book’s design. Most publishers will handle that. However, as you write your book it is important for you to keep in mind the overall presentation of the story and an idea of how the final product might appear. To make it attractive to the publisher it is helpful to envision a book that has:
- up to three sentences per page. Children of this age have limited attention spans. They will be interested in the reader’s voice, snuggling up to their mom or dad, playing with their toes, looking at the pictures, and, oh, so many other things in their new world. It helps focus the attention on the book when there is a reason to turn the page and find something new.
- between 20 and 52 pages. This is a general rule for picture books. It goes back primarily to attention spans, but the page count also impacts production costs. The page count includes all front and back matter, so the story must fit within a smaller page count than the entire book’s page count.
Let the publisher handle the illustrations. Most publishers prefer to work with illustrators directly because they can control the technical aspects of the art work submitted, negotiate with the artist for publishing rights, and create a consistent look which fits their publishing program.
Preschooler themes. When preschoolers begin to explore the world, they start with themselves. They move on to explore the people and animals with which they live, their home, their neighborhoods, and they gradually work outward. Their interests are naturally focused in these areas. Your story will be relevant and interesting to preschoolers when it builds on things they see, hear, touch, know, do, or feel. Here are some of the most popular themes in early childhood literature.
- Animals. Children are very interested in animals in books, especially ones that talk, interact with humans, or show other human characteristics.
- Children. If you have ever seen a two-year old catch sight of a baby, you know what I mean. Children are fascinated by other children.
- Every day activities. Activities such as bedtime preparation, getting dressed, mealtime, snowy days, looking out the window at a busy street, and working around the farm are good topics for preschool books.
- Scary things. Things that go thump in the night, what is hiding under the bed – addressing children’s fears helps the child deal with scary situations.
- Vocabulary primers with pictures. Many successful books for preschoolers are not stories at all, but introductions to a category of words (parts of the body, clothes, farm animals, fruits and vegetables, rooms in a house, or colors).
- Holiday stories. Christmas is number one of all the holiday themes, but all holidays have stories you can retell upon which they are based.
- Methods of transportation. Trains, fire trucks, busses, cars, tractors, planes, heavy construction equipment, and other forms of transportation can all be used as the basis for a fascinating story.
- Humor makes reading fun. Whether the humor is the tummy-holding-roll-on-the-floor type or the gentle kind which wreathes a face in a smile, preschoolers appreciate funny things.
Any story can be written for various levels of readers. When writing for preschoolers care must be taken to keep the prose within the intended reading level. In reviewing manuscripts for authors hoping to publish preschool-level books, I frequently find writing which is too advanced for the reading level of the intended audience.
Knowledgeable authors work hard to submit a manuscript which publishers can easily envision as fitting into their product line of books. This is determined by the sentence structure, the word count, vocabulary choices, the use of punctuation; in fact all of the guidelines mentioned in this article. Employing them will increase your chances of being selected by the publisher, shrink the number of re-writes, and magnify your chances of having your book gripped by the happy hands of wide-eyed preschoolers.