Part 1 of a series on writing good children’s books.
Writing for children is not as easy as it sounds, and while I find it easier than writing in iambic pentameter, it does take effort and skill to create a book that kids will love.
“Either simplify the text, or flesh out the story,” is something I often advise when I’m evaluating a story for children.
If your manuscript is 300 words long, and the main character’s favorite word is ‘indubitably,’ the early readers who pick up your book won’t understand anything. “But, this is written for 3rd graders!” you insist? I can guarantee there wont be too many of those reading your story either. The more detailed stories they are looking for need much more space to be told properly, and they will see this as a ‘baby’ book.
How do you make sure the right kids understand your story? Check the readability!
Readability is critical for business and education, so many readability indexes, all with complicated mathematical formulations that look at different aspects of writing, have been developed over the years. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll refer the curious reader to Arienne Holland’s wonderfully detailed article Ultimate list of online content readability tests, where she details the pros and cons of the various indexes, how they compute their scores, and follows with some great links to several sites that allow you to input your own writing for evaluation.
My favorite tools are found on Joe’s Web Tools, and OnlineUtility.org, but feel free to use the ones that are most comfortable to you. I prefer using the Flesch-Kincaid and SMOG scores for children’s books through 3rd grade, and look at additional tests for middle grade and young adult novels, depending on the genre and grade.
Now you know how to check what you’ve already written. But no one wants to write everything out, then re-vamp the story when it doesn’t match their plans. It’s better to start writing with a basic structural guideline for the intended reading stage. WriteforKids.org has a great initial guide, but I find it’s a little too simplified, especially for advanced readers. Usborne and Scholastic, among others, have their own reading systems, and of course each school system has created its own reading grade requirements. While these are all great tools, none have combined the information into an understandable document that links age, grade, and general properties, so I’ve created my own guideline to help aspiring children and YA authors.
CDP Childrens’ Book Readability Guideline
Each level in my table builds on the one above it, but not every book for each level will include all characteristics I have listed. Keep in mind everyone learns at a different pace, and improvements are never linear, so a 1st grade book can safely fall anywhere from a picture book with a strong story to a simple chapter book. To allow for this, children’s books fall into grade ranges, generally centered around the readability score.
So, now you know how to write your book, and are able to verify the readability! While this doesn’t guarantee you have a good story, you know that the reader you’re aiming at can read your book. Now, you’re ready for the next step: story evaluation.
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