I edited a children’s book a few months ago. It was probably exactly what you’re picturing: less than 1000 words, and meant to be heavily illustrated.
I did a two-part developmental package for this client — we worked together to review and revise his overall plot and characterization, and when he was satisfied, I did another pass with detailed line edit notes and suggestions.
For the developmental phase, I focused on the meaning of words, individually, and as a group. Words always have multiple meanings, and with any edit, it’s my job to find all the ways a reader might take what you’ve written, and let you know, so you have the option of choosing the words that best match the impression you want to give. With children’s books, it’s even more important to explore every little word choice, because you’re using far less of them to tell your story than you would in a novel for an older audience.
With books written for adults, I generally advise authors to write for a “smart” audience. Give your readers some credit. You don’t need to explain every little thing, and you can assume that if you know a word or concept, your readers might, too. With children’s books, you not only have to write to their grade level, but you may be the first person to introduce them to that concept. It’s extremely important to think about what you’re “really” saying when you talk to kids in this way.
For example, the main character in this client’s book was “a beautiful little boy”. Let’s break that down:
- a boy — one child, identified as male. This one is easy; most children, by the time they’re reading, have at least been introduced to the idea of gender identification, so we didn’t need to explain this. (I did advise the client that many books are written for boys, and because the target age was very young/preschool, he could make the main character a “child” instead, to appeal to more readers, but he had a relative in mind when he wrote and wanted to keep that boy as the main character.)
- beautiful — a description of the child. But, what does it mean? “Beautiful” is like a lot of words we use to talk about people: it has meaning because we assign it one over time, but that meaning isn’t the same for everyone. You can call something “red” or “blue” and readers will generally agree on what you mean, but beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, and this is especially true in the case of young children. They’re still being exposed to that word and what it means to the people around them, and still forming their opinion of what beautiful means to to them.
In order to figure out what this book was saying, I looked at the what came next in the story: “with soft blond hair, blue eyes, and rosy cheeks”. In this draft of the story, the author is directly telling children that beautiful means blond, blue-eyed, skin pale enough to have rosy cheeks… basically, beautiful is a little blond white boy.
On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with how this author sees his main character. He’s writing one individual child, based on someone he knows, and if he chose to go forward with this exact description, that’s a valid choice for him to make.
On the other hand, it’s my job to point out how this book might be read, and give suggestions which might broaden the marketability and readership of the work.
I shared my concerns that this depiction of “beautiful” was very specific, and because there was only one child in the entire story, this description excluded anyone who didn’t look like that from seeing themselves in his book. We discussed what changes he might make to the way the character looked, and also to how we described the character. I suggested that a beautiful child was a happy and healthy child, rather than one who had certain features. He agreed immediately, and we revised the description to make the character more universal (brown hair, and took out “soft”), less specific (took out the eye color entirely), and more focused on what he really meant — a happy child. The new description talked about how the child played and laughed and was kind, and that’s why he was beautiful.
In the end, the character was someone more children could identify with, and was a positive ideal, while still being a character the author’s own relative would want to read about.
After we went through each item in the story the same way, and the author was pleased with the content of the book, I went back and created a line edit. This used the “Track Changes” feature to make notes and suggestions about the grammar and spelling, which words to capitalize (often used to show Something Is Important in kid’s books) or not, and in this case, whether certain words were appropriate for the age of his target readership. In the end, he walked away with a clean, complete manuscript that told the exact story he wanted to tell, and potentially taught children the specific things he wanted to them to learn from it.
I also shared with my client an excellent resource from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators:
SCBWI Tips For Authors of Children’s Books (PDF, download by clicking the link)
It gives an overview of the manuscript format used by children’s literature industry, plus tips for how to find markets and deal with editorial feedback. If you write for children, do check out the SCBWI website. They offer a lot to their members, and even non-members can access some of it, like this page of useful links.
Would you like my help with your children’s book or story? I have a flat-fee package for that!
$100 Children’s book editing package: For a children’s book or story of less than 1000 words, aimed at elementary school age readers or younger. This package includes developmental consultation on your completed manuscript, followed by a line edit on your revised (if necessary) work. Formatting suggestions and notes on illustrations also included if needed. Contact me here.