Why Children’s Books Aren’t as Easy as You Think

A novel is somewhere near 100,000 words. The Cat in the Hat was 1,629.

Who wouldn’t choose to finish 98.4% sooner?

Many authors have pointed out that shorter does not equal easier.

Anyone with small children can tell you that “young” does not equal “unsophisticated consumers of mental pabulum.” Or ask the producers of Sesame Street. Keeping a child’s attention is difficult under the best circumstances.

I’ve read children’s books which assumed that making up meaningless words and rhyming while hammering home a moral lesson equaled Dr. Seuss.

Here’s what the good doctor did which makes his work unique:

  • He didn’t depend entirely on made-up words for rhythm and rhyme. They were used, to be sure (“Get on your way, please Marvin K. You might like going in a Zumble-Zay!”) but they were incidental, not a crutch. He was endlessly capable of boggling subtle rhymes like “You might like going by lion; OR you can go by camel in a bureau drawer.”
  • His humor was witty, evoking laughter, not infantile.
  • His drawings had a consistent style, all soft roundness and fluffy happy shapes found in nature and none of the rectilinear man-made world.
  • His stories were imaginative and familiar at the same time. Exotic locations held people just like his readers.
  • His moral lessons are commonsense, and delivered in a matter-of-fact manner which assumes his readers already know this and he’s just agreeing with them. No preaching or accusations.
  • Technical stuff: his meter, anapestic tetrameter, is just right for his audience and subject matter.
  • Finally, and most telling: grown-ups love Dr. Seuss just as much as kids do. And guess who buys these books they’re stuck reading every single night, over and over and over and over again?

There’s the crux of the matter. If you want to sell children’s books, you’d better write books their parents will love. The Master himself performed that magical feat of writing a children’s book strictly for adults. You’re Only Old Once spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list.

Your regular old novel only has to appeal to adults.

That kids’ book you’re contemplating has to appeal to adults and kids, in a way that makes parents feel good about themselves, safe giving it to their kids.

One of his lesser-known works, I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew has had a profound effect on me as an adult, helping me forge through some near-crippling life changes. I re-read it often, to remind myself that there is no place without trouble; that facing problems with determination works where hiding doesn’t.

I’d say the list of children’s books with that pedigree is short indeed.

5 thoughts on “Why Children’s Books Aren’t as Easy as You Think

  1. This is a post that’s very close to my heart. (I do have a heart, Joel) Very informative. ( my nose is not growing at this moment) I have written a children’s story that has been read by some adults also. Would love to have it published, but can’t find a reasonable illustrator. My novellas average around 13 to 16 thousand word. I have been told that they are too short. Hey, these are individuals who can’t even write a grocery list. Are these novellas too short, or too long? What’s your take, Mr. Sage. Blessings.

    1. Would you like to talk to my illustrator? She’s busy, but loves talking to authors.

      Publish your novellas digitally. 18,000 words for 99 cents is perfectly reasonable. Gather up 3 of them and put them in print. Rex Stout published 3 novellas of the Nero Wolfe series many times.

      Nobody cares how long your writing is, any more than they care how long a meal lasts. They care whether it’s good, and that’s all they’ll remember — or tell others.

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