What are the ingredients for a perfect children’s book?
And what has writing a children's book got to do with baking a fish pie? Read on and all will become clear.
There are a plethora of books on writing, and many of them talk about the elements of story. If you are of a culinary disposition, you might like to think of these element in terms of the ingredients you’ll need to make a fish pie. If you leave any of them out or don’t use the freshest products, you risk ending up with a pie that is less than perfect. A book written for children needs to be a luxury fish pie. A standard bake is not going to cut the mustard when entertaining today’s young readers.
My first two children’s books began with the setting and from the outset I had a clear image of where each story was set. To truly delight your readers, make your setting as extravagant and astonishing as you can so it almost becomes a character in its own right. So bake your fish pie in the fanciest serving dish you can lay your hands on – the bigger and bolder the better. Of course your story may demand a setting that’s less flamboyant than this, and that’s fine too, but remember to add just the right amount of embellishment to help your young reader imagine where the story is set, but at the same time allowing their imagination (which is far more powerful than any of us authors could possibly conjure up in words) to make the setting their own.
When writing for children, you need to make sure your characters leap off the page, so make them memorable, even the secondary characters. When children read a book they become so immersed (so long as it’s sufficiently delicious) that they begin to ‘live’ that story. If you’ve done a good enough job, they will walk in your characters’ footsteps from the moment they open the book, and then for some time afterwards. So, don’t just give them tiddly, frozen prawns! Give them wild king prawns! Give them fresh line-caught cod! Slip in a nice piece of smoked haddock. Dish up characters to love and characters to fear. In Fledgling, a pair of terrifying but strangely amusing nurses, Crunch and Grind, arrived in my head totally fully formed. The sensible part of me wanted to rein them in, to make them more like the nurses children might be familiar with (a nice safe piece of frozen cod perhaps) - but I decided to let Crunch and Grind’s glory shine. So, if you’re writing a children’s book and a wild or wacky character turns up, welcome them in and stir them into your pie mix with relish.
Every children’s book needs to be exciting. We’re competing for children’s time more than ever, so your book needs to hook your reader in from the first line. Plot, like a creamy mash on top of your fish pie, is an essential ingredient in all story-telling, unless you happen to be a Booker-winning literary genius who can get away without worrying about such things. But use a decent potato (may I suggest a Maris Piper?) to make your mash so delicious it’s impossible to stop eating it. Season it well, and maybe add a mature cheddar topping for a delicious twist.
Write for today’s children!
Would we feed our children tripe and onions for their tea? Well, we might if they’re tripe fans or we’re feeling a bit mean, but children have generally moved on in their tastes since the 1960s. And this applies as much to their reading material as the food they like to eat. It’s completely understandable that a children’s writer learning their craft will write for the child they were, but it’s really important to write for today’s child, with our eyes wide open to the fact that they have many other ways of spending their time. Take a look at what books are on the table in your local bookshop, volunteer at the library, offer to read with children at your local primary school, or find another way to get to know the reading tastes of young people. So keep your fish fresh, folks!
Pace and length
Decide how long you’re going to cook your fish pie. If you cook it for too long, it will dry out and your prawns will shrink to nothing. Cook it for not enough and your fish might still be raw, and even worse you risk poisoning your loved ones. If you set the oven too hot, it will burn on the outside, and remain uncooked in the middle. So, keep your pace brisk to keep your reader reading. And keep your story to a good length – so, roughly 40k to 50k words for a middle grade book and 70k to 80k for a young adult book. If you’re a world famous author, your books can be any length you desire because your editor is unlikely to tell you to cut it back, but us new writers need to work within the optimum cooking times.
An element of surprise! (Boo!)
Children, like adults, love to be surprised. So consider adding an unexpected ingredient to your story. A friend cooked me a delicious fish pie (see pic above) last weekend just as I was in the middle of writing this blog post. Their surprise ingredient was a spoonful of Patak’s Aubergine Pickle, and I have to say it worked perfectly with the creamy fishiness of the pie. So, surprise your young readers, either with an unexpected twist (there’s a fairly big twist in Fledgling!) or take your story in a direction your reader might not be expecting. Whatever it is, think about how that secret ingredient will turn your story into something editors or agents will clash forks over.
Excuse the shameless self promotion here, but don’t we all need a bit of Hope in our lives? Children need more hope than ever before, so where better to find it within the pages of a good book. A children’s book without hope is like a fish pie without the white sauce.
My final essential ingredient in a children’s story is humour. You don’t need to make your readers belly laugh on every page (but wouldn’t it be lovely if you could do that), and even if your book is sad or serious, seek out opportunities to make your reader titter from time to time. Seek out the comedy in your characters or the situations they find themselves in. A story without humour is like a fish pie without salt and pepper, so make sure your story is seasoned to perfection!
Happy writing and happy baking. I hope this post inspires you to rustle up something tasty for supper, and after you’ve scraped the last bits of baked cheese from the sides of your pie dish, settle down to your writing and create a juicy new sub-plot for your story or surprise twist that will leave your young readers asking for more.
Lucy Hope is the author of two children's books, Fledgling and Wren, and has a third book coming out in October 2023. All three books are published by multi-award-winning children's publisher, Nosy Crow. Her debut, Fledgling, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal for Writing 2023. In 2019 Lucy graduated from the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University with distinction. She's endlessly fascinated by the process of writing a book, and is excited to share her thoughts on the process of creating a large work of fiction in this new blog!
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