ConsiderWhileWriting: Children's Series
By Amy Groening
Welcome back to “Consider While Writing”: the blog post series that helps you plan ahead, to make the publishing process as smooth as possible once that manuscript is finished! Today, we’re focusing on planning your children’s book series.
For our previous installments, check out our blogs on Manuscript Setup, Interior Layout, Research Prep, Novel Planning, and Devotional Writing.
To the reader, a children’s book might sound easy to write. Anyone who’s actually attempted one is likely to feel differently. It takes a lot of work to make reading this fun! Work on a single book can be challenging, but when you’re planning out a series you need to be thinking several books ahead of yourself. A well-planned children’s book series is focused, beautifully designed, and recognizable. Aside from simply writing each book, it’s also important to take into consideration illustrations, branding, themes, trends, and the central message of the books. A cute, little picture book can make a big impact under the right conditions!
First, how many children’s books are you planning to write, and why? While most picture books are episodic, it’s important to be cognizant of where your series is headed. Will children need to read them in order, or can they pick up anywhere in the series? How will you make each book unique? A central theme or mandate can be very effective here to make the writing smooth and easy.
Donna Simard’s Shhh! It’s a Surprise! Series has charmed the hearts of many—and no wonder! She has created an fun, adaptable concept that can be tweaked to suit many different settings and characters. The predictability of the general plot line, yet surprise ending of each book makes this a great choice for early readers. Each installment in the series focuses on a family playing the Shhh! It’s a Surprise! game, which challenges characters to guess each others’ favourite animals. Why is this a great theme?
1) Children love animals. It’s hard not to be drawn to a book with a fluffy bunny or cuddly puppy on the cover!
2) Parents and children both love activities. The book is more than just a story; it’s also a game. This helps to keep young children interested, and encourages readers to really engage with the story, as you guess along with the characters.
3) The setting is easy to change, and allows for new animals at every twist and turn. The first book takes place at the zoo, the second at bathtime, the third (coming soon) takes place on a farm. What’s next, Donna? A safari? A camping trip? A pet shop? A park? Your readers are dying to know!
Of course, your book doesn’t have to focus on animals, and it doesn’t have to be a game. Shhh! It’s a Surprise! is a great example of how to use common interests for children in a way that makes reading fun. Think about some of the book series you loved as a child—or books children you know love now—and consider what made them so loveable. Having a reliable theme to fall back on can help draw your readers in and have them coming back for more.
Think about your characters. Are they human, animals, personified vegetables, aliens? How many characters will you have in each book? Do you have one main character? If not, how will you focus your story? If you need to introduce new characters, how will you do it? What will attract your readers to your characters? Fun, colourful artwork can really help to bring your characters to life, of course; make sure to give them personality and try to make them relatable to your audience. They don’t have to look the same as your readership to be relatable of course; think of the Franklin series or Veggie Tales—personified animals or vegetables can be just as engaging as humans.
Hannah R.S. Hayes’s Betty the Polar Bear Series features a central group of friends in a classroom setting. Each book focuses on a different character in the friends group, and tackles a specific problem that character is facing: bullying in Marsalis the Monkey, learning problems in Dover the Gopher, food allergies in Zena the Zebra, the death of a family member in Isabelle the Giraffe (and many more!). Are you noticing trend here? Hayes planned her characters’ names to work well for titles, paying attention to alliteration and rhyming schemes. She also made them relatable by giving them real-world problems that children face every day. This makes them adaptable to classroom settings, Sunday School rooms, home reading, guidance counsellors’ and doctors’ offices…
Illustrations are a very important part of a children’s book series. Here, consistency is important—the drawing style is part of your children’s book brand! Also consider whether your characters will be staying the same age or getting older as your series goes on. If possible, secure the same illustrator for the entirety of your series, and discuss your plans with your publisher or design team so that they’re aware of how the series will pan out, and how the artwork will need to adapt if circumstances in the stories begin to change.
When is a series not a series?
You may be an extremely prolific children’s book writer, but are you actually working on a series, or a collection of stand-alone books? A series tends to have the same characters, themes, and illustration styles throughout. Don’t force your books to be a series if they don’t want to be; the results aren’t always effective from a marketing perspective. If you have one story about a polar bear learning to sing, and the next book is about a human child saving a village from a flood, it wouldn’t necessarily be helpful to try to link the two (unless perhaps if in book number 3 the human child and polar bear team up for a grand adventure…in which case you’d probably want to work that into the first two books anyway).
If you have two books that could be linked, but aren’t really linked, and then the next three books after that have nothing to do with each other, it may confuse readers to brand them as a series. They can still be a wonderful collection; you would simply brand them a bit differently.
Sandi Sellen’s stories are a great example of a collection that isn’t quite a series. You can trust that her quirky, offbeat fun, silly names and rhyming schemes will assert themselves in each story, but the illustration style changes, and the characters don’t necessarily run into each other, for all that they could easily be living in the same universe (or township, for that matter).
Changing characters allows Sandi’s stories the fluidity to move in and out between themes, and give each story its own personality. They’re still most certainly a collection, with audience appeal: dancing animals, playful cereal boxes, mischievous toys, snowy adventures and runaway houses create sparkling, lively stories. But Farmer Frickle Whizzlehipple doesn’t seem to know Mrs. and Mr. Bollywonkin or Farmer Boodallybumpkin, for that matter, even though I wouldn’t be surprised to discover they’re neighbours. The Ducks don’t run into the Dancing Animals on their vacation (for all that you can imagine all these characters at a party together). Even just describing these situations, though, you get a feel for Sellen’s work. Trust your stories; plan them out; but let them do what they need to do to come alive.
And of course, have fun! Yes, planning picture books can be hard work, but it’s also fun work, and when you’re having fun, your readers will be, too.
We hope these tips help you craft your children’s book series! If you have one in the works, we’d love to hear about it! Drop us a line or tell us about it in the comments section.
About this Contributor:
Amy Groening is a project manager at Word Alive Press. She is a passionate storyteller with experience in blogging, newspaper reportage, and creative writing. She holds an Honours degree in English Literature and is happy to be working in an industry where she can see other writers’ dreams come to life. She enjoys many creative pursuits, including sewing, sculpture and painting, and spends an embarrassingly large amount of time at home taking photos of her cat committing random acts of feline crime.