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What in the World is Children's Lit?


General writing sites and magazines tend to break juvenile literature into two categories: young adult and children’s. Reality is such that children’s lit includes board books, picture books, early readers, chapter books and middle grade. Each subgenre caters to a distinct age group, while each age group has its own unique set of guidelines.

Without an accurate idea of how a book fits into the literary world, writers can effectively sabotage their submission efforts.

Board Books: These high concept books target infants through preschool age children. Text is limited and is always accompanied by vivid illustrations. Board books are chunky, making them easy for little hands to manipulate. They typically have thick pages that can withstand a gnawing or two. Themes introduce simple concepts such as colors, opposites, animals or numbers and run anywhere from 6 to 16 pages.

Picture Books: As children mature, they can sit for longer periods of time and understand simple story lines. Picture books run between 300 and 1,500 words, with the average contemporary number hitting about 600. Most of these books have a single point of view character. Protagonists generally include boys, girls or anthropomorphic animals. The premise behind a picture book is a read-aloud experience between caregivers and children ranging in ages from 4 and 8. The prose is often lyrical.

Conflict is simple—a new baby in the family, a lost pet, a bully or a monster. Think The Gruffalo, Where the Wild Things Are or any Robert Munsch book.

Some picture books extend to 12 year-olds and cover a more in-depth subject, but these several thousand word books are the exception, not the rule. Most picture books are 32 pages long.

Early Readers: These bridge books help emerging readers transition from the act of listening to actually reading out loud. Many Early Readers or Step books are written by professionals in the field of education. Step Into Reading is a prime example of these books for 4-8 year olds. The main difference between an early reader and a picture book is the style in which they are written. These books have short sentences and easy to read words. Often, they focus on a specific reading skill. Length varies from 32-48 pages.

Chapter Books: Written for children 7-10, chapter books have increased word counts and decreased illustrations. Main characters are generally around 9 years-old. Gender may be specific based on the target audience. Nate the Great is a prime example of a chapter books. While girls are more likely to read books with male protagonists, boys are far less likely to pick up a girl book. This is essential information for writers wanting to target a cross-gender audience.

At this stage, conflict is still simple, though a dual conflict—internal and external—is common. Sentences generally cap out around ten words and paragraphs are typically three sentences long. Chapters will run between 3-5 pages and books will have 48 to 96 pages.

Middle Grade: No term is more confusing when trying to define a book than this. Middle grade does not mean middle school, which can vary from state to state and town to town. Rather, middle grade typically encompasses books for children ages 8-12. Protagonists are usually seventh or eighth grade, as kids like to read about main characters older than themselves.

Many middle grade protagonists find themselves surrounded by drama, mystery and action. Plots become more complex, often times with subplots to round out the experience. Bullies are popular, both male and female. Swearing is virtually non-existent, while innocent romance may blossom in the hallway or at summer camp. As a rule, nobody dies and everybody ends up happy.

These books are safe places for children to experience the world as they grow and mature. Humor is big, sports abound and the protag almost always saves the day.

But what happens between happily ever after and the dystopian books of today’s YA? Some writers have successfully written ‘tween books. More mature than a middle grade novel, but not as edgy as YA, these books provide excitement within the confines of moral safety. This emerging market is for kids 12-14.

And finally, we have YA. Young adult novels target high schoolers. Main characters begin at about 15 years old and top out at 17 or 18. Once a character graduates from high school, the novel changes in scope. Generally speaking, readers are egocentric in terms of age. They want to read about characters they can connect with. To a kid, twenty is ancient and college is too close to adulthood to hold much appeal.

More than any other genre, children’s lit writers must thoroughly research agent preferences to match their manuscripts by genre, as well as by age. Thankfully, most websites provide guidelines for writers to follow and will usually state something like this: We represent picture books, middle grade and YA.

Not sure if this includes your board book, early reader or chapter book? Simply write a quick note asking if the agent accepts the type of book you are submitting. I have done this on numerous occasions and saved both myself and the agent time and energy.


3 Comments

I like how you included page and word counts as well as what sort of topics or 'feel' category deals with. I found this shopping site helpful: http://www.renlearn....e/quiz_home.asp as you can look up word counts for similar kid's books to see if you are in the ballpark with your own kid lit word count.
LOVE the info on "Tween."
Hi Jean, Thank you for the info, very very helpful. I will be posting my query letter today and would very much like your input. If I sent you a chapter at a time would you consider taking a quick read of my story? Thx ~Wes~~