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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

From Picture Books to YA - Information to Get You Started

Are you thinking of writing for children? Some of our readers have asked for more information about the different kinds of Children's fiction books, which is definitely a good place to start when writing for kids.

Picture Books are the books most people think of when they think "Children's." They combine text with illustrations and cater to kids' shorter attention spans. Normally picture books are 24-32 pages long, which includes title page, dedication, etc. Let me clear up a common myth: you do not have to be able to illustrate to write a picture book. Boardbooks also fall into the category of Picture Books. Here's a secret that I learned from an editor at Peachtree Publishers: DO NOT write a rhyming picture book. Most of the submissions Peachtree receives are rhyming - and most of what they publish is not.

Though children do not spend a huge amount of time with Early Readers, the books are an important step in their learning process. Early Readers are specifically designed for those who are learning to read. Typically 48-64 pages long, these books have a word count of up to 1500. The plot and sentence structure need to be simple, the dialogue snappy, and the story carried by the text rather than the illustrations. An example of early readers is the Frog and Toad series.

The next step up for developing readers is Chapter Books. Designed like a grown-up book but with super short chapters, the plot focuses specifically on solving one main problem. Children of this age need something they can relate to; the Magic Treehouse books, for instance, cover a plethora of subject matter. But at the core are Jack and Annie, a brother and sister team whose adventures always start out in their own backyard. Chapter Books are usually between 48 and 80 pages long with a word count of up to 10,000. The three key elements in writing these books are action, dialogue, and, if possible, humor. Be sure to give these kids a reason to turn the page.

Middle Grade books are a landmark for children - choosing one to read is a sign of their growing independence. Written for kids age 8-12, they run between 80 and 200 pages with a word count of up to 40,000. The plot should be clearly defined, the story conflict-driven. It's best to keep adult characters to a bare minimum. (After all, how could eleven-year-old Harry Potter have had the adventures he did with loving parents hovering nearby?) The story needs to move along quickly, in the first line if possible, with background information woven in as it progresses. The main character must be the one to solve the problem; if an adult steps in and sloves it, the reader will lose all sense of independence they've gained in reading the story.

In the hinterland between Adult and Children's literature hovers Young Adult, not quite fitting into either category. In recent years YA fiction has become increasingly popular - and edgier, though its audience is still considered age 12 and up. When asked in an interview what was too edgy for YA, agent Anna Webman with Curtis Brown said, "I shared this with some colleagues and we couldn’t think of anything that is too edgy these days." Readers can handle complex sentence structures, advanced vocabularies, and multiple points of view. Plus, with some books being in excess of 100,000 words (ahem, Twilight) authors have more room to write and explore subplots and multiple points of view. You will really have to tap into your "inner teen" to write Young Adult - but in today's market it may be well worth your while.

And there you have it, book types in a nutshell. :) If you are a Children's book writer, I'd love to hear more about your projects and your audience.

Suzette Saxton's idea of a perfect day includes a picnic lunch, laughing children, and her laptop. When she's not writing books for kids, Suzette can be found gardening, doing finish carpentry in her home, or walking in the canyon in which she lives.


Tess said...

An important post. I had a picture book writing friend recenly tell me she had never heard of MG. So, even w/in our children's industry, some of us are still learning.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Great covering here! Are you going to cover genres beyond YA?

Pamela Hammonds said...

Thanks for defining the lines for us. Funny, though. I wrote two children's picture stories (I always get the urge when I start rereading them to a new baby), and both of them rhymed. Then I realized that Dr. Seuss can successfully do it. And I cannot! Maybe it's because he employed so many made-up words such as Wocket and Umbus.

Patrick said...

Pamela, What do you mean "made-up words?" Umbus isn't a real word?

Pamela Hammonds said...


Only if you go On Beyond Zebra. :)

Rebecca Knight said...

This is great info! I wasn't sure what defined these different levels, either :).

Thanks for the great post!

Becky Mushko said...

Very helpful information. Thanks for posting it. (Now to go chop a few hundred words from my MG novel.)

Unknown said...

Great information to know. Thanks!

Paul W. West, Author said...

Great explanation. My YA has all the features you mentioned, edgyness, multiple POVs, sub plots, etc. Maybe that means I'll someday find a publisher for it.

(crosses fingers)

Pamela said...

You hit it right on. This was simple and concise to read! I wrote my senior thesis in high school on children's books and I remember reading about all of the different categories. I love the way you broke it down in such a simple way! Thanks. The refresher was nice. =)

Diana said...

While I don't write for the YA audience, I recently took over the collection development for that area in our public library. I've spent the last two weeks weeding out things that kids read a decade or two ago, but not now. It's really interesting to see how much edgier, more mature, and more hip YA books have become. So many books that were popular when I was a kid (I was a YA in the late 80s early 90s) would now be considered kind of baby-ish by most of our YA readers. Also, I can't tell you how many books I pitched that portrayed teenagers sitting on beds, long phone cords stretched across their rooms. It's a riot to think about how much the modes of teen communication have changed in such a short period of time.

Stina said...

I love to read and write YA. My favorites are the edgy ones, and it's amazing how edgy they can get.

I know several writers who wrote YA only to be told it was MG, and vice versa. Sometimes it's hard to tell. Fortunately agents are more than happy to enlighten you if you get it wrong.

As usual, great post Suzette!

Suzette Saxton said...

You guys are amazing. Thank you so much for your kind words - and for making my night. :)


Unknown said...

I started with PB's and my critique group (of mostly published authors) said they loved my "voice" and encouraged me to try MG and YA as well. So I finished my first MG (36K words) a few months back (that I'm forever revising) and I'm a quarter of the way through the second MG. Also, I have 2 YA mss in the works - one of which I am obsessed with and have now made my primary project.

Thanks for the great info!

Rick Daley said...

Thanks, this was a great summary!

I submitted a 500-word MS for a picture book to an agent, and she thought it had enough to it to expand to a chapter book and asked that I stay in touch. I re-wrote it and it comae in at 4,000 words and re-submitted it about a week ago, waiting to hear back.

Suzette Saxton said...

Sounds very promising, Kristi and Rick. Keep me posted!