Whether you love children’s books or you haven’t read a kid’s book since you we’re a kid yourself, , we writers have one thing in common: we were all kids once. At some point in our lives, we all had that experience of finding a book that captured us in a profound way and chances are that book was one we read as a child. But before we take a leisurely stroll down memory lane, let’s take a look at that category of books known as children’s literature (or “KidLit” as it’s often affectionately called by many writers.) Here’s a crash course with all the basics you need to know about this exciting category.
Genre vs. Category
First things first, children’s literature (KidLit) and teen literature (also called YA) are not genres, they’re categories. Genres are styles of literature that often refer to subject matter. Mystery is a genre. Thriller is a genre. Horror, romance, science fiction, fantasy, humor, memoir and poetry are all examples of genres. Genres describe the literature itself and give us a way to group books together based on the subject of those books.
Categories, on the other hand, refer to the audience of those books. the KidLit audience is children. YA is written primarily for teens. To call children’s literature or YA “genres” would be misleading because within those categories you can actually find several different genres. The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien, Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson and Love That Dog by Sharon Creech all fall within the category of KidLit but they are all different genres (Fantasy, Romance, Contemporary and Poetry/Verse Novel respectively).
Children’s Literature: A Menu of Options
There are several subcategories under the Children’s Book umbrella and these categories focus both on the age of the child enjoying the book, and whether the book is being read by the child or to the child. A number of factors come into play, but here’s a quick summary of the options available to writers.
These are chunky books with cardboard pages intended for the youngest of the young. The books are short (usually 8 pages), with only a few words per page and the size of the book is small enough that an infant or toddler can hold and manipulate it themselves. Books in this subcategory are usually read to babies and toddlers by an adult, though the kids often devour these books by themselves (quite literally).
Board books are often developed in-house by publishers and many titles are versions of picture books that have been revised to fit the the board book format. Board books are usually full color with most of the emphasis on the illustrations. Also, you can do fun things with board books like textures for “touch and feel” books or die-cut windows to create that peek-a-boo effect (two effects that babies and toddlers love).
Ages: Babies and toddlers.
Word count: 100 words or fewer.
Examples: Peek-A-Who? and Who Loves You, Baby? by Nina Laden, Baby Touch and Feel (series) by DK Publishing
Picture books are generally written for adults to read to children and they range in complexity and difficulty: from sparse prose and minimalist stories to more complex works with intricate and lyrical use of language. Picture books on the younger end of the spectrum generally target the toddler-preschool audience but you can find many picture books geared toward children as old as seven or eight years.
Because these are books often intended to be read to children, writers have a fair amount of leeway in terms of vocabulary and subject matter. You can use more sophisticated language and tackle more complex subjects than you might be able to do in early readers which children usually read by themselves. The challenge, of course, is that since most picture books are read to children picture books must be fun for adults as well as kids. (Remember, the adults often have to read these books over, and over,… and over so grown-up appeal is very important.)
Ages: Anywhere from toddler to second grade (“younger” picture books focus on ages 2-5 while “older” books focus on ages 5-7)
Word count: Maximum 1,000 words. Picture books usually follow a 32-page format.
Examples: There are so many amazing picture books that we love, but here’s a small selection.
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
- Strega Nona by Tomie DePaola
- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
- Tuesday by David Wiesner
- Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems
- Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
- The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg
Early readers are books intended for children to read by themselves. This means that while picture books need to engage and entertain both an adult and child reader, early readers can focus just on the child side of the equation. This also means that the vocabulary must be easy enough that a beginning reader can read it on his or her own. Word count and vocabulary will vary depending on the age and reading level of the intended audience.
Also, though there are always exceptions, it’s important to note that writers can often stretch more limits in terms of subject matter with picture books than with early readers even though the ages of the children enjoying picture books and early readers generally overlaps. Picture books are usually read to children, so if the subject matter is more complex, adults can discuss it with the kids while reading together. Since children usually read early readers on their own, topics of those books tend to focus more on topics that are more directly salient to kids (themes like “friendship” or general “silliness” are biggies in early readers).
Word count: 200-3,500 words, depending on age level.
Examples: Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff, Frog and Toad (series) by Arnold Lobel, Amelia Bedelia (series) by Peggy Parish
Chapter books are intended for readers around age 7-10. They differ from early reader books mainly in length. Because they are divided into (short!) chapters, they are meant to be read over several sittings. Like early reader books, chapters books are meant to be read by the child.
However, often adults do read these books with their kids, and it’s helpful for an author to balance the silliness and simplicity with a story that might hold some interest for an adult. Also chapter books will often explore more sophisticated subjects because the readers are now a a little older. Chapter books also rely more heavily on prose rather than pictures to move the story forward. That being said, they are still illustrated. You also see a chapter books in series.
Word Count: 4,000-12,000 words (chapters about 400-1,000 words)
Examples: The Magic Treehouse Books by Mary Pope Osborne, Flower Fairies Friends by Cicely Mary Barker
Middle Grade books are easily one of the most exciting categories of Kidlit. Intended for kids age 8-12, Middle Grade books often begin the lifelong love of reading. This is the age when kids start picking out their own books and choosing to read themselves. Subsequently, the variety in this category is immense. Middle-grade books range from fantasy to contemporary, to historical middle-grade or graphic-novel style, and everything in-between.
Also, at this age, the protagonists tend to take center stage. Kids are more interested in the world around them and school, rather than just the immediate family environment. Parents can often disappear from middle grade novels, or play a less important role.
Books for this age group often deal with heavier issues, and can be less “silly” than chapter books and early readers. Also, keep in mind that the distinctions between chapter books and middle grade (on the young end), or middle grade and YA can often blur. Some series will span more than one category, as did the Harry Potter books, which started as Middle Grade but shifted toward YA in later books.
Word Count: 20,000-40,000
Examples: Percy Jackson Series by Rick Riordan, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney and Shadow Children Series by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
YA novels are for readers aged 12-18. However, according to a recent study, upwards of fifty percent of YA novels are now purchased by adults. It is one of the fastest growing categories in publishing, brought to the fore by smash hits like Twilight and Hunger Games.
Even though YA books attract a vast age group, they are still primarily for and about teens. The subject-matter is open-ended and these days, very little is off-limits in YA books. Violence, sex, alcohol, war, politics, philosophy and death are all explored and described in YA books, in settings as far-ranging as the ancient past, contemporary America, the far-flung regions of space or the not-too-distant future.
Although they differ in setting and plot, one thing is true of almost all YA books: they are an exploration of firsts. A protagonist might experience the first real taste of independence, of love, first heartbreak, or first major loss or death. They are not yet adults, their world is still anchored in school and the social structure of a family, but the characters are beginning to experience adulthood, independence, responsibility and relationships. They are making choices instead of having choices made for them. Without the wisdom of experience to temper them, they make big mistakes and have to rectify them. Consequently, the drama and stakes are heightened.
Word Count: 60,000-120,000 words
Examples: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake, Skinny by Donna Cooner and The Maze Runner by James Dashner