As a consumers of children’s literature, we are often choosing books based on some criteria that matches the readers we’re in charge of. Are there enough/too many illustrations? Is the story long/short enough? Is the reading level difficult enough/too difficult?
There are all important questions for writer of children’s literature, too. As I’ve started writing for children and about children’s books, I’ve learned more about the distinctions between different kidlit categories.
Typical ages: Birth to 2
Board books are for the earliest “readers”—babies to toddlers. Made of thick cardboard, the books are durable to withstand the demands of many readings, chewings and slobberings. The text is short enough to accommodate short attention spans. I’ve learned that board books with very few words—those that focus on teaching colors, animals, letters, etc.—are often produced in-house by publishers. (That means they don’t hire a writer.) Some very popular picture books are adapted to the board book format later in their life cycle (examples of this are the copies Goodnight Gorilla and Goodnight Moon that my girls received as a gift when they were babies).
Examples of board books
Typical ages: 3 to 8
Picture books are often written for parents to read with/to children. They have full illustrations on every page and the illustrations supplement the story—that is, they often provide information that is not conveyed in the text. Picture books are trending shorter; while some guides say they can be up to 1,000 words (I have even seen up to 2,500 listed), I have been advised that most editors are looking for books around the “magic number” of 500 words. Still, I find a wide range of word counts in the picture books we read. Picture books are traditionally 32 pages long, but I have seen more books ranging from 36-40+ pages (books are always produced in page multiples of 4).
Examples of picture books
Typical Ages: 5 to 8
Early reader books are designed to support newly independent readers. They often have very simple sentence structures and vocabulary to build reading confidence and skills. They sometimes use repetition to reinforce vocabulary or themes that are the learning focus of the text. Most early reader series are graded or stepped so that kids can progress toward more difficult content (e.g., level 1, level 2, level 3). Early readers are short—no more than 1,500 words ranging from 32 to 64 pages. They usually contain “spot illustrations,” which are illustrations that don’t fill a page.
Examples of early readers
Typical ages: 6 to 9
Chapter books were new to me as I started to learn more about the industry. I previously thought they would be classified as middle grade, but I’ve learned they have their own little category. While more difficult than early readers, these books are still focused on developing literacy skills for new readers and bridging readers into the middle grade category. They may still contain spot illustrations, but usually have fewer than early readers. The text is divided into chapters, as the name implies. Chapter books tend to be written as series.
Examples of chapters books
Typical ages: 8 to 12
Middle grade books are for slightly older children, and they begin to venture into deeper themes and subject matter. The writing level and content is appropriate for kids as young as 2nd grade, but the appropriate age range varies by book. I read middle grade fiction on my own, and I also read middle grade fiction aloud to Lu when she was much younger than eight. One defining characteristic is the age of the protagonist—most are in the age range of the reader or slightly older. According to Writer’s Digest, the word count for the average middle grade novel ranges from 20,000 to 55,000.
Examples of middle grade books
Typical ages: 12+
Young adult novels are written for teenagers and typically feature teenage protagonists—though most adults have probably read several YA titles. They are longer, edgier and may contain some violence or adult themes. Writer’s Digest places the target length at 55,000-80,000 words.