A Foray into Children’s Literature

Great ideas come in all sizes bit not all writing conventions lend themselves to those ideas. Take children’s literature which spans a wide array of ages, reading ability, and appropriate subject matter. Is your novel really for the teen market? Would that short story make a good picture book? Would your story idea work for a chapter book? For what category is your idea best suited for – picture books, first readers, middle grade, ‘tween, or young adult?

In order to navigate this array, I took a basic course on writing for children with author Steve Alcorn. Here are some things I learned:

The Categories in Children’s Literature

Picture books
Primarily illustrated, these books introduce a child to the world of reading and the child needs to see the picture to understand the entire story. Board books are for ages newborn to 3 while picture books span ages 3 to 8. Like a cartoon, text and illustration are equally important. Word count can range from no words to 2,000 as defined by the sub categories: picture books, picture story books, wordless books and board books.

Emergent Readers and Chapter Books
For ages 5 to 9, Emergent Reader books contain illustrations but rely more on the text to convey a story than a picture book. As children’s skills increase, there are fewer illustrations and chapter books are the next step. The goal is to build reading skills and confidence so word count could range from 20 to 100 words for emergent readers or 500 to 1,000 for early chapter books. Every publisher has their own guidelines. For example, Scholastic guidelines for first chapter books include: written for ages 7 to 9 with word counts from 7,000 to 10,000.

Middle Grade Readers
This can be the most fun, yet the toughest group to write for. Depending on the publisher and school, middle grade can be anywhere from ages 8 to 13, depending on reading level and it occurs during a time where there’s a lot of emotional and physical growing up happening. Middle grade books deal with more complex concepts suited to this age group (life and growth struggles but no sexual themes and even silly stuff like bathroom humor). It includes non-fiction as well as fiction. Stories are more complex and novels range from 30,000 to 60,000 words.

Young Adult
Written for ages 12 and up, this reading group wants controversial subjects, edgy concepts, and adventure. Remember feeling that ‘no one knows what it’s like to be you’ ? YA literature addresses a need to know that others understand what one is going through. Stories range from the humorous to the gritty and span realistic fiction to speculative but always contain heavy duty emotional reading.

The Five Basic Story Patterns
(Note that the patterns correspond somewhat with the age categories.)

1) Incident
Written for children 8 years old and younger, a child in this story goes on an adventure but doesn’t experience emotional change. The child who is being read to is the one who goes on the journey. This pattern includes picture books which may not have any words at all.

2) Purpose-achieved
The protagonist accomplishes something in a story which lends itself to more plot. It is a familiar style in that the character has a purpose, there is a possibility that it may not be achieved, there is a black moment and the plot builds toward the ending.

3) Wish fulfillment
A great pattern for emergent readers, wish fulfillment happens when a protagonist acts and she isn’t expecting a reward for those actions. Many fairy tales are wish fulfillment stories. In Baba Yaga, Vasilisa’s diligence in meeting the witch’s demands results in her horrible step mother leaving. Her sole purpose in serving Baba Yaga was to get badly needed coal for the fire. However, her well-mannered conduct is rewarded with bot only the coal, but in the witch chasing away the step mother.

4) Misunderstanding
Overcoming a misconception about people, places, situations or himself, from a simple misunderstanding to complex social issues like prejudice, the misunderstanding pattern is often used to teach a lesson. The caution with this pattern is not to sound or be preachy. Misunderstanding requires a character to experience emotional change and to overcome a flaw.

5) Decision
It’s about making choices which relate to growing up. Do I fit in with the crowd or be myself? How much freedom is good and what’s the consequence about being too independent? What are the results of the choices I have to make?

Themes in Children’s Literature
There are common themes in children’s literature. This list, as created by Steve Alcorn, is written in an order which reflects the age categories.

  • Discovery
  • Exploration
  • Fun
  • Responsibility
  • Integrity
  • Family
  • Friendships
  • Fairness
  • Love
  • Sacrifice

This quick tour of children’s literature was designed to provide some clarity into the categories to make your foray into writing for children a little easier. It’s an exciting field, albeit a competitive one and every publisher has very specific requirements. The best advice I can give is that if you’re considering writing for children, read a lot in the category of your interest, and be sure your stories resonate emotionally and with the age group’s issues, and that the language you use is suitable for the reading level.

Happy writing!

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