Kathryn Page Camp
One of the most important—and difficult—aspects of writing for children is getting the age level right. Unfortunately, aging books appropriately is more of an art than a science. The best advice I can give you is to read recently written, currently popular books aimed at your audience. If you don’t know what they are, go to a physical bookstore and see what it carries on its shelves, then take them home and read them. Or you can get them at the library (or for your e-book) after you’ve complied a list of titles, but don’t do your original research there. A brick and mortar bookstore gives you a better idea of what today’s children are actually reading.
Years ago, I decided to write a series of early chapter books. I read books in that category, studied length and vocabulary levels, and wrote my first two masterpieces. Then I submitted them to publishers and my dream collapsed. I’m particularly grateful to the one publisher who gave me detailed comments that helped me see that I didn’t understand what was appropriate for my audience.
I shelved that project and turned to writing for adults. But eventually I gave children’s books another try, this time at the middle-grade level, and my first historical novel, Desert Jewels, is coming out later this month.
Although the general process is more art than science, there are some guidelines you should be familiar with when writing for children, and these guidelines are more science than art. They aren’t rules, and if you are J.K. Rowling or have an established following, you may be able to ignore them without serious consequences. But most of us are better off sticking to the guidelines.
The guidelines vary from publisher to publisher and few people are in complete agreement about what they are, but the following chart is representative. The categories come from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and I referred to several sources when preparing the actual guidelines.
In general, children prefer to read about main characters who are just slightly older than the reader. As for length, when writing middle grade and young adult fiction, the longer lengths listed in the chart apply to fantasy and science fiction only, which tend to be longer than other genres. And don’t confuse category and genre. Children’s books—especially at the middle grade and YA levels—cover the same range of genres as adult books do, from historical to humorous to fantasy to YA romance. The “type” in the chart is a category, not a genre.
The guidelines are helpful, but the hardest part of aging your book is finding the right subject matter and sensitivity level. That is the topic of next week’s blog post.
Kathryn Camp writes middle-grade fiction as Kaye Page and adult non-fiction as Kathryn Page Camp. Her first middle-grade historical novel, Desert Jewels, will be released later this month. She has written two more middle-grade historicals that are currently circulating to publishers and agents and is developing a new website devoted to her children’s books. In the meantime, you can learn more about Kathryn at www.kathrynpagecamp.com.