In case you haven’t figured it out by now, writing for children isn’t easy. There’s more to this literature than meets the eye. And, as is the nature of children, one size certainly doesn’t fit all.
One thing an author has to decide early on is who their intended audience will be. A book that is appropriate for a toddler won’t cut it for a fifth grader. It’s not uncommon for authors to start a project without a clear picture of who will be reading the final product. It is important to know a little about the types of books appropriate for each age group and the generally accepted word length.
Books for babies, birth to about 18 months, are sometimes called novelty books. Usually 16 pages at most, they are often wordless or have a single word per page. They may have interesting textures to touch, make noises, or have pieces a baby can manipulate. Of course, their most important characteristic is they are durable and can survive teething and/or bath time.
Board books for toddlers, from about 18 months to 4 years are usually 24 pages. The word “board” refers to the type of binding and the pages which are thick cardboard. The word count ranges from none to about 100 words. Topics often include first words, labels, or finger play.
Concept books, for ages birth to 4 are books that teach concepts like letters, numbers, colors, or things that go. The maximum word count here is around 500 words.
Picture books are books for ages 3 to 8. The artwork is crucial to the story or concept. They are usually 32 pages. But nonfiction picture books can sometimes be 40 pages. While the word count for a story picture book ranges from zero to about 600 or 700 words, nonfiction picture books are typically longer. They are often in the 1,000 to 3,000 range.
Early readers are books written for kids ages 5 to 7 who are just learning to read. They are written to a specific reading level using leveled vocabulary. The word count begins around 250 words for the most basic reading level and goes all the way to about 3,000 words for more advanced readers.
Chapter books, also called young readers, are for ages 6 to 9. The word count varies depending on the age and grade level of the reader. They start at about 4,000 words for a book at the first grade level and go to about 10,000 words for a third grade book.
Middle grade books, often called MG, are written for ages 8 to 12 in grades 3 through 6. They begin at about 20,000 words and go to 55,000.
Young adult (YA) books are written for ages 12 and up. The word count ranges from 55,000 to about 80,000. The lower end of the word count is for preteen and young teens, while the higher words counts are for older teens through young twenty-somethings.
As with picture books, nonfiction MG and YA usually have higher word counts than fiction. They are typically between 5,000 and 85,000 words.
It’s important to note that the guidelines listed here are not set in stone. Editors and agents all have their own ideas about what they consider appropriate. But an author who doesn’t have a grasp on who their audience might be will probably have a tough time selling their idea to a publisher. After all, identifying the audience is an essential part of a query, proposal, or elevator pitch. That makes it really important to know who will read the finished book and keep the word count within acceptable limits.
Yes, there are exceptions. But it’s never a good idea to assume that your story is the exception. A word count that doesn’t fit the general guidelines might be the one reason an editor or agent chooses not to read it.
Tackling a picture book biography can be daunting! You’ve done your research, read books and articles, taken notes and have stacks of facts. Sometimes too many facts. Way too many! How can you sum up a person’s life for a child?
One way is to narrow your focus on just one aspect of their life – their childhood. Children love to know what people were like when they were their age. It makes an instant connection between your subject and your reader.
As you research, look for anecdotes, stories and incidents from your subject’s childhood.
Keep these questions in mind --What inspired their future endeavors? Was their skill, talent or aptitude apparent in their early years? Did they have a defining moment that led them down a particular path? Was their future success or achievement hinted at years before they discovered their life’s purpose?
Here are a few outstanding mentor texts that focus on a person’s childhood:
Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim
An inspirational story highlighting Civil Rights leader John Lewis’s desire to encourage people to think, feel and act. But who can he practice his empowering speeches on when he’s just a young farm boy?
The flock of chickens he’s tending!
Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglas by Lesa Cline-Ransom
As a child, Frederick Douglas dreamed of a future where everyone was treated equal. He knew he had to do one important thing before that could happen – learn to read. No matter how difficult or how many obstacles he faced, he knew he MUST succeed.
Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell
Almost all children have a favorite stuffed animal. So did Jane Goodall. She adored her stuffed chimpanzee which led her to a life devoted to studying, living among and helping animals.
Before He Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane by Carole Boston Weatherford
John Coltrane LOVED all the sounds of his childhood. And what he heard as a young boy helped shape his amazing musical career.
Dig deep and search for those special childhood moments in a person’s life that have shaped their future. Having a child read about someone’s younger days and CONNECT to them is an amazing accomplishment. Imagine them closing a biography and thinking, “Hey, they are just like me!” or “I’ve done that, too” or “I know how that feels.”
Not only will your reader gain a deeper understanding into someone else’s life, they will believe that they too, can do amazing things in their life.
Because after all, we all started out as kids.
When I came across Dapré’s quote while doing some research on the Internet one afternoon, I loved it! I actually said out loud, “Yes!” You see, to write for children, we need to be where they are and listen to how they talk. We need to watch how they move and interact with the world around them.
This was much easier to do when my daughters were at home because we were “that house”—the house where all of the neighborhood kiddos gathered. I never had to work at being around children. Today, as an empty nester, I find myself having to work a little harder when I want to interact with my readers.
If you find yourself in that same situation, or if you write for the picture book market and you only have teens in your house, you’ll also have to get a little more creative to observe and interact with your readers. So, here are four tips to help you in that quest.
Yes, this will take some time, but it’ll be time well-spent. Get to know your audience and watch your writing become more raw, more real, and more relevant.
One key element that makes narrative nonfiction so compelling is the sensory details you weave into the story.
The reader feels part of the scene when they can hear the rattle of buggy wheels on cobblestone, or smell the putrefying flesh at a crime scene. The best way to collect those sensory details is to personally experience your subject. For example, I know that the skin of a beluga whale feels like a peeled hardboiled egg because I went to Sea World and touched one. But when a deadline’s looming, or travel isn’t in the budget (and you can’t time travel) there are still plenty of ways to sniff out those details.
3. Maps – When writing about Lincoln, I kept a map of D.C. on my wall so I could trace his travels through the city. From the White House could he smell bread baking at the Capitol, or hear the cattle grazing beneath the Washington Monument? And using a map of the White House I could ascertain Jefferson’s view from his office window. It faced west, so I could safely say, “Through the geraniums growing on the windowsill (a detail from a letter), Thomas could watch the cattle graze in the distant meadow. How many times did his imagination look even further west across an entire continent…?”
4. Google Maps Street View – It’s the next best thing to being there. When writing about George Washington Carver I viewed several of the houses he stayed in, and determined how close a lynch mob came to his doorstep. Now Street View also features the Grand Canyon, Eiffel Tower and the International Space Station.
5. YouTube – You can find everything from a video of a praying mantis laying eggs to a 1940 first full color newsreel of The Tournament of Roses. Your senses will be delighted with these sites, and you can pass those details to your reader.
What sites do you rely on to give your stories that whiff of reality?
Here’s something that gets forgotten on the writer’s journey – the importance of getting to know and support folks in your local bookstore.
People get into bookselling for the same reason authors and illustrators get into creating books – THEY LOVE BOOKS.
You sit alone, crafting your story to the best of your ability, revise, revise, revise with the help of critique partners and ultimately, you hope, with an acquiring editor. But when that book comes out, the next part of the journey is to get the book into children’s hands.
Librarians and educators are key allies. And so are the people who run bookstores. If a bookstore loves your book, they’ll display it prominently and recommend it to patrons. They may host your launch party, pitch your book to schools and, possibly, set up an arrangement where you can personalize the books people order.
So how can you build that relationship?
BOOST You think it’s a struggle making it as an author? It’s a struggle making it as a bookstore. Look for excuses to post about your local bookstore on social media.
BUY Your budget may be limited. But bookstores, especially small ones, remember every customer. Plus, there’s nothing like seeing what bookstores put on their shelves to help you understand what kind of stories and storytelling people love.
BE THERE Make regular trips to your local bookstore. While you’re there, sign your books they have in stock and see if you can help out with a storytime. On July 13, I’ll present storytimes at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. as part of the two-year birthday celebration for Interabang Books in Dallas. I stay in close touch with friends at my local Barnes & Noble and Express Booksellers, which sells books to schools and non-profits.
And here’s the best part. I’ve met wonderful people at these bookstores – people who inspire and encourage me. These are people that believe books matter. So make friends with a bookstore and the amazing people in it. You’ll be glad you did.
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas and a strong belief in The First Amendment. The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.
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