Understanding Children's Writing Genres
by Laura Backes,
Write4Kids.com—The Children's Writing SuperSite
I just received a letter from a writer who said, "Alas, I
find myself adrift in a sea of unexplained and/or contradictory publishing
terms." It's true—you can read three different books
on writing and find three different definitions of "picture book." So, to make
your life easier, here's what I hope is a definitive glossary of children's
In its broadest definition, a picture book
is a book in which the illustrations play a significant role in telling the
story. Under this umbrella are several types of books:
For infants and young toddlers, these books
are generally lullabies, nursery rhymes, fingerplays, or wordless books. The
length and format varies with the content.
Very simple stories for ages 1-3 (under 300
words) familiar to a child's everyday life, or concept books (teaching colors,
numbers, shapes, etc.) Books are short (12 pages is average) and the format
can be board books (sturdy paper-over board construction), pop-ups, lift-the
flaps or novelty books (books that make sounds, have different textures, etc.)
See the "Max" series of board books by Rosemary Wells (Dial).
Traditionally, picture books (also called
"picture story books") are 32-page books for ages 4-8 (this age may vary
slightly by publisher). Manuscripts are up to 1500 words, with 1000 words
being the average length. Plots are simple (no sub-plots or complicated
twists) with one main character who embodies the child's emotions, concerns
and viewpoint. The illustrations (on every page or every other page) play as
great a role as the text in telling the story. Occasionally a picture book
will exceed 1500 words; this is usually geared toward the upper end of the age
spectrum. Picture books cover a wide range of topics and styles. The list of
Caldecott Medal winners, available from your library, is a good place to start
your research. Nonfiction in the picture book format can go up to age 10, 48
pages in length, or up to about 2000 words of text.
Early picture books
A term for picture books geared
toward the lower end of the 4-8 age range. These stories are simple and
contain under 1000 words. Many early picture books have been reprinted in the
board book format, thus widening the audience.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by
Eric Carle (Philomel) is an example.
Also called "easy-to-read," these books are
for children just starting to read on their own
(age 6-8). They have color
illustrations on every page like a picture book, but the format is more
"grown-up"—smaller trim size, sometimes broken into
short chapters. The length varies greatly by publisher; the books can be 32-64
pages long, with 200-1500 words of text, occasionally going up to 2000 words.
The stories are told mainly through action and dialogue, in grammatically
simple sentences (one idea per sentence). Books average 2-5 sentences per
page. See the "Amelia Bedelia" books by Peggy Parish or other "I Can Read"
books published by Harper Trophy.
Sometimes called "early chapter books"
for ages 6-9, they bridge the gap between easy readers and chapter books.
Written like easy readers in style, transition books are longer (manuscripts
are about 30 pages long, broken into 2-3 page chapters), books have a smaller
trim size with black-and-white illustrations every few pages. See "The Kids of
the Polk Street School" series by Patricia Reilly Giff (Dell) or the "Stepping
Stone Books" published by Random House.
For ages 7-10, these books are 45-60
manuscript pages long, broken into 3-4 page chapters. Stories are meatier than
transition books, though still contain a lot of action. The sentences can be a
bit more complex, but paragraphs are still short (2-4 sentences is average).
Chapters often end in the middle of a scene to keep the reader turning the
pages. Look at the "Herbie Jones" books by Suzy Kline (Puffin) and the
"Ramona" books by Beverly Cleary (Morrow).
This is the golden age of reading for many
children, ages 8-12. Manuscripts suddenly get longer (100-150 pages), stories
more complex (sub-plots involving secondary characters are woven through the
story) and themes more sophisticated. Kids get hooked on characters at this
age, which explains the popularity of series with 20 or more books involving
the same cast. Fiction genres range from contemporary to historical to science
fiction/fantasy; nonfiction includes biographies, science, history and
multicultural topics. Check out some middle grade novels from the list of
Newbery Medal winners at your library to get you started.
For ages 12 and up, these manuscripts are 130
to about 200 pages long. Plots can be complex with several major characters,
though one character should emerge as the focus of the book. Themes should be
relevant to the problems and struggles of today's teenagers, regardless of the
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton defined young adult when it was first
published in 1967; the Newbery Medal award list also contains many worthy
titles. A new age category (10-14) is emerging, especially with young adult
nonfiction. These books are slightly shorter than the 12 and up category, and
topics (both fiction and nonfiction) are appropriate for children who have
outgrown middle grade but aren't yet ready for the themes (fiction) or who
aren't studying the subjects (nonfiction) of high school readers.
About the Author:
Laura Backes is the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for
Children's Writers, and co-founder of the
Children's Authors Bootcamp seminars. For more information about writing children's
books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more,
visit Children's Book Insider's home on the Web at
Copyright 2001, Children's Book