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The Essential Guide to Writing for Children 1

Which age group should I write for?

Suzy Jenvey

Children's publishers divide their editorial departments according to age group. The editors and designers in each division are expert at the language, content, word length and style for their particular age group.

As a children's writer, you have to aim for a specific age group, and show through your writing that you understand the requirements.

Publishers and editors have their own individual ideas, but as a rule of thumb, aim for this:

0-5 age group: these will be board books or large format picture books. Aim for 500 to 1,000 words.

  1. Colour pictures will be an essential part of the story. Publishers won't expect you to illustrate yourself, or send illustration suggestions with your text; in fact, you have a much better chance of publication if you don't do this. However, your story should have been planned with the idea that the illustrations will play an essential and active role. So include descriptions of the pictures, showing clearly how they will support the story.
  2. Colour printing is very expensive and is largely only affordable if the publisher has sold a few translation co-editions. Therefore, it is essential not to make your story too English. It doesn't have to be self-consciously multinational, you just need to avoid anything that places it too firmly in one culture. Rhyme can be very problematic for translation editions, so is best avoided, especially for your debut books.
  3. Keep language very simple and sentences as short and basic as possible.
  4. You may have fewer words to play with, but picture books stories still have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You will have to be brutal at cutting every unnecessary word or phrase!
  5. When planning your story, remember that children of this age will have limited life experiences; home, food, family, park, toys.
  6. Picture books are often used as bedtime stories. Don't choose any storyline, character, or imagery that could trigger off worries when the light goes off. We are looking for positivity, happy endings and reassurance.
  7. Don't have too many characters! A huge cast will confuse the child, and will clutter your story. Keep emotions and motivations as simple as possible.
  8. Stick to a central plot. Sub-plots will be too confusing and will need too many words. You can include plot twists; though these have to make sense in the context of the main story.
  9. Don't be afraid to innovate; if you keep simple and short, there are many different ways of telling a story to this age group. Take a look at EGG DROP by Mini Grey - a picture book that breaks many rules but is still a classic.

6-8 age group: these are early reader books, for children who are just beginning to step outside fairy tales and simpler stories. Can be between 2,500 and 8,000 words.

  1. Children will be going through a lot of transition in their reading at this age. No longer the youngest in school, 6 to 7 year olds will be immersed in SATS tests and will be making the leap into joined up writing, complex sentences and a much wider vocabulary. It is all the more important, at this crucial stage, to keep readers entertained and loving books.
  2. Publishers will probably chose an ‘A' or ‘B' format (conventional adult book shape). There will still be illustrations, but these will be there to make the page easier and more pleasant to read, rather than to carry the story.
  3. Children will be leading wider lives, so will enjoy a greater breadth of settings and more characters. Humour works very well at this age level; you can also start to experiment with simple genre fantasy, detective, or sci-fi; but keep your story as recognisable as possible. Children of this age will be developing strong personal preferences in their leisure time, so stories based around children who like activities such as football, art, animals and dancing will find a keen market.
  4. You can start to divide your book into chapters, but remember to keep the main narrative thrust strong throughout; children who are first encountering chapters shouldn't feel that they slow down the story.
  5. You can introduce some simple character progression, emotional motivation and sub-plots, but keep your main story in the forefront.
  6. Your sentences can be more complex, using connectives, although you should still keep them short and clear.

8-12 age group: often called ‘middle grade'. Aim for 20,000-55,000 words

  1. Middle grade is experiencing something of a boom. At the 2014 Bologna Book Fair, books for this age group were making all the headlines.
  2. Children of this age will largely have established their reading habits, so you can be more certain that your readers are confident. You can introduce more motivation and development in your characters. Because of the longer length, you'll need to establish a strong plot supported by sub-plots.
  3. Divide into chapters. It's often a good idea to ‘hook' the end of each chapter with something that urges the reader on to the next part. It's still easy for children of this age to feel distracted or bored with a story that doesn't keep delivering.
  4. You can experiment with themes that might be scary for younger children, although always remember that you are writing for children! Horror and the supernatural need to be tackled with great caution.
  5. You have to have a threat or problem, and one or more plot twists.
  6. Children of this age group are highly age aspirational, so you can get away with having some characters that are 2-3 years older.
  7. Keep the children at the fore, solving every problem themselves, and the story should be told through a child character's POV.

12+/Young Adult/Teenage: aim for 70,000-150,000 words

  1. In recent years YA has been getting longer; so whilst a book of 55,000 words would have been acceptable for this age group in the past, books are now coming in at anything up to 150,000 words.
  2. You have to think plot, plot, plot on every page. Books for this age group need to have a very high level of action or forward movement.
  3. Avoid introspection in your characters. The plot should be about action and interaction with other characters.
  4. Try to include a good mixture of boy and girl characters. Your character development should be shown primarily through how your characters relate to each other.
  5. Remember that you have to avoid any contemporary references to music, slang, fashion or events. These will date immediately.
  6. Fantasy, sci-fi, horror and romance can all work at this level. The plot structure in these genres will be broadly the same as for adults, although you have to have child characters, children solving the problems, and a child POV.

The Essential Guide to Writing for Children series

The Essential Guide to Writing for Children 2 - Before You Write: What is My Story Going to be?

The Essential Guide to Writing for Children 3 - Starting to Write

The Essential Guide to Writing for Children 4 - Submitting Your work to Agents and Editors

A checklist of how to submit your work

Suzy Jenvey started working in publishing in 1986 at Jonathan Cape/Bodley Head as a Publicity Manager. After roles as Marketing and Publicity Director for Chatto and Simon and Schuster, she spent 15 years at Faber and FaberClick for Faber and Faber Publishers References listing as Children's Editorial Director. She now edits, agents and writes reports as a freelancer, as well as giving historical talks about her beloved Greenwich, and volunteers for the charity Riding for the Disabled, working with horses and autistic children.

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