Writing for the Ages:
Writing for every age from picture books to YA
“Children’s Books” is a vast market, including everything from books for infants, with cardboard pages designed to be chewed on, to gritty YA novels full of violence, sex and profanity. Sometimes, when an idea for a story arrives, an author has no idea which subdivision of the field to write it for. Oh, no one’s likely to write a 500 word YA story about a dog that gets lost in the forest—but what about a book where first love goes awry? Is it middle grade, tween or YA? Would a story about the first day of first grade work better in a picture book or a chapter book? What are the various age related categories for children’s books, and what are the differences between them?
Writing for the Ages will define those age related categories, and talk about the differences in writing for various age levels. To make a lot of information simpler to track, I divided each age level into six areas:
Length—by and large, the younger the audience, the shorter their attention span.
Protagonist—generally kids like to read about kids older than they are.
Plot—the older the audience, the more complex the plot they can handle.
Character Arc—the longer the book, the more arc you can build.
Language—the older the audience, the more esoteric your vocabulary can become.
Theme—your story has to deal with the issues that matter to your reader.
Finally, I’ve divided the age levels into groups, separated by three asterisks, in the way they’re generally placed in different sections in libraries and bookstores, with all the varieties of picture book together, kids’ books together, and YA together. Because the section they’re shelved in does matter.
Board books & concept books—birth to 4
Length: Very short in terms of word count—0 to 100 words, probably less than 10 words per page.
Protagonist: Very young child, or an animal. Just one protagonist, and written in the 3rd person.
Plot: Almost none. A board book might have a slight rising action and a gentle climax.
For instance, a book showing the things a baby does in the morning, waking up, brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc. might climax with a huge breakfast table loaded with great food.
Character Arc: Very slight, if any: learning a concept, or a character who is sad becomes happy.
Language: REALLY simple. Past or present tense.
This is the last age where you’ll be likely to use present tense for a long time, because at this age you’re writing for kids so young that the concept of a past tense story is difficult for them. “Baby wakes up. Baby brushes her teeth. Baby gets dressed.”
Theme: Concepts like colors or shapes, or simple events in a young child’s life. Nothing harsh at all.
Picture books—3 to 8
Length: Used to be up to 1000 words, now they’re looking for 500 – 600 words or less—which is insanely tight, but can be done. Rely on your illustrator for all description, and as much storytelling as you can.
Protagonist: Probably pre-school age. Possibly kindergarten age. But however young they are, the protagonist must be the one who solves the main story problem, not some helpful adult. May have one or two protagonists—grandmother and granddaughter, for instance—but probably not more. Usually 3rd person, but there can be exceptions.
Plot: Needs opening hook, rising action, and climax, which is a lot to get into 500 words. No room for twists or subplots—except in the illustration. There are some wonderful picture books where the text gives you the main storyline, while another story is taking place in the pictures. Almost all action & dialogue, almost no description. Again, that’s what the illustrator is for.
Character Arc: You do need a character arc, but it will be pretty basic. The protagonist will learn something, and be made stronger by the story events—but there’s not enough room for a big arc. Hero starts on the bottom, he changes or learns because of story events, and ends up better.
Language: These are designed to be read aloud by adults, so the language doesn’t need to be too simple. But you should use words kids can understand—“I won’t fight with you, if you don’t fight with me.” instead of “Let’s form a non-aggression pact.” Usually past tense, but there can be exceptions.
This may be the place to point out that one of the worst things you can do with a picture book is to make it “too slight.” Despite the short length, and the youth of the target audience, picture books can be and frequently are incredibly deep, moving stories. And the language gets up off the page and dances. The best picture books aren’t just “books for kids”—they’re works of art.
Themes: Things a pre-school age child may be dealing with in their lives: being jealous of siblings, sharing…but also the death of a pet, or a grandparent, and the beauty of nature. Picture books can tackle deep, important themes, as long as they’re presented in a way a kid can grasp. In 600 words or less. No violence, and harsh themes like death have to be handled gently.
Picture story books—5 to 8 (MUCH harder to sell.)
Length: 500 to 1000 words, maybe a tad more. But frankly, word length over 750 words will get you an automatic rejection from a lot of agents and editors.
Protagonist: 6 to 8. These will be for older kids. May have one or two protagonists, if they’re in 3rd person, but one protagonist is more common here. First person is unusual. (You’re telling a more complex story, you want to keep the POV simple.)
Plot: Hook, rising action, climax—but you’ve got a bit more room to let things play out. No subplots, but possibly a twist. It’s easier to fit the kind of story where the protagonist faces three challenges into this category. Almost all action & dialogue, very little description.
Character Arc: There’s room for more complexity at this length, and you’re more likely to be able to introduce a flawed character who overcomes that flaw…but it’s still very tight for that much arc.
Language: Same as a picture book—since it’s still intended as an adult read-aloud. Past tense is also more common with these more complex stories.
Themes: Slightly older. These kids may be starting school, may be old enough to deal with the effects of poverty, and other harder problems—but still handled with sensitivity.
Early readers—5 to 7 (Mostly written in-house, by the publisher’s staff—not really an open market.)
Length: 200 to 3,500 words. Word length will be tightly controlled by the publisher, for different reading levels—check their guidelines.
Protagonist: Will be the age of the reader/reading level, or a year older. Or an animal. May have one or two protagonists, but almost certainly one POV. 1st person is uncommon here.
Plot: Hook, rising action, climax. All action and dialog, and virtually no description.
Character Arc: An arc is good—it may be necessary in the longer readers—but it’s often a slighter arc than in picture books. In the shorter readers, with just a few words per page, you might not have a character arc at all. And it’s not as essential here, as it is in picture books.
The reason plots, arcs and language are less complex in early readers than they are in picture books is because these are the first books kids are reading themselves—so they need to be able to comprehend what’s going on in the story on their own, without adult guidance. And because of that, complexity goes down a notch in every category, even though the reader is actually older.
Language: Vocabulary will be even more tightly controlled by the publisher, with reading level in mind—check their guidelines. Present tense would be very uncommon here. All action & dialogue, no description.
Themes: More restricted than for picture books and picture story books—this is the educational market, and they’re looking for lighter material.
Chapter books—6 to 7 & 8 to 10
Length: 2 levels: early (6 to 7 year olds) 5,000 to 20,000 words / older (8 to 10 year olds) 20,000 to 35,000 words
Protagonist: Will be one or two years older than the intended reader. 1st person isn’t common in the younger levels, but you might see it in the older level. Probably still one POV protagonist.
Plot: Hook in the beginning, of course, but the rising action will have several twists and challenges. In the older level you’re looking at full three act story structure. Pace, particularly in the older levels, can slow just a bit, and allow for scenes with emotion instead of action—but not many and not long.
Character Arc: Is essential, but the ways in which your protagonist grows will be fairly slight, and age appropriate. You’ll seldom see a really flawed protagonist in a chapter book, and you won’t see any “dark nights of the soul.”
Language: Pretty controlled by the publisher still, since these are books for kids to read themselves and they’re often given reading levels—but not as strictly controlled as the early readers. Strong focus on action and dialogue, but bits of description now begin to come in, even in the early level chapter books. Toward the upper end of the older level you’ll be writing brief descriptions.
Themes: The things kids are concerned about in the first few years of school: fitting in, friendship, overcoming challenges. These books tend not to be too deeply themed, except for books about specific problems—and those are often non-fiction.
Middle grade novels—8 to 12
Length: 30,000 to 45,000 words, for contemporary novels. In all levels, middle grade and above, SF and fantasy novels are allowed to run a bit longer.
Protagonist: 2 to 4 years older than the youngest intended readers. Still usually one protagonist, but particularly at the older end you might have two POV protagonists. Usually past tense, but again there might be exceptions.
Plot: This is the first level where you’re definitely looking at complete three act story structure with: hook/rising action/end of first act plot twist/rising action/end of second act commitment/final ramp up to climax/climax/denouement. Particularly at the younger end books will have more gentle action, you probably don’t have room for many twists, and sub-plots will be slighter. But at this level you’re writing a novel, even if it’s a short one. Pace can slow a bit more, as emotion and mystery begin to replace non-stop action. Secondary characters start to stand out now.
Character Arc: This is also the age where you can introduce more complex character arcs—you can have a flawed protagonist. (Artemis Fowl comes to mind.) You have room to have your protagonist fall from grace, making a major mistake that really hurts someone, and struggle to redeem themselves. The way your protagonists change and the things they do must still be age appropriate…but middle grade protagonists are old enough to grow through suffering.
Language: No technical limits, but (again, particularly at the younger levels) you’ll want to keep vocabulary reasonable, and sentences not too convoluted. Usually past tense, but present tense can be used here too, particularly at the older end. Generally no profanity.
Themes: Same as chapter books—age appropriate challenges and concerns—but at the upper age levels you can push them a bit further. You can have complex relationships in middle grade novels, and characters who aren’t entirely right or wrong. And in middle grade, humor, particularly broad crude humor, works very well. This is the last age where you’re probably pre-romance, though at the older levels character may be experiencing first kisses. Violence can happen in these stories, but it’s usually superficial—the good guy punches the bad guy and the fight ends, instead of violence that has real consequences.
Tween novels—10 to 14
Because tween novels fall between middle grade and YA in age level, bookstores and libraries have a very real dilemma about where to shelve them—and this in turn makes them a bit harder to sell to a publisher. On the other hands, kids this age need a novel that’s for kids older than 9, but younger than 15.
Length: 40,000 to 55,000 words, for contemporary novels.
Protagonist: 2 to 5 years older than the youngest intended reader. One protagonist is still more common, but there are more exceptions at this age level. 1st person is appearing more often, though 3rd person is still standard.
Plot: Full three act structure, with fuller subplots beginning to come in. Pace can be slower yet, as plot complexity expands. Secondary characters assume more prominence.
Character Arc: You can take a 12 year old reader through much heavier material than an 8 year old, and the tween character arc reflects this. On the other hand, 10 to 14 year olds aren’t quite as into drama and angst as teenagers are, and the character arc and themes will reflect this. An important secondary character may also need an arc, though it will be slighter than the protagonist’s.
Language: At this point, readers can be pretty sophisticated. They might look up words they don’t know or they might skip over them, but except for extremely obscure language you don’t really have to hold back. You’ll still get dinged for profanity, unless it’s a “gritty” contemporary. 3rd person is still more common than 1st.
Themes: Really any themes at this point, though things like rape would have to be handled very carefully. Violence can be a bit tougher than in middle grade, but still not full-out description. First-love romance can start coming in, though not sex.
Younger YA novels—13 to 16 and up
Length: 50,000 to 70,000-ish words. Somewhat flexible on the upper end, and again, contemporary and romance novels are generally shorter than SF and fantasy.
Protagonist: 15 to 17, maybe 18.
Plot: Full novel plot, three act structure, and you probably need a subplot or two to make the novel full enough. All the twists and complexities you care to work in. Secondary characters must be fully fleshed out—including your villains. The only real difference between YA and adult books in story structure is that in YA the pace will be faster, and there will be fewer long descriptive passages.
Which is why a lot of adults like reading YA. Including me.
Character Arc: We’re now into full “dark night of the soul” territory. You not only need a complete arc, but for teens, the more suffering, drama and angst the better. In fact, you need a deeper character arc in YA than you do in adult books, because this is when almost everyone “comes of age.” And important secondary character will also need to grow. On the flip side of all that angst, this is also when first love occurs.
Language: No vocabulary limits except in the use of profanity. If it’s a gritty contemporary novel you can use language true to the characters and plot—some schools may ban it, and you’re probably out of luck with Christian publishers. But most YA editors don’t expect teens from rough backgrounds in tough situations to say, “Golly, shucks.” On the other hand, if you’re writing genre books where a character doesn’t have to use profanity to stay true to their background and situation, you’re probably better off not to use profanity, or at least keep it mild.
Themes: Any, and for YA it’s almost the grimmer the better—though young YA will be less graphic when it comes to sex and violence than older YA. This is coming of age territory, so your themes will involve the things people need to learn, and the ways they grow, when transitioning from child to adult. YA books, in just about any genre, will deal with life-changing events. And first-love/sexual attraction is a theme in most YA books—because, well, hormones.
Older YA novels—15 to 18 and up
Length: Any, except not too short. At this point, less than 40,000 words would probably be a novella.
Protagonist: 17 to 19. In contemporary novels, the protagonist will still be in High School, but they may have siblings or friends who’ve started college.
Plot: Still a faster pace than adult books, but aside from that it’s a full novel, full sub-plots, developed secondary characters…the whole deal.
Character Arc: Full out character arc, and arcs for important secondary characters, too. These will be protagonists who may have more adult flaws, and will be overcoming them in more mature ways. Their arcs may actually be slighter than in younger YA, and some of these older readers require a bit more sense from their protagonists, instead of having them simply wallow in angst. Not that angst is out—the hero just has to pull himself together and get on with it a bit more quickly.
This is the age at which, if you give them too many pages of “my life sucks,” these older reader will roll their eyes and say. “Get over it!”
Language: Less concern about profanity, though that concern is still there. Most people acknowledge a difference between a 13 year old reader and a 17 year old reader in that regard…but they’re shelved in the same section.
Themes: Similar to younger YA, but sometimes a bit less grim. Sex appears here (though not usually fully described) and fully described violence. Older YA is less about leaving childhood behind, and more about assuming a place in the adult world. Your older protagonists, and readers, are beginning to get past the stage where drama is all consuming, and are coping more with the adult world, with a bit more maturity.
New adult—17 to mid-20s
Length: Any, except not too short. At this point, less than 40,000 words would definitely be a novella.
This is yet another tricky-to-shelve category. Sometimes it ends up in YA, sometimes in the adult section, and the way you write it might tip that decision one way or the other—so think about where you want your book shelved when you make your writing choices.
Protagonist: Early 20’s—they’re in college, or just graduated and starting careers.
Plot: Full plot, just like an adult novel. I’d say with full description, but so far the genre mostly deals with romance, which generally goes lighter on description and has a faster pace than non-romance novels. So I don’t know if the faster pace is because it’s new adult, or because it’s romance. We’re now beyond first love, and dealing with ongoing romantic relationships that may require some maintenance.
Character arc: Because these books are romances the arcs may be slighter—but they still have to be there.
Language: No restrictions, except good taste—these are romances, for the most part. But sex is as much a part of these books as it is in adult romance, and as fully described.
Themes: As I said, for the most part new adult books are either romances or have a strong romance element in the plot. Technically my Knight & Rogue series fits the age bracket, but I hesitate to try to sell them as NA because they’re primarily action adventure, with a slight romance in the last two books—and I’m afraid of disappointing readers, who would expect a full-blown romance as part of the story. Beyond that, though romance may be essential, it helps if there’s more to the story. These are people (both readers and characters) who are growing into adult relationships and taking their place in the adult world, without the safety-net of adult supervision. The challenges they encounter should reflect this.
Final note: These categories, and the limitations on them I’ve listed, aren’t unalterable rules—they’re more like guidelines. There will be published exceptions to everything I’ve said, some of them will be hugely successful. However, there are reasons for most of these guidelines, and if you try to write something that runs outside the norm it should be for a good reason—and even if you have a good reason, your book will still probably be harder to sell. But that said, the most important thing, across all age categories and genres, is to tell a great story as well as you can tell it—because that’s what matters most.