Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Right Book at the Right Age - Heather Dyer

One reason that new writers have their books rejected is because their writing style doesn't match the content: either the language is too sophisticated for such a simple storyline - or the story is too long or complicated for the target readership. 

Admittedly, it's difficult to categorize books into specific age categories. Children are individuals, after all. Some advanced readers might not be very worldly-wise, and won't yet be ready for 'grittier' stories. Meanwhile, some of their peers may be ready for 'older' content but can't handle more sophisticated language.

But to give your story the best chance of publication, the content needs to match the writing style for that particular age category.

The publishing and bookselling industry tries to help buyers by dividing books into four main groups: picture books, young or early readers, middle grade readers (an American term) and young adult novels. As part of a new course I'm teaching in Writing for Children, I’ve started trying to identify qualities common to books in each age category. Boundaries will be blurred - but I'd love to know what you think of this chart. Am I right? What haven't I considered?
Picture books
Age 0-5
Early readers
Middle grade
YA fiction
     0 - 200 words
24,32 or 40 pages.
Full colour illustrations
Black and white line drawings every other page
Black and white line drawings every few pages.
No illustrations
Domestic or fantasy settings
Usually domestic settings.
Domestic magic and high fantasy. Realistic settings with parental supervision unless there’s a good reason (fantasy)
The wider world. High fantasy.
Larger font size, restricted vocabulary. Dialogue.
Large proportion of dialogue, more complex.
Shorter sentences
More sophisticated sentences.
Lots of interior monologue, reflection, longer speeches.
Text works with illustrations.
Very short paragraphs.
Paragraphs a bit longer.
Nearly no description
Minimal description, but a few sparkling details true to a young reader’s perception of the world.  
Detailed setting and character description.
Detailed setting and character description.
Usually in third person
Usually in third person. Some character development possible.
Usually in third person.
Rounded characters. Character development more obvious.
Often in first person, and present tense. It’s all about me.
Anthropomorphism, inanimate objects made animate. Familiar roles, settings, objects.
A talking animal almost always points to an early reader. Children in comic or adventure situations, usually having a good time, nothing too awful happens.
Children in danger, frightening situations, facing fears and fighting good and evil. But the real world isn’t too real.
Can be very dark and realistic. Dystopian futures, tragedy, abuse, drugs, etc. Also comedy sex/romance.
No sex or romance.
Romance is light and about friendships. Or subliminal.
Anything goes.
For the youngest bracket, not necessarily stories with problems solved, but simply an exploration of the world.
Often deal with smaller problems resolved in a shorter time frame. Stakes are lower.
Children with flaws, interactions with peers. Children save the day or resolve things themselves. Growing understanding of the world and their place in it.
Young adults dealing with finding their own way in the world, changing the world or making a name for themselves; asserting themselves; finding own values.
Can be present tense.
Past tense, no leaping around in time or flashbacks.
Still rarely using flashbacks unless short recollections by a character.
Can play with chronology; transitions, flashbacks etc.
Happy endings or comforting closure.

Happy endings.
 Happy or at least hopeful endings.
Usually at least hopeful, but recently have been a few with bleak endings.

Heather Dyer - children's author and Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow
  • Want feedback on your writing? For information about Heather Dyer's editorial services and creative writing workshops, go to www.heatherdyer.co.uk


Lari Don said...

This is fantastic! A really handy checklist. Of course, everyone will want to adapt it to fit the books they know / read / write. (My Fabled Beast Chronicles, which the publishers describe as fantasy for 8-12 - so that would be ‘middle grade’ on your table - are 4 times as long as you allow for here and have no internal illustrations, but the character and peril and dialogue notes are pretty much exactly what I aim for.) So, this is definitely a table to cut out and keep, to use as a guide not a set of absolute rules. Brilliant!

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks, Lari - great. Good point though, by the time you're 12 you're reading full length books. I'll take another look.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Haha, this is brilliant! I SO agree with you - it's EXACTLY the issue that plagues the first few books. And even more trickily (for me), the French have a different vision to the Brits, so when I started writing in English I didn't understand why it didn't seem to work here! this is a really wonderful table - will share amply.

Heather Dyer said...

Brilliant, thanks Clementine. Interesting about the different vision, though, too. I think it may be different in the US too - I know their picture books can be more wordy...

Ann Turnbull said...

I've written books in all these categories over many years, and I'd say yes, this is an excellent guide and one that could easily accommodate any changes of fashion - e.g. the current fashion for first person and present tense. The thing that is most open to variety is probably length.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks Ann - yes, fashion does change things, as well as culture, I suppose. Length is a difficult one - children seem to be able to tolerate really long books in some genres particularly - but everyone reckons their attention span is shortening...?

Jonathan Emmett said...

A useful list, but as a picture book author I'd say that your guidelines for picture book age range and word count are somewhat out. While publishers tend to focus on the lucrative middle class preschooler market, in many schools picture books are read by children up to the age of 8. I’m often asked to do picture book sessions with year 3 and 4 classes and the excellent Hampshire Illustrated Book Award, which focusses on picture books for older readers, is voted for entirely by year 5 pupils from Hampshire Schools.

Also, while there is a growing tendency to restrict picture books to under 500 words, there are still plenty that exceed this. About half of my picture books are between 500-1000 words long, with some, such as ‘Pigs Might Fly’ running over 1000 words. I always wince when I see picture books pigeonholed as ‘short texts for preschoolers’ and wrote a post over on the Picture Book Den blog (http://bit.ly/1hW8cxM) about it.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks Jonathan, food for thought. Interesting article too, will use it with my students.

DavidKThorpe said...

Very useful Heather

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A great spreadsheet Heather but like John because I've done quite a few picture books, I prefer to think of them reaching a broader age range.

Some of my picture books are 200 words and some 1000. I try not exceed 1000 words but I do believe older children take pleasure from picture books and that exposure to them is important to develop a sense of aesthetics... to be able to appreciate texture and line and colour and spatial relationships. A picture book isn't only preparing a child for reading in the future but preparing them for the world of art... of how to stand back and look at a painting and know that you love it for something special in it... the way the colours work or the lines jar or an emotion that it evokes in you.

So lets not give up picture books for older readers.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks Dianne, noted. Will amend. x

Unknown said...

Hi Heather. I know most about Middle Grade, it's what I write, although I didn't know it when I wrote my first children's book. That didn't stop me! Middle grade is defined as for for 8-13s (see the brill new MGStrikesBack blog and twitter)so 7 is a bit young. My books are 50,00-60,000 and best for years 5,6,7 and labelled 'Confident Reader' in libraries - so this is stretching your definition by some. No internal illustrations though I love breaking the text up for readers with messages, letters, signs, etc (and my next book is promised some pictures, too). It's important to have a relateable world with some reassuring adult figures in MG. Family, friends, feelings, is the mantra for contemporary fiction, but I write historical mystery adventures with a comic vibe, so villains can be threatening, brutal and nasty but get their come-uppance. Children show resilience. Good always triumphs. Does this help?

Unknown said...

Oh, dear, an edit function or a closer look before I posted would have helped! That's 50k-60k words per book. Hope rest makes sense. :-(

Heather Dyer said...

Julia, thanks, that's great. I like the sound of your books. Would you say it's unusual not to have any internal illustrations for a middle grade novel, or not? Do you think the way you break up the text serves to do the job instead? Thanks for the feedback.

C.J.Busby said...

This looks great - but I agree that the lengths for middle grade could go longer. My first series was marketed as 7-9 and was between 25 and 30,000 words, only one picture per chapter - the next one was marketed as 8-10 and is more like 30-35,000, no pictures. But then there are a lot of highly illustrated low word count books for that age range too! Maybe there's a divide to be made for both middle-gade and YA between the comic, less serious reads and the ones that are aimed at more able readers in the age range.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks C.J. Busby, noted.