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Writing for Younger Readers & Chapter Books

In this exclusive extract from the new edition of the Guide to Writing for Children & YA, author Linda Strachan discusses writing for younger readers and chapter books, as well as some brilliant book recommendations  for various age groups.

What kind of book do you want to write? Who are you writing it for?  

When you are writing for children, these are probably the most important questions you should ask yourself and the answers are not quite as simple or straightforward as might first appear. 

Obviously a five year-old is not going to want the same kind of story as a child aged ten or eleven; their attention span is shorter and their interests and knowledge of the wider world are completely different. The age of your main character in relation to the age of your intended reader needs to be carefully considered. When writing for children, a general rule is that your characters should be a year or so older than your target reader, or at least the same age. Children aspire to be like the characters in the books they enjoy and they almost invariably wish to be, or to appear, older than they are – but not too much older. (It is particularly important not to feature a main character that is much younger than your target readership, and only on very rare occasions does an adult main character work in a children’s book; although they can be secondary characters.)  

Publishers, parents, teachers, librarians and bookshops all require some way of categorising children’ s books, so age ranges are generally used  –  but these are essentially only guidelines. Age levels, when they are stated on the back of books or in bookshops and even those in publishers’ briefs, if writing to a commission, can be confusing because children of a similar age may have different tastes, abilities and experience of life and their reading ability can be equally as varied.  

Unlike adults, children require different kinds of writing depending on their age and emotional development, as well as their ability to read and understand the text. 

A particular eight year-old may have the ability to read anything that is put in front of them, from newspapers to thick tomes, but this does not mean that they have the emotional maturity to cope with what they are reading, or the life experience to truly understand it. At the same age, their best friend might struggle to read anything with more than a few lines of text on a page. 

It is an everchanging landscape for the emerging reader as they acquire and hone their new skills, and it is our job as writers to provide a variety of stories that will engage, excite, amuse and interest these young minds, making them the avid readers of the future whatever their reading age or ability. 

 Early readers (for those with emerging reading skills) 

These books bridge the gap between picture books and middle grade and are important for the development of a young reader when they are starting to practise their new reading skills, although reading is still difficult for some. Books that look as if they will be fun to read will engage those younger readers who are now moving on from the big format, glossy picture books that have been read to them to books they will try to read themselves. Simple text and vocabulary with an engaging story – possibly interspersed with cartoon-style illustrations – works well at this level for these emerging readers. 

At the younger end of this age range, books are usually fairly short (32 – 48 pages) with simple, often humorous, stories of 20 to 100 words per page. Most have illustrations on every page, sometimes black and white but often in colour. The simpler text is often widely spaced, to make it look accessible.  

Stories tend to be set in familiar situations with lots of repetition and patterned language, especially at the lower end of the age range. Bloomsbury Young Readers (Bloomsbury Education) is a series aimed at helping the newly emerging readers aged between five and seven find fun stories to read at their own level. These short books have full-colour illustrations, and often include some fun things to do at the end of the books.

Cereal Superfan, written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Garry Parsons, is a great example. Th e cereal-loving main character, Stephen, enters a competition to design a new cereal, but things don’t quite go to plan. The chapter titles are Bowl One, Bowl Two etc., and the illustrations are bright and child-friendly. This particular book tells quite a long and involved story over its forty-eight pages, but it and the other titles in the series are graded in line with reading levels used in schools so that a parent can choose the right level for their child. This means the author needs to write to a certain level, but editors for series such as these are always on hand to help and authors will receive a brief from the publishers detailing what is required. 

 There are lots of great books for this age group to read themselves. 

Rabbit’s Bad Habits has lovable and funny characters and lightly handled illustrations. One of the Rabbit and Bear series, written by Julian Gough and illustrated by Jim Field, in this book Rabbit explains to Bear that he eats his own poo but of course only certain kinds of poo, because to eat the other kind  –  well of course, that is DISGUSTING! The characters are captivating and the humour is excellently done. 

It also helps to cement characters' personalities. Humour will keep even a less able or reluctant reader engaged, and it doesn't have to be laugh-out-loud hilarious; even gentle humour works well. 

These books are light on text, with lots of illustrations which makes them easier for young readers who find a lot of text daunting but – crucially – they definitely don’t look ‘babyish’. This is so important, because children are often very aware of not being as competent at reading as their classmates, and won’t want to feel left behind. 

Characters that children will love or enjoy following across several books are very popular. More confident readers in the 6–8 year-old bracket will enjoy the delightful Lucy series, written by Anne Booth and featuring gentle black-and-white illustrations by Sophy Williams. If you are interested in something a bit quirkier for a similar age group, try the Isadora Moon series by Harriet Muncaster, with its lively black and pink illustrations. Isadora’s mum is a fairy and her dad a vampire.  

Series are very popular at this stage with children following a character or set of characters over several books although many also  enjoy standalone titles. They are often still slim books so will not be too intimidating for the child with nascent reading skills.  

If you are keen to write for this age group, look at how other authors have managed to tell a story with short and simple text that makes a child want to turn the page. Examine the books in detail to discover how the illustrations help the story and how even minimal dialogue can create a sense of who the characters are and show their personalities or quirks. Consider where and how the story begins, what language is used and how the author has managed to avoid long-winded scene setting to get straight into the story. It’s still a good idea to read your story out loud before you decide that it’s finished, to check that you really have kept it moving and to pick up where it becomes wordy.  

 Chapter books 

The Wigglesbottom Primary series, written by Pamela Butchart and illustrated by Becka Moor, are about the hysterical exploits of the children and teachers at a primary school. The books’ text is well spaced within a visually interesting format, and interspersed with words in bold and some in capitals with plenty of cartoon-style illustrations, making it less challenging to read and a lot of fun. 

Each book has three shorter stories in it and this format can also be seen in the Marge series of books by Isla Fisher, featuring humorous black-and-white illustrations by Eglantine Ceulemans. Both these series are very popular and you may want to see if you can discover why they work so well and look at others in a similar vein. (Always bear in mind that knowing that they can stop at the end of each chapter can be reassuring for emerging readers but also gives a sense of achievement.) 

Both these series split the text into several shorter stories, but children at this age are being introduced to the idea that books might have chapters. The series Little Legends by Tom Percival comprises ‘chapter books’ that borrow from many of our favourite tales – but with a twist. Readers are introduced to Jack and his talking chicken, Betsy, and meet Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel and other fairytale characters. Traditional tales and rhymes are great source material, as we have seen before in picture books, but it may be in chapter books that a younger reader might first hear some of the traditional stories that adults know so well.  

By the time a child is aged seven and above, they need stories that are not necessarily harder to read but perhaps a little longer and in which the story content might be more emotionally challenging. The Jasmine Green animal series of chapter books, such as  A Goat Called, written by Helen Peters with black and white illustrations by Ellie Snowdon, shows more of the reality of life for animals  –  that nature is ‘not always kind’ –  than would appear at the lower end of the age group.

The W&A Guide to Writing for Children and YA provides informed, practical advice from a successful and experienced writer of children's books across all ages. Its coverage includes picture books through middle grade and young adult; fiction and non-fiction; books for reluctant readers and books for the education market. It is one author's lifetime of experience distilled into an engaging guide on how to manage, kickstart or begin your writing career. You can pre-order your copy now.