Are you writing a picture book, young fiction, middle grade or teen/young adult books? If you want to write imaginative stories for young readers, first you need to work out what age group you're writing for, as this will impact the subject and tone of your book and the length of the manuscript.
Our guidelines below will help you to work out the target audience for the children's book you're writing:
Picture books are illustrated stories usually 32 pages long, with short manuscripts (around 500-1,000 words). They are stories aimed at 2- to 6-year-olds, designed for parents to read aloud. The words are fun to read out loud with onomatopoeic sounds, a clear rhythm and some even contain rhyming. The characters are clearly recognisable with a strong design, they tend to have young children or anthropomorphic animal protagonists. Themes explored often revolve around family dynamics, bedtime routines and other daily activities, starting school or nursery and meeting new people.
These stories can be written and illustrated by one person, or they can be co-authored by a separate writer and illustrator.
Examples of picture books by our former students and tutors include: Jampires by Sarah McIntyre and David O’Connell, I Am NOT a Prince by Rachael Davis (Author) and Beatrix Hatcher (Illustrator) and Shoo! by Susie Bower and Francesca Gambatesa.
Young fiction for 7- to 9-year-olds is usually around 8-12,000 words. The protagonist will be around 9 or 10, and humour features strongly in lots of books for this age group. These are the first chapter books that children encounter, they will help young readers gain confidence to start reading by themselves. The books tend to be illustrated with black-and-white line drawings at the beginning of chapters and interspersed throughout. There's often a mystery involved but it's usually not too complex.
Examples of young fiction by our alumni and tutors include: The Bear who Sailed the Ocean on an Iceberg by Emily Critchley and The Chocolate Factory Ghost by David O’Connell.
Middle grade (MG) books follow on from the short chapter books that are often read by children in infant school when reading skills are still being developed. These books are broadly targeted at children aged from 8- to 12-year-old – and so the main characters are always children, though they’re often a little older than the assumed readership. The average wordcount is between 30,000 and 40,000 words.
Because children’s knowledge, literacy skills and understanding of the world develop at different ages, MG allows scope for writers, both in terms of subject matter and style. Books written for younger MG readers are often adventures.
Older middle grade books, often targeted at readers aged 9+, are longer, with more complex stories that often touch on mature themes. These can include everything from family separation, poverty and bereavement to war.
MG ‘issue’ books are considered a fairly recent phenomenon. They have something real and difficult at the core of them e.g. books by Jacqueline Wilson.
MG books for older readers may also be commissioned as a series or branded in a way that emphasises the connections between the books.
MG books may be influenced by different genres, be that fantasy, fairytale, gothic, crime, horror, history, dystopia, humour, contemporary issues (many books overlap between genres).
Common MG elements
- A main character who is often aged 11 to 13. We are usually introduced to that character on the opening page with a foreshadow of their concerns.
- A central problem is introduced early in MG books.
- Friendships and sibling relationships frequently feature in MG books. Friends can be the holder of the main character’s secrets, a conscience or a critic, and an accomplice on the adventures.
- Middle grade books have a satisfying ending. A quest will be completed. Lessons will be learned. Friends or family that are separated are often reunited. Twists are straightened and secrets revealed!
Examples of middle grade fiction by our alumni and tutors include: Freedom by Catherine Johnson, Ghostcloud by Michael Mann, Orphans of the Tide by Struan Murray, The Beast and the Bethany by Jack Meggitt-Phillips and The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson and Rob Biddulph.
Teen & Young Adult
Broadly speaking, YA books are targeted at young people of secondary school age (11- to 16-year-olds) – though there are ways of breaking this down a bit further – into ‘teen’ and ‘YA’.
Some feel they basically cover the same ground, and others think that while both refer to age categories ‘teen’ covers 12-14, and ‘YA’ is aimed at about 14+. YA is more likely to deal frankly with sex, tackle challenging issues and adult relationships, and can feature moderate swearing.
In terms of length, YA books are often (though not always) around 70,000 words – much the same as a novel for adults – and can be longer, especially fantasy novels, which tend to need all those extra words for convincing worldbuilding.
YA is often written with a limited point of view – by which I mean, we see the world through one character’s eyes – and contains a considerable amount of dialogue. The main characters are teenagers – though not always exclusively so.
As with MG, there are many YA novels that cross genres and push boundaries.
Lots of YA books are standalone, but there are also YA serials. Trilogies and duologies are popular, particularly in the fantasy genre.
YA books may contain swearwords, violence and sex – though again, it depends on the assumed readership. YA books can be explicitly political, tackle tough subjects such as self-harm, domestic violence, grief and suicide. They can also be romances, road trips, mysteries, thrillers, comedies – or a combination of any of those!
Common YA elements
- The main characters range in age between 14 and 19. Characters in YA are introduced to the readers early on in the story, but their fears, desires and motivations may be revealed less directly than in MG books. They must have a complex internal world, and they do not have to be likeable. The readers will grow up with the character and go on the coming-of-age journey with them, in a YA series a protagonist might start the series in the midst of their teen years and end the series on the cusp of adulthood.
- YA fiction, like most fiction, relies on conflict at the core of the story.
- As with MG books, friendships and family dynamics feature in YA books too as these reflect teenagers’ real lives. They are an obvious element in contemporary YA but are also very much part of fantasy and other genres. For this age group, romantic relationships and explorations of first love can also be an important part of the story. Some YA books are overt romances while others may include some romantic tropes in a subplot.
- While MG books generally have a satisfying and clear-cut ending, YA endings can be more ambiguous.
Examples of fiction for teens and young adults by our alumni and tutors include: Sixteen Souls by Rosie Talbot, Last One To Die by Cynthia Murphy, The Stranded by Sarah Daniels and Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence.
Find more information about our specialised courses on how to write for children and young adults below.
The books linked in this blog can be found on our Bookshop.org shop front. Curtis Brown Creative receive 10% whenever someone buys from our bookshop.org page.