The Age Levels for Children’s Books You Should Know
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So you want to write a children’s book, awesome! But what kind of child are you writing to? Before you can get started with your story idea, you need to choose your category using the different age levels of children’s books.
Because this will directly impact your ability to sell your story when you pitch your idea, I have created a breakdown of the different age levels for children’s books for you to review. It’s really important to know these before you start writing to either make an adjustment to your chosen category or know if your idea will work in the first place. So review them all below! 👇
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The Age Levels for Children’s Books You Should Know:
Most people who set out to write a children’s book automatically think of creating a picture book. (If you thought that picture books were the only types of children’s book out there, you wouldn’t be alone. A lot of new writers make this mistake.)
In fact, there are SIX different age categories of children’s books that span across ages 0-18. Which one you choose will depend on the story topic and target reader you’ve chosen to write for. So make sure you know this before we get started.
Here are the six different categories of children’s books:
1- Board Books
- Age: 0-3
- Wordcount: None-100
These are books that we call babies first books (Although they should really be called babies first chew toy!). Thank goodness publishers make these durable for the lil’ chompers.
If you have a story about lullabies or basic concepts, like shapes or colors, then you may be writing a board book. At this age level, the main character is very young or even an animal but there isn’t normally a plot. For instance, Baby Billy could be understanding body parts and words/pictures would go “Billy’s Belly”, “Billy’s Toes”, etc. These can even be fun, novelty books like finger plays and pop-ups.
Great Examples of Board Books:
- Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt
- Dada by Jimmy Fallon
- Peek a Boo Who by Nina Laden
All of these books will use VERY simple language if there’s any language at all. If you’re not illustrating your book, be sure that your manuscript is illustrator note heavy so the editor can visualize your book when they read your manuscript.
**Warning: There is a difference between these and picture books when it comes to marketing. If you want your story to be sold in elementary schools, you do NOT want a board book.
2- Picture Books
- Age: 3-8
- Wordcount: 250-1,000 (The current sweet spot is 500 words or less for the commercial trade market and some picture books may have less than 100 words or even none!)
Ah, picture books. Of all the age levels for children’s books, this is the one everyone thinks of and the one that’s most popular to write.
These gems are typically a 32-page layout that use illustrations to help tell a story. The main character is in preschool or kindergarten (But can be an animal) and it’s normally told in third person. The plot is a simple arc where the main character MUST solve a problem themselves– no matter HOW tempted you are to have Mom/Dad/Crazy Uncle Larry/Mrs. Teacher Helperton assist the character in solving their problem. Don’t. Agents and editors will not like it.
These books are made to be read aloud, so have fun with word choice, including using bigger words. If the word helps move the story along and makes it enjoyable for the reader, then it’s perfect to use! The wackier the better, in my opinion 😄
Great Examples of Picture Books:
- The Bad Seed by Jory John
- Dandy by Amy Dyckman
- The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld
If you are a non-illustrating author (Like me), you DO NOT have to have an illustrator to get published. If a publisher wants to buy your book, they will find the illustrator for you. Simply incorporate illustrator notes to help the agent/editor understand specific parts of the story you’re trying to tell. (Check out this article to learn more about illustrators and kids’ books.)
**Warning: Older market picture books are SUPER hard to sell. If this is your jam, make sure the complex topic you choose is well researched and that you have a stellar pitch to hook agents and editors.
3- Early Reader
- Age: 5-9
- Word Count: 1,500-2,000
It’s very exciting when a child can start to read for themselves. Kids are proud and parents are overjoyed to see kids reading.
Similar to the previous age levels for children’s books in character and plot, Early Readers are created with light-hearted themes and normally geared for the educational market. However, with traditionally published books created for the commercial market, the plot is sometimes even SIMPLER and writers are restricted to tightly controlled language and word choice by publishers because these books must reach specific reading levels.
And like picture books, they will have ABSOLUTELY NO description. Instead, you should only use action and dialogue to tell the story.
Great Examples of Early Readers:
- Danny the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff
- Amelia Bedelia by Herman Parish
- Days with Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel
**Warning: Most of these books are created in-house by the publishers, and are not considered an “open” market. Meaning your book could take a while to sell!
4- Chapter Book
- Age: 6-9 or 7-10
- Word Count: 8,500-12,000 (Can go up to 20,000 words for older readers.)
Chapter book series were my favorite to read in elementary school, and that’s the truth for a lot of kids. Books like the Babysitter’s Club, the Magic Treehouse, and the Boxcar Children have been favorites for years!
If you want to write these books, you will want to create a character that’s 1-2 years older than the target reader. Most of these books are about 8 or 9-year-olds talking about their school struggles, normally from third person. The main character should change/grow a little through the book, according to the problem that they’re solving.
Great Examples of Chapter Books:
- Junie B. Jones by Barbara Park
- My Weird School by Dan Gutman
- Ivy + Bean by Annie Barrows
The plot structure is simple–there’s a problem, it matters somehow, the main character tries to solve it, extra problems are sprinkled in along the way, until the main character can solve the problem. This is a faster pace than a middle-grade or young-adult novel, and there should still be a strong focus on action and dialogue to tell the story.
The themes for chapter books normally center around school problems like friendships and trying to fit in. Just don’t go too deep in these books! Kids are still learning to read.
**Note: These books are almost always series. You will only want to pitch book 1 at first, but prepare to have 3 for publishing purposes.
5- Middle Grade
- Age: 8-12
- Word Count: 25,000-50,000 (The sweet spot for the commercial trade market is about 35,000 but some genres, like fantasy, can go over 50,000 words.)
Oh, middle school. The worst years to live through, but the fun ones to write about and fill with “what if” questions.
These books normally have a main character that is 2-4 years older than the youngest intended reader. Normally, between 11 & 13. And they have interesting character arcs! Main characters can be flawed and loveable and the secondary characters should start to shine in these books.
Great Middle-Grade Examples:
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
- Wonder by R.J. Palacio
- Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
The plot will be a 3-act story structure where the main character will need room to fall from grace by really hurting someone, then take the length of the book to struggle to redeem themselves. These books are paced slower than chapter books to make room for emotion and mystery. (If you’d like some help with your plot, check out this article.)
Themes normally revolve around middle school or an event that would be traumatizing to an 8-12 year old.
Although there are no technical language limits, you should still keep your story age-appropriate (Especially if you want to be in schools!). Meaning they might want to get their first kiss, but not have sex or could punch someone in the mouth but not use a weapon or get bloody. This is PG writing.
However, humor is perfect here! Especially if you can use gross, boy humor. Readers will eat it up 😄
6- Young Adult
- Age: 12 or 14 and up
- Word Count: 50,000-75,000 (Like the previous category, there will be some leeway with genres like fantasy.)
At a conference, an editor said YA books are the dark, gritty views we have of the world. He used the analogy of putting your hand on the stove until it gets too hot to stand. The longer you can keep it there, the better.
Meaning, the darker the perspective for the reader, the better.
But YA doesn’t all have to be dystopian worlds and teenage angst. There can be lighthearted plots like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han. It all depends on the story YOU want to tell.
Great Examples of Young Adult Books:
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
- Sea Witch by Sarah Henning
These books are true novels, meaning they need to have a complete 3-Act story plot with at least 2 subplots to add depth. The main character is typically 16-18 years old, and MUST learn something by the end of the book. A great trick is to make sure there’s an external and internal problem that the main character is trying to solve throughout the story.
Language isn’t limited here, but avoid the graphic descriptions of sex and violence that you would see in an adult novel. Otherwise, have fun and grab your readers!
Before you start writing, review the different age levels for children’s books and choose the one that’s right for YOUR story. The three most common levels are picture books, middle grade, and young adult, but you can write from any of the six age ranges.
Now that you’ve selected the age level you want to write for, go out and READ books in the age levels for children’s books that you’re interested in. Happy writing!
Check out these other articles to help you as a children’s writer:
- All you need to know to write a kid’s book
- How to target the perfect reader
- 5 Successful traits of all children’s writers
- How to know if your manuscript is ready to submit
- The Children’s Book Template to Help Your Story
Great list and one that is helpful to all of us, regardless of where we are in the journey! Thanks!
Yes!! I even find myself re-reading it when I have a new idea. I’m glad you liked 🙂
I am never sure where my stories should be placed. I have written 60 short stories of fiction, average word count 1200/1500 words aimed at 12-16 year old girls Would that be classed as YA? It is NOT a novel although total word count at present sits around 80,000 words. Subject mainly about a girls boarding school and its characters.
PS. i write in the first person and in the vernacular, Many of you out there I am sure are aware that teenage girls speak an entirely different language to you and your parents.. I spent 7 years in a boarding school… I learnt the language.
Hi Bridgette – great question! I would say your stories fall in the Tween category (This would be in the upper middle grade or early YA section). 80,000 words is a lot! That’s amazing.😃 Since yours are normally short stories, are you hoping to publish them as a collection? Or more to a magazine as articles? I think either would work. But that’s the category I would target. I wish you all the luck with your writing endeavors!
Brookevs I have sent three stories to a literary agent in London in June for an evaluation am hoping to hear back this week………maybe,,,If they accept them .I am not sure how they will publish them, I shall leave it up to the professionals. I am on number 61 at present….80.000 words is almost a novel. lol…Thank you for the lovely reply
This was very helpful. I do have an idea for a book and this will help me structure it. Saving it because I want to read all of your recommended books as examples 😀
Hi Alifyah – Thanks so much for your kind words! I’m so glad you found it helpful. 🙂 Keep up the great work with your story. It’s going to become a book sooon!
This article has given me a lot of insight, now I am reviewing my work. Thank you for continued efforts.
That’s such great news! And thank you for your kind words. 🙂 Keep up the hard work with your writing!
Looking for publishers can be overwhelming, any advice on how to narrow down the search without limiting options? Thanks!
Hi Jennifer! Great question. There are 2 ways I’ve found to be helpful: 1 – look inside the cover of books you like to see who published them. These might be good publishers to look into submitting to based on their taste. 2 – if you find a publisher from a list or their site, review their current published books. You want to check to see if your story idea would fit with the other types of books they published. (Sometimes it’s a good idea to list some of their books as comps, too!)
Once you have a list of possible publishers, check their submission guidelines to make sure you can submit to them. (If you don’t have an agent yet, you’ll want to look for “open to unsolicited manuscripts”.) And don’t be afraid to submit to a lot! Try ten and if you don’t hear anything back, submit to more. Eventually, someone will say yes! Good luck 🙂
Awesome list! Thank you for the details.
Thank you so much! Glad you found it helpful. 🙂
I enjoyed reading the article. Great information.
Thank you so much! Glad it was helpful. 🙂
This is so helpful! What do you mean when you say “Older market picture books”? Thanks for all the great info! 🙂
Yay! I’m glad it was helpful. 🙂 Picture books for the older market are geared toward 5-7/8 year-olds and sometimes talk about more complex topics. Like scientific, biographies, etc. Ideally, you’ll want to focus on the kid you’re writing to and the purpose of your book to help you decide which is the best fit for you and your story!
This was really informative, I loved it!
Awe, that’s wonderful to hear! Thank you 🙂
What do you mean by, “Most of these books are created in-house by the publishers, and are not considered an ‘open’ market. Meaning your book could take a while to sell!”
Hi Danny! Great question – Early Readers in their traditional form may not be a category that publishing houses are looking to acquire. So if you’d like to write for that age category, you may want to consider an early chapter book geared for ages 5-8 instead. These books are similar with the word count being between 2,500-8,000, however, they’re a more commercial market without the restrictions that true early readers have.
Most of the books I’m working on right now have 17-22 year old characters, but I don’t talk about tons of violence and sex like adult books usually do. (I always wished there were YA-type books for my own age group, so I’m writing them myself.) However, I do touch on some heavier topics like rape, kidnapping, and abuse. I’m guessing I’ll have to market these as adult novels, but how do I do that without people assuming they’re gritty and sexual like regular adult novels? How do I even find a publisher for them? (Sorry, I know you posted this ages ago, but I’ve been wondering this for a long time, and you seem very knowledgeable.)
Hi Katie! If your character’s out of high school, this will fall into adult. However, that doesn’t mean the topic has to be rough and gritty. You’d still publish the books the same – look for agents/publishers who create adult books and pitch them with a query. There used to be a genre called New Adult that covered this age group but it’s mostly romance and has started to fade away, so I’d stick with the adult category and make sure to write a great pitch. Good luck with your submissions!
Awesome! Thank you so much!
I’ve outlined a few different genres with a 3 shorts written.
1 short would be 9-11 age
a 5-7 or possibly as old as 9 for a series
then novels/novellas for adult. very adult themed. Would you recommend writing these under different names? so the audiences do not get confused/surprised?
Also, any good forums you would recommend to share stories to get feedback?
Hi! As others have said, I found this article to be really helpful for me. I am saving it right now for future reference. I am still a little confused about how I would rate my book. My book’s protagonist is a princess who turns 15 in the book. It takes place in a fantasy world. When I submitted to a report on Wattpad Insights, it told me my target level was 14 and under, similar to the first Harry Potter book. I can see this since my story does have a little bit of magical elements and it has some inspirational messages. But I am not certain how in depth this report got or how far into my book it got. This is because in later chapters the plot takes a dark turn and my character is held prisoner, hit with a whip, threatened with sexual assault, the would-be offender is killed, and she even stumbles onto what is implied as a sex party hosted by a noble elite. The story was intended to start out light hearted and get darker.ckllm Would it still be rated a middle school grade book on the market?
Hi Raven! Glad to hear the article was helpful. 🙂 Everything that you’re describing actually seems to be for the YA audience so that’s what I would lean to for your idea. (This is known as 12+ for the age category.) And if you’d like a great read, check out Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole — great resource for learning more about the difference between MG/YA.
Just curious. What age range of books are most sought by publishers? In other words, what age range would have the least amount of competition with an agent or publisher?
It really depends but right now, editors are hungry for Middle grade. 🙂 But they’ll take anything that’s an awesome read that’s perfect for the intended audience that it knows is something they can sell.
Thank you so much for supplying this information.
In querying recently, I am learning how difficult it to categorize my chapter book. And, on that note, it seems that very few publishers/agents are looking for picture books to a wide range of middle grade and YA, but not necessarily chapter books- if it is understood to be a category all on its own.
Hi Lynn – you’re correct, chapter books are a harder category to submit for because fewer are published each year than the others. However, you definitely can find them. Check out resources like the Children’s Writer’s Market to help you search for open places. Alternatively, if it fits for your book, you could always pitch it as a younger middle grade for ages 7-11, but you’ll want to review comps to make sure that your story fits into that category before pitching it as such. Good luck with your submissions — keep up the good work. Takes some time but you’ll get there!
Hi, Can you answer a question for me please?
When looking for the age range for an audience, a lot of books have quite a large age range, eg Marcus Rashford’s book is from year 5 to year 9. How does that work? Can year 5 aged children access this book? Is it not too basic for year 9? I’m interested in how this categorisation comes about. Thank you.
Good question Paula! There’s a wide range because there are different levels of readers who may enjoy the book. In an early reader, you might have high-level readers in kindergarten or reluctant readers in 2nd/3rd but the majority of readers will read it in 1st. Hope this helps! Have fun working on your story. 🙂
Thank you for sharing this helpful information. I am writing a graphic novel. Does the same criteria apply?
Glad you found this helpful! Yes – the age levels and story categories for children’s books are all the same no matter what genre you’re writing. For instance, if you’re wanting to write a graphic novel for ages 6-8, you would mostly like be working on a chapter book. Hope this helps!
Hi Brooke, thanks so much for this excellent article. I am working on a picture book that is focused on teaching a language (I speak both italian and spanish). Is it okay for bilingual picture books to not have a main character and plot? Also, does the word count include both languages (if I translate each sentence to italian, should the total of all words, both italian and english, be around 500 or closer to 1,000).
Love that you’re working on a bi-lingual picture book Lucy! That’s wonderful. 🙂 All picture books will start out the same way, but depending on your story idea, you might have a different POV or plot line for your story. We’re getting ready to do a Story Jumpstart that helps answer these questions. You can sign-up to join here — https://journeytokidlit.com/story-jumpstart
I’m so excited to read this one. It’s wonderful!!