I was scrolling through a freelancing site for children’s book writing gigs, when I found this post: “Wanting to write a middle-grade novel about a 22-year old guy who struggles with sexuality and being an adult”. WHAT!! This person clearly doesn’t understand the age levels for children’s books.
If you didn’t catch the red flag, a 22-year old would NEVER be in a middle-grade novel because middle-grade is intended for 8-12-year-old readers. Not even YA would be old enough for a 22-year old character.
I don’t want you to make that mistake when you pitch your idea, so I have created a breakdown of the age levels for children’s books. It’s really important to know these before you start writing to either make an adjustment to your category or know if your idea will work in the first place.
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The Age Levels for Children’s Books You Should Know:
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:
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 schools, you do NOT want a board book.
2- Picture Books
- Age: 3-8
- Wordcount: 250-1,000 (Although the sweet spot currently is 500 words or less 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 3rd 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:
- P is for Pterodactyl by Raj Haldar
- Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin
- Priscilla’s Perfect Tea Party by Jill Friestad-Tate
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.
**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, 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 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 3rd 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:
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 is about 30,000 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:
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.
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 (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 have to be all dystopian worlds and teenage angst. There can be lighthearted plots like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. 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, understand the 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!
Check out these other articles to help you as a children’s writer:
- All you need to know to write a kids 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