Picture Book or Early Reader: What Category is Right for Your Story?

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I get this question all the time. “I’m writing a picture book, but it’s about 1,000 words. Do you think it should be an early reader instead?” 🙈 Almost definitively my answer will be no. Here’s the difference between a picture book or an early reader when it comes to your story.

Picture Book or Early Reader | The difference between them | how to know which is right for your children's story

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The difference between a picture book and an early reader:

If you’re reading this, you most likely have a picture book story that’s too long, or you’re trying to understand the difference between the two children’s book categories.

Whatever brought you here, I’m glad it did. Because understanding the difference between a picture book and an early reader is going to be vital to writing an enjoyable children’s story.

If you don’t know, there are six categories of children’s books. (Yes, six.) Read the full list here to see all the options. Only two of which are either a picture book or early reader. However, how you write for each category is different than the other.

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What is a picture book?

Of all the children’s book categories, this is the most popular one to write. Typically 32-pages, picture books use illustrations and text together to tell a story. However, in today’s market, a story in this category needs to be less than 500 or 600 words. (I know. That sounds impossible!)

Which is why a lot of writers think that they’re writing an early reader when their text goes above this amount–sometimes closer to that 1,000-1,500 word count. But if you intended to write a picture book, that’s what your story should most likely be.

What qualifies a story idea as a picture book?

The main target reader for picture books is about 4-7 or preschool to first grade. Which means the average main character is about 6-7 years old (in about kindergarten or first grade).

And since these books are intended for a younger audience, they will most likely be read out loud to the child by an adult. This is great for you as a writer, because that means you’re not restricted with your word choice as much since a grown-up with a higher reading level will be reading the text!

However, it does mean your story needs to be engaging enough to keep your young audience from poking each other on the carpet during storytime.

Here are some great examples of picture books:

Picture Book Perfection_Self-study guide to write a children's picture book

So if you’re wanting to write a picture book story, but aren’t sure where to get started, here’s what you need to do first:

  1. Go to the bookstore/library and check out the books published in the last 2 years. (Anything before 2015 is considered ancient and irrelevant.)
  2. Bring some home and read them, looking at the things you enjoy/dislike about them — this will help you note what kind of style might be right for you.
  3. Type out a handful of books as if they were a typed manuscript — this will help you see what they looked like before the illustrations were added, so you can understand the sentence structure, pacing, plot, etc.

What is an early reader?

Early readers are a special category, because this is the first time a child will read independently to themselves. (They grow up so fast. 🤩) And similar to a picture book in character and plot, early readers will have light-hearted themes.

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 in order to be classified as an early reader.

Download the free children's book template

What qualifies a story idea as an early reader?

The main target reader for early readers is about 5-9 or first to third grade. So the average main character can be between 6-8 years old, however, a lot of early readers have animals as main characters, too.

Since these books are so restrictive in their language choice and grade level, you will need to know the qualifications for your story idea and where it will be “leveled”. (Leveled means what age level it would be intended for.) That’s why so many of these kinds of stories are created as work-for-hire jobs by publishers.

Here are different examples of early reader books:

What to do if your picture book story is not an early reader, but too long to be a picture book:

If you’ve found yourself in this situation, it means it’s time to pare down the story and remove unnecessary text. Here are some spots that are the best places to start:

  1. Make sure you only have one story goal or focus — if you have more than one idea in your story, choose one and remove the other.
  2. Remove any description — if it’s going to show in the illustration, it doesn’t need to be stated in the text.
  3. Cut back on unnecessary dialogue or anything that keeps your characters stationary for too long. Picture books are meant to be active, so should your story.
Picture Book Perfection_Self-study guide to write a children's picture book

There you have it. The difference between a picture book and an early reader. Hope this helps you with your story draft today. And if you’d like more help learning what it takes to write a truly wonderful children’s book, take Kidlit Writing 101. Our introductory course into writing for kids! Sign-up here.

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