Chapter 8: Book Formats and Age Levels

This is the first part of a sample chapter from the third edition of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books. Read to the bottom of the page for the following section. The complete text of the chapter is available, but the format has been altered to suit the Internet.

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In This Chapter

You know you want to write or illustrate for children, you've explored the classics as well as the current titles, and by now you're probably on a first-name basis with the librarians and booksellers in town. But do you know what kind of book you might create? Do you know the difference yet between chapter books and picture books? How about collections and easy readers?

In this chapter, I give you an overview of different children's book formats and how they more or less align with different age levels. I also explain why you may be writing not only for children, but for adults, too. I continue the discussion in Chapter 9, when I move on to some common subject areas.

The Main Categories

First, you need to know the ins and outs of a couple of basic distinctions: between fiction and nonfiction and between picture books and books with chapters.

Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth


Also known as an informational book, nonfiction can include writing in which the author presents information, activities, or knowledge; recounts a historical event; or creates a biography.
is writing from the imagination. Fiction is "made up," although most good fiction does, paradoxically, seem real.

What you may know as nonfiction books from your school days are now often called informational books. Many different approaches and subjects fit under the nonfiction tent. Here are just a few examples:

Playground Stories

Is nonfiction less creative than fiction? Not so, says nonfiction author Sneed Collard:
I actually began my writing as a self-indulgent and ignorant fiction writer. In fact, my first four children's sales were all fictional stories. The problem was, I was having so many interesting experiences as a biologist that I just couldn't help writing about them. Once I began writing nonfiction, I loved it. It provided me with a great excuse to learn more about biology and could be just as creative as fiction. I'd go a step further and say that a nonfiction books offers more opportunity for creativity than fiction. It's extremely rare to find a fiction picture book that truly breaks new ground. Nonfiction, on the other hand, has not even begun to peak as far as creative possibilities.

If you like to do research and write or illustrate what you've learned, you can work on nonfiction.

Have Fun Lying

Fiction is what we make up, although it might have a basis in fact. As renowned writer Jane Yolen—author of novels, picture books, poetry, and much else—puts it, "Memory is just one more story. And sometimes not a very good one at that. It needs that sandpaper touchup, a bit of paint, a little lie here, and a bigger lie there—and so fiction is born." Although nonfiction can never be based on an entirely invented incident, fiction can find a basis in fact. Fiction is not truth, but it can hold truth within it, such as the truth of personal experience or universal themes. As you delve deeper into these two wide categories, you'll find the boundaries between them are very blurry.

Playground Stories

Continuing her discussion of writing fiction, Jane Yolen offered a look at the evolution of her fictional works from an actual experience:
Owl Moon is a compilation of lots of owling trips that my husband took with our children. The Girl Who Loved the Wind is a fairy tale allegory of my life. The Commander Toad books are pun-filled romps with a serious message at the core. Yet they each started with something real—a memory of something actual—and then went on to make something "realer." Bad grammar, but a true statement nonetheless.

As with nonfiction, there are many types of fiction. You'll learn about these in more detail in this and the following chapter.

Pictures Versus Words

After you've taken in the fiction/nonfiction distinction and noted its fuzziness, move on to formats. Very generally, children's books may be dominated by pictures, in which case we call them picture books, or by words, in which case we call them chapter books.

For the Little Ones: Picture Books

When people think of children's literature, picture books often come to mind. These are the books Mom and Dad read to you at bedtime or the teacher read to you at story time. In a picture book, a line or two of text typically accompanies a page of illustration, although the amount of text can range from none to a paragraph or two.


Signatures are groups of 8 or 16 pages made by printing one sheet of paper and then folding and cutting it before gluing or sewing it into the binding. Books have been printed this way for hundreds of years, and that's why pages often come in multiples of 8.

Most picture books are pretty short, and not just because their audience—younger children—have pretty short attention spans. Most picture books are printed in full color, and that's expensive. Because books are printed in signatures, picture books come in lengths of 16, 24, 32, 40, 48 pages or sometimes more; 32 pages is the typical length.

For Big Kids: Books with Chapters

When kids move from picture books to reading longer books themselves—books with chapters—they've entered a new world. Here, the words are dominant, although these books may also have illustrations. Books with chapters range from easy-to-read novels with short chapters, illustration, and limited vocabulary, perhaps 48 or 64 pages long, to serious novels and nonfiction for teenagers, meaty 300-plus-page tomes with no illustrations at all. Think of the Frog and Toad books, Island of the Blue Dolphins, the Nancy Drew series, and Bridge to Terabithia. These are all different types of books with chapters.

What's for Who? How to Tell

Underlying these basic distinctions, and the following category descriptions, lies the basic truth that children are constantly changing and growing. So what works for a 3-year-old vastly differs from what works for a 12-year-old. And that makes your work as a writer or illustrator much more complicated than if you were creating books for adults. How can you know how to adjust? Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, you'll begin to learn some rules of thumb. Keep these in mind, and remember there are exceptions:

Next, on to some more details about picture books and easy readers.

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Copyright © by Harold Underdown 2008 ( Google + Profile ). All rights reserved. One copy may be printed for personal use, but may not be otherwise reproduced, either on paper or electronically.