Chapter 8: Novels and Other Books with Chapters

This is the third part of a sample chapter from the third edition of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books. The complete text of the chapter has been posted, with minor corrections, but the format has been altered to suit the Internet.

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Previous section: Picture books and easy readers

Mom, Can I Get This? Novels and Other Books with Chapters

Class Rules

I include a number of kinds of books with chapters in this category, but remember: the term chapter books means books between early readers and true novels.

Children can move from early reader books to books with chapters as early as second grade. For younger readers, the first "chapter books" may have some illustrations and be no more than 64 pages long, while middle-grade novels can range up to 200 pages or more. Chapter books are the books that bridge the gap between easy readers and true novels. They don't have controlled vocabularies, although writers must keep in mind their audience and not get too sophisticated (or too easy!).

Longer and more sophisticated books with chapters move us up into middle-grade novels. Such books are what we think of when we fondly remember classic novels for children such as E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Little House on the Prairie, and Beverly Cleary's Ramona the Pest.

More generally, "books with chapters" can be fiction or nonfiction. Here's the range of all books with chapters:

It's difficult to make hard-and-fast distinctions between the different levels, so until you develop an intuitive sense of them, just write, and remember Jane Yolen's warning about word counts.

For the Backpack


Young adult (or YA) books are exactly as they sound. YA is the term used in library collections and by publishers to designate teens.

Want to write something similar in form to books for middle-graders but more sophisticated in content? Don't forget the young adult audience. Loosely, that's teenagers.

Only relatively recently did the publishing business start to target teens separately from other children. Authors such as S. E. Hinton, Walter Dean Myers, and Judy Blume started to write more challenging novels for teenagers in the late 1960s, and the young adult category was invented in response. As noted in the October 18, 1999, "Making the Teen Scene" feature in Publishers Weekly, the trade magazine for publishing: "From The Outsiders in 1967 to Smack in 1998, publishers have consistently released books by talented authors who speak directly to a teen audience about sophisticated, though teen-appropriate concerns."

Class Rules

Don't censor your writing for a teen audience. Adults sometimes underestimate the sensitivity and self-awareness teens possess. Long before an official "young adult" genre was created, authors who respected teens were reaching them. For example, J. D. Salinger's coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye caused controversy among adults when it was published in the 1950s but is now considered a classic for teens.

Teens are likely to be insulted to find their books near the board and picture books of younger children, of course. And so for years, publishers, librarians, and booksellers have struggled over where to shelve teen titles. Sometimes there's a separate YA section in the library, store, or catalogue; sometimes there isn't. Recently, bookstores and publishers have started to rename the YA category "teen." As a writer, don't concern yourself too much with these labels.

That's a Lot of Stories!

Cutting across all the age categories are collections. You can find a collection of just about anything, from picture books to literary young adult stories. Some are put together from existing books--publisher-compiled collections like the complete Curious George. Others are new and original works, and a type of book in which some authors do well.

Folktales and Fairy Tales

Do you remember the stories of Hansel and Gretel? Sleeping Beauty? Both are fairy tales, a form of writing that developed from folktales. Fairy tales and folktales are an important part of children's literature. The only difference between the way we pass on folktales today and the way it was done ages ago is the medium. In years past the stories were passed on orally; today we use books


A folktale is a story that's been passed down orally and may appeal to both adults and children. A fairy tale, although like a folktale in form, is told specifically for children and involves more literary elements or stylistic devices. Both usually feature supernatural beings, the use of magic, happiness for the good, and punishment for the bad. Some may define these terms differently, but these definitions will apply most of the time.

You'll see plenty of such stories made into picture books, but many don't work well for an audience that young. What to do if you love these? One approach is to put together a collection. But do watch out for copyright infringement. (For guidance, see Chapter 24.) Virginia Hamilton's The People Could Fly and Howard Norman's The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese are great examples of collections of retold folktales.

Short Stories and Poetry

You can also put together other kinds of collections. Short stories can be collected for book publication, although extremely few short story collections for children are published. Those that are tend to be for older readers and include works by several writers. Look at James Howe's The Color of Absence: 12 Stories About Loss and Hope, for example. Howe wrote one of the stories and collected the others, meaning he had to seek permission to use them. If you want to publish only your stories, stick to magazines, at least until you're famous enough to put together a collection like Roald Dahl's The Umbrella Man and Other Stories.

Can You Keep a Secret?

As with short stories, if you love poetry, you can also set out to create anthologies of the work of many poets. You will have to handle permissions, though.

Poetry collections are a similarly tough sell, because the few publishers that do publish poetry look for an overall theme and a distinctive style. Ironically, that's not what publishers usually receive in the mail. Publishing companies receive a surprising number of big miscellaneous collections of poems from aspiring poets--don't go there! Take a look instead at Paul Fleischman's Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, which won the Newbery Medal in 1988. This collection not only focuses tightly on insects, it is set up to be read aloud by two people.

The Adults in the Way

We're less than halfway through our tour of the many varieties of children's books, and you already might be wondering if you have to know exactly what kind of book you've written to get it published. The short answer is no; you don't need to be able to say to a publisher, "This is an early chapter book aimed at a 7-year-old reader," but you need to have some feel for what you're doing and how it fits into the established categories.

Why? Because you can write something wonderful and not get anywhere with it, if the "gatekeepers" don't know what to do with it. Not only children read children's books. Editors read them first. Then parents, grandparents, teachers, and librarians largely decide what their children read, although teenagers typically have some control over their own spending. These people are the gatekeepers, and it's a fact of life that you must get your book past them to the child you want to reach.

Sometimes, that can be a problem, especially if you want to write something children will handle just fine but might not be approved by every adult. Still, the best children's books appeal to both children and adults. Always have, and always will. Some appeal more to adults than others do, as noted in Chapter 7. Should you, then, aim your writing at adults? No, because if you do, you might miss children altogether. Concentrate on children, and if you do your job really well, maybe you'll reach adults, too.

The Least You Need to Know

(A summary of all three sections of this chapter)

Chapter 9 continues this thread with information about subjects and genres.

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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.