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Genres of Children’s Books (Part 1)

What do speed dating and genres in children's literature have in common? If you are interested in writing and reading books for children, read Part 1 of Mary Hertz Scarbrough's mini-series to find out.

By
Mary Hertz Scarbrough
September 12, 2013

Think of today’s article as an exercise in speed dating.

You look confused, so let me assure you – you are in the right place; I’m speaking metaphorically. This is an article about writing books for children, not advice from Modern Manners Guy. But the way I see it, just as you can learn a lot about a potential date in just a few minutes, in the same brief amount of time I can introduce you to the different genres in children’s literature. And I’m betting, by the time I’m done, you’ll find one or two you’d like to get to know better. Genres, I’m talking genres of children’s literature, folks. I can’t be much help with actual speed dating.

A quick conversation with someone won’t give you a full picture of them; likewise, this quick view won’t give you the entire scoop on the various genres in children’s literature. Nor am I claiming to be the last word on the subject. Opinions abound, and even when knowledgeable people come to a general consensus, there are always exceptions.

Now, with those caveats, let’s begin. I suggest we line up, roughly according to age (of the child reader):

Picture Books

Intended for and beloved by the teeniest and tiniest of humans, picture books are light on text and heavy on illustrations.

Board books, a type of picture book, are the book of choice for the littlest ones, perhaps up to ages 2 or 3: anyone who likes to chew on and generally maul reading materials. Nearly indestructible, board books may contain no text, just some labels for pictures, or a short amount of text. (You might sometimes see board books classified as a separate genre, but in my opinion, they are a format, just as a paperback or e-book is a format. Some picture books are available as both a “regular” book and as a board book.)

Many a misguided person has embarked on writing a picture book “because there is nothing to them,” only to discover that this notion is complete poppycock.

Three-year-olds love picture books; many 8-year-olds do, too. As you can imagine, poll random members in either group, and you’ll find they like very different books. Writers and their editors are up to the challenge of serving this vast array of kids. As a result, the complexity of the story (or subject and how it is handled in nonfiction) varies accordingly.

Not surprisingly, picture book word count can vary quite a lot as well. A book for the younger end of the spectrum will typically have a low word count – a few hundred, or even less. At the other end, you’ll find some books that are 1,000 words or sometimes even more, but the norm is below 1,000. If some of the vocabulary seems a bit advanced in some books, keep in mind that these books are often read to a child, instead of a child reading it on her own.

Many a misguided person has embarked on writing a picture book “because there is nothing to them,” only to discover that this notion is complete poppycock. (For me, picture books are like broccoli. Broccoli is full of good qualities; I admire all the good things about it, but I just can’t eat it. In the same way, I appreciate and savor good picture books, but from afar – writing them is not my forte.)

Type “picture book list” into a search engine and soon you’ll be marveling at the variety of picture books – you can read about poop (animals, people, history), Pluto (character or dwarf planet), pests (siblings or insects). You name it and there’s a good chance someone has written a picture book about it.

Books for Beginning Readers

This genre goes by various names:  early readers, easy-to-read, easy readers, and so on, but typically caters to ages 5-8. Simple yet engaging stories and easy vocabulary are two of the hallmarks of these books. Look for controlled vocabulary, at least in the simplest ones – the author may have been limited to a specific list of vocabulary words. Think of Green Eggs and Ham – how it rocks with just 50 words. Sentences are short and simple.

Illustrations on every page or spread still help children decode these books. The trim size (the size of the book) is typically smaller than picture books, making the emerging reader feel more like a seasoned veteran. These books can run from less than 100 words to 1,500 words – again, an approximation.

Chapter Books

Pretty soon these emerging readers are ready for chapter books. Instead of illustrations doing a lot of the heavy lifting regarding context clues, now prose begins to shoulder the load.

Chapter book readers will be between 7 and 10 years old, most likely. The word count, once again, depends on who you ask. The experts at SCBWI say a chapter book manuscript will run between 40 and 60 pages, which roughly translates to 10,000 to 15,000 words. Another source says 4,000 to 10,000.

A couple of big name series in chapter books that you may have heard of: Junie B. Jones by Barbara Park and Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. But that’s just for starters, of course. And, I might add, people (i.e., parents and teachers) tend to love or hate both of these series. In fact, Captain Underpants topped the list of frequently challenged books of 2012, according to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. One thing that isn’t challenged is their popularity with kids.

Whew, this is exhausting. A nice glass of wine would be refreshing about now, while we pause to get our bearings. If this were a speed-dating event, your head would probably be swimming, trying to keep everything straight. The same is true regarding different genres of books, word counts, ages of readers – it’s not a completely linear progression, because that’s not how kids develop. A child might be reading books in different genres at the same time.

In Part 2 of this series, we'll discuss middle grade and young adult genres, plus how you can use this information to become a children's book author. Stay tuned!

***

Mary Hertz Scarbrough is the author of two dozen children's books. Her book, Heroes of the American Revolution, was a top pick of the Junior Library Guild in September 2012. Her freelance experience includes books for English language learners, curriculum writing, encyclopedia articles, corporate communications, and much more. Mary taught children’s writing through the Institute of Children’s Literature and served as an assistant regional advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Mary teaches writing for the University of South Dakota; she has degrees in English and German, as well as a law degree.

 

Kids and books image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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