Genres of Children’s Books (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series on the various genres of children's literature, author Mary Hertz Scarbrough discussed books for kids who are too young to read, as well as for early readers. In Part 2, she tackles genres for more skilled readers. Plus - how to use this information to become a children's book author.

Mary Hertz Scarbrough
4-minute read

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed picture books, board books, chapter books, and other types of literature for the very youngest readers. 

Today, we will continue looking at the genres of children's literature by reviewing books for kids who have outgrown their Captain Underpants.

Middle Grade

As a kid, I couldn’t wait to learn to read, and I loved it as soon as I did. When I got into middle grade books, it went from love to LOVE. I think it’s that way for a lot of people who write middle grade books.

Even though I’m now exponentially older than a typical middle-grade reader, who is in the 8-12 year-old range, I still LOVE middle grade books. SCBWI reckons the word count on these books ranges from 25,000 to perhaps 62,000 words. The American Library Association has compiled a variety of middle grade book lists for your perusal here.

Kids who read middle grade books are good readers. These kids are ready to tackle some of life’s big questions, as in classics like Bridge to Terabithia or Tuck Everlasting. But this isn't to say that middle grade books must be all about life or death – these readers appreciate humor as well (no surprise there).

The increasing sophistication of these readers means that as a writer, you can have a lot of fun with structure, vocabulary, plotting, characterization…you name it. There is a richness to many middle grade books that isn’t found in books for less experienced readers.

Young Adult

The age range most often cited for young adult books is 12 and up. Sometimes you might find references to books for older YA versus younger YA (say, ages 10-14). For example, if the protagonist is 17 instead of 14, you can generally expect more mature themes. However, just like the other genres, YA refuses to be strictly pigeonholed.

How long is a YA book? Excuse me while I duck that question – or try to. SCBWI says that they typically clock in somewhere between 200 and 350 manuscript pages (meaning roughly 50,000 to around 90,000 words). Yet without looking too hard, I’m sure you could find any number of exceptions on both ends of that estimate.

I've read that more and more adults are reading YA these days, and in my opinion, these people are on to something. 

Intrigued? Check out the Printz Award winners and honor books from the Young Adult Library Services Association. YALSA is also seeking teen voters for the 2013 top teen reads; voting continues through October 19. I haven’t read all 28 books nominated, but I’ve pretty much been blown away by the ones I have.

When you're starting out in your pursuit of a career in children's books, generalizations are helpful. Just don’t get hung up on them. 

Last year’s No. 2 on YALSA’s top teen reads, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, is beloved by every person in my family, and, as far as I can tell, anyone else who has read it.

I might possibly be a tiny bit obsessed with Code Name Verity, which is one of the contenders on this year’s list. I read it three times in quick succession. No kidding – I’ve never done anything like that before. Thank you, Elizabeth Wein, for your brilliance in plotting and character development. Genius.

Sometimes it might be a bit unclear whether a book is a middle grade or young adult. A lot of kids will read both, at the same time. I can’t give you a quick answer, but for a look at one writer’s view of the distinctions, check out this article by athor Claire Legrand that I found insightful.

Today’s Takeaway

All the titles I’ve mentioned in today’s article are fiction ones. But all of the genres I mentioned in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series include nonfiction as well, and poetry. Then there are graphic novels – is that a genre itself? Let’s leave that topic for another day.

As I said at the beginning of Part 1, I’m not the last word on this big topic. But when you're starting out in your pursuit of a career in children's books, generalizations are helpful. Just don’t get hung up on them. For example, writers can stress about the word count issue. Here’s a bit of advice about them from author Hope Vestergaard that makes a lot of sense to me: “Don’t get bogged down in the word count, but don’t ignore it entirely.”

Another way of looking at it is - if your picture book tops 10,000 words, I doubt it’s a picture book. Or maybe you have an enormous amount of cutting to do. (If you’re wondering how to figure out the word count in various books, you can sometimes find the info on line, at sites such as AR BookFinder.)

See also: So You Want to Write Books for Children (Part 1) and Part 2


What should you do with all this information? I’d suggest you think about what genre you are most drawn to, then daydream about what kind of book you’d like to see in that genre. Start imagining how you would tell the story or present the topic. Then make a date with your notebook or computer. It might just be the start of a beautiful relationship!


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. 

About the Author

Mary Hertz Scarbrough

Mary Hertz Scarbrough has published over two dozen children's books, including Heroes of the American Revolution, a top pick of the Junior Library Guild in September 2012 for books about Revolutionary War heroes. Her freelance experience includes books for English Language Learners, curriculum writing, encyclopedia articles, ad corporate communications.