In part one, I discussed general categories and level of language. Today I’ll continue with subject matter and word counts. I also promised a great resource, which I’ll give near the bottom of this post.
To help me through this, I’m going to reference three books that have helped me a lot.
When I first decided to try writing for kids, I found Tracey Dils’s book and read it quickly. Some of my friends thought I was silly for reading something with a title so on-the-nose, but You Can Write Children’s Books actually has a lot of good advice for people starting out. It clearly outlines not just category conventions (ex. word counts, pacing, etc.) but also details developmental stages. Hugely helpful!
These developmental stages are illustrated in the second book, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams by Kenneth Koch. It follows Koch’s experiences teaching poetry to children in Manhattan classrooms. He talks about the kinds of writing prompts that kids responded well to. He also notes differences in theme and tone by age.
Consider the following poems:
I wish my rabbit would not lick me!
I wish that I can eat in a tree like dinner.
I wish I could eat chicken all night long!
I wish that I was a giraffe because they got a long neck!
I wish I could go to the river and eat meat!
I wish I was a monkey to eat a banana! I wish I was as bad as my brother.
Chip Wareing, Primary Grade
Ignoring the brilliant cadence–the alternating can/could, the unusual phrase “in a tree like dinner”, the pounding towards spondees at the end of most lines, the unexpected periods–try to focus on the poem’s sense of fun. It has a tail of longing at the end on “brother” but most of the poem is gleefully leaping about.
I was in a cartoon on television. I was a broom standing in a corner. I swept floors with my feet. I didn’t like sweeping floors.
I was bought from a store.
I was able to talk.
I was a moveable broom.
I was very mad because all I did was sweep.
I was finally so mad I turned right back into a tree.
I threw my trees of oranges at the people I swept floors for.
Ilona Baburka, Grade 4
A few years later, and what a change. You could say this is dependent on individuals, but Koch notes a trend and the poems included support him. The kids start out bursting with energy, begin to be more aware of others around grade three, then turn responsible and bittersweet in the later years. It’s remarkable to see the shift in the poems.
The last book above, A Sense of Wonder, is a collection of essays by Katherine Paterson. I don’t have a copy (I borrowed it from the library) so I can’t quote from it as much as I’d like, but here is one part that’s guided my own work:
I cannot, will not, withhold from my young readers the harsh realities of human hunger and suffering and loss, but neither will I neglect to plant that stubborn seed of hope that has enabled our race to outlast wars and famines and the destruction of death. If you think that this is the limitation that will keep me forever a writer for the young, perhaps it is. I don’t mind. I do what I can and do it joyfully.
In another section, she lists the terrible things that have happened in her books: sexual abuse, racist slurs, starvation, death, etc. According to Paterson, a book isn’t made a kids book by lack of dark subject matter; it’s made a kids book by the inclusion of hope.
In honesty and fairness, I was originally planning to have this section talk about the envelopes that you shouldn’t push in certain categories, but the more that I thought about it, the less committed I felt to those “rules”. I wouldn’t say you should write your first board book about teenage pregnancy, but I’m also not willing to say that a good board book about teenage pregnancy is impossible.
Those dark and complicated issues are important, and for the most part I think the sooner that people start exploring them in a safe, approachable, and grounded manner the better.
I’ll let Paterson close this section for me.
There are adults who would rather teenagers not come face to face with such agonizing truths. But I have never been sorry that I met my shadow when I was sixteen.
Lately I’ve been working off the numbers posted on Literary Rambles, which run as follows:
Board Books: 0 – 100 words.
Early Picture Books: 0 – 500 words.
Picture Books: 50 – 1,000 words. 1k is pushing it.
Nonfiction Picture Books: 500 – 2,000 words.
Early Readers: 200 – 3,500 words, depending on age level.
Chapter Books: 4,000 – 10,000 words.
Hi-Lo Books: 500 – 50,000 words, varies greatly depending on age level. A large number fall between 500 – 20k words. Some 60-90k YA books get classified as Hi-Lo, but I don’t think they were specifically written for the category.
Middle Grade: 25,000 – 45,000 words, usually around 35-40k. Longer word counts allowed for fantasy, sci-fi, historical. Up to 60-70k is probably safe (though there are even longer exceptions).
Young Adult: 45,000 – 70,000 words. Longer word counts allowed for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, historical. 80-90k is safe (there are some as high as 120k, but I recommend staying below 100k, if possible).
Nonfiction MG/YA: 5,000 – 70,000 words, varies greatly (with some exceeding 100k) depending on the type of book and age level (I recommend researching similar titles to what you’re writing/proposing to find appropriate range). Memoirs seem to fall within the same range as novels for their age group.
They have links to several other sources on the topic that are worth checking out if this is a new area for you.
But here’s the resource I’ve been hyping: AR Book Finder. It’s a search tool that will let you find the word count of almost any published novel. Cool, right?
I recommend looking up a few books in the category you’re writing in, whether it’s chapter books or literary historical romance. You might be surprised how many cluster around the same area, and then how far out in left field a favorite novel might be.
At the end of the day, the real answer on word counts is that your story should be as long as it needs to be, and not any longer. If you’re writing the kind of story that is normal for your category, it should end up fitting pretty close on its own.