Friday, April 26, 2013

Children's Literature---Part Two Writing for Elementary Age Children

My last blog dealt with picture books and story books for preschoolers. Today, I’ll cover easy readers, chapter books, and middle grade novels, which are also quite structured.

Easy readers are written for children from kindergarten through second grade. Vocabulary is simple and illustrations, which may be in black and white or color, contain reading cues. They run between 1,000 and 1,500 words and 40 to 60 pages in length. The plots and settings are not complex. Though there is action, conflicts are not serious and they involve situations common to this age group.

Serving as a transition between picture books and novels, chapter books are aimed at children in the first through third grades. They may be illustrated. If so, it is with black and white drawings. At 1,500 to 10,000 and 40 to 80 pages in length, they require a longer attention span and a higher reading level. As in all stories, the plot must have a beginning, middle, and an end. Short three to four page chapters are self-contained but must serve to move the story along. Conflict is not serious.

Middle grade novels are written for third through sixth graders. Subjects are usually divided by gender. Books for boys deal with things traditionally masculine like sports and science. Stories for girls include traditionally feminine subjects like friendships, pets, and art. There are few if any illustrations. Typically, they run from 64 to 120 pages long and contain 10,000 to 16,000 words. Each of the eight to sixteen chapters has three scenes.

Like adult novels, the middle grade novel must have plot structure and character growth. It must be visually appealing starting with a realistic cover illustration. Inside, there must be balance between dense text and “white space,” accomplished by mixing dialogue and paragraphs. Sentences should be short, averaging ten words long and avoiding too many clauses. For vocabulary, use the easiest word that conveys the meaning. Rely on repetition, context, and intuition for understanding new or difficult words.

The story should be very visual and contain a lot of action and humor. While adults may be in the novel, the main character is a child. The story is told from his point of view and he reacts to situations as a child would. While likeable, he needs to be flawed in some manner. His voice should be light-hearted and intimate. Problems should be familiar to a kid’s world, and he must be the one who solves them. By the end of the book, he must change in some way.

Aside from the main plot, middle grade novels should have no more than two subplots. Characters should be slightly older than the reader. Popular genres are mysteries with kid detectives, fantasies that empower kids, and histories where a child is in a difficult situation. In addition to a physical description, humor, snappy dialogue, internal dialogue (thoughts), and gestures describe him. Humor can be visual gags, corny jokes, or ridiculous situations. However, bear in mind that he and the readers can’t process sarcasm and never let him poke fun at anyone’s expense.

The audience and market for easy readers still include adults. Adults are less involved in selecting chapter books, and middle graders choose their own books. To determine what kind of characters children can identify with, the writer should become familiar with kids’ conflicts, aspirations, and interests as well as how they think, talk, and perceive the world. The best way to do this is to observe them in various settings.

Next time we’ll look at non-fiction books for elementary children.—Quinn

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