My advice on writing for children
Picture Books

This is the only form that I’m going to comment in depth on. And even what I say should be taken worth a grain of salt. In general, picture book word length is between 0 – 1,300 words.

Some picture books use no words. Some use lots of words. Some are written for preschoolers. Others are written for middle schoolers. Not long ago I would have been more harsh word length. I would have said that picture books need to be under 800 words. But I just talked with picture book legend Allison McGhee and she suggested that picture books be around 300 words. Funny thing was, she did not know that I had just sold a picture book a couple days before that was around 700 words.

But her next bit of advice to me as a writer changed my world. “Write what your heart tells you to write. Don’t worry about word count or form. Write what it is you need. Write what is in your heart, and then the form will come.”

I know a writer, she has written one of the most beautiful picture books I have ever read. I don’t know if it will ever be published. It is around 2,000 words. It’s a picture book, beautifully written, but it may never see the light of day because other people told her that her picture book was too long. Don’t listen to those voices. Don’t hide treasures away because you may have extended the form. Write what is in your heart. Write with all your heart. I know that things will work themselves out.

Early Readers & Chapter Books

I’m not going to belabor this. I once had an opinion on how these books should be written. I went to a reading where Allison McGhee read the rule breaking Bink and Gollie, A first grader in the back of the room raised his hand and asked the author if she indented to write so many genres …. Allison was stunned. She opened her hands to the child and said, “This proves my point, exactly. How old are you young man?”

“Eight,” he said.

I want to tell you that early readers are typically 300 – 4,000 words. But that has not always been true. When Kate DiCamillo wrote her Mercy Watson Series, it was published by Candlewick Press. It broke all the rules of an early reader. DiCamillo used words well beyond the early readers’ ability to sound out or comprehend.

Mercy Watson was written first and foremost to be a great and engaging story. When Mercy Watson first came out, bookstore owners didn’t know where to put it on the shelf. But I can promise you, kids found that book. Kids found all those books, fell in love with them all and then learned words like “porcine” and “convertible.”

The same goes with chapter books. I’m not going to give you rules. Because of my education, I am burdened by so many rules. Rather I hope you write. Let your heart and story guide you. Let your story choose its form.

Middle Grade

Write and write and write and if you stop between 23,000 – 50,000, then maybe you’ve written a middle grade novel.

Yes, it’s that simple.

Young Adult

This genre can tend to be very long for my liking. But it can be as short as a picture book.

What am I trying to say is Young Adult is less about word count as it is about topic. If you are writing about graphic crime, violence, teen sexuality, adult level or coming of age themes that interest young adults (age 14 – 34), then you may want to target the book you’re writing to YA.