Wednesday, April 2, 2014

How To Write For Children: Chapter Books

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

I spent the last month writing three chapter books. These books are targeted at readers in grades 2-7, though the majority of readers in this genre are in 2-4th grades. Most books are between 5,000 to 15,000 words long. Some examples of this genre are books like Magic Treehouse by Mary Pope Osborne, Dragon Slayers’ Academy by Kate McMullan, Secrets of Droon by Tony Abbott, or Franny K. Stein: Mad Scientist by Jim Benton. 

My project was called RoboTales. And I wrote it at the upper end of the chapter book spectrum. It is a series of eight fractured fairytales that take place in another universe. My agent felt it best that I write the first three books in the series, so that is what I did. And it was hard! I'm used to writing 120,000-word tomes, and these were each 12,000 words long. Here is a little more information from my book proposal: 

In each fractured fairytale, Robo the robot dog helps a child in need. In return, each child helps Robo gather another clue to who created him and why, which sends Robo to his next destination in the solar system.

Book One: Tinker (Cinderella)
“Recycle and create.” That’s Tinker’s motto. He’s an inventor, who lives with his uncle and cousins on planet Kitz. He finds out that the Invention Institute is having a Recycle Race to choose a new apprentice for their boarding school for young inventors. Tinker builds an airbike for the contest. When Tinker's cruel cousins destroy it, Tinker gets some help from a robot dog and fixes his entry in time to compete.

And, of course, I made a map.

Also, just for fun, here is a video that me and my kids made to go with the proposal.

Okay, enough playing around. :-)

So, how do you write for this age group? Here are a few tips.

1. Read.
Before I started writing, I went to the library and checked out the first book in about ten different chapter book series. I read them all, paying close attention to word choice, sentence structure, characters, character development, and plot. This taught me everything I needed to know. And it gave me a list of comparables for my book proposal.

2. Keep it simple.
I love complex plots. But for chapter books, you need to keep things simple. That doesn't mean you can't have mystery in your story, but try and keep it to one mystery per story. You also want to keep your cast of characters to a minimum. Many books in this genre have two protagonists, a boy and a girl, to appeal to all readers.

3. Avoid contractions.
This isn't a hard and fast rule, and if you're writing longer books (10,000-15,000) you can use a contraction here and there. But if you're writing the short ones, the 5,000-word books, it's best to keep them to a minimum---unless they're in dialogue. This length book is the type that new readers will be reading. No longer are parents reading a picture book to the child. The child is reading on his own! Keep that in mind so that even very new readers can handle what you give them.

4. Avoid complex sentences.
This goes back to my last point. Use simple sentence structures. That doesn't mean you can't use any complex sentences. Just try and remember your target reader. Check out this sample from Magic Treehouse:

       “Help! A monster!” said Annie.
       “Yeah, sure,” said Jack. “A real monster in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania.”
       “Run, Jack!” said Annie. She ran up the road.
       Oh, brother.
       This is what he got for spending time with his seven-year-old sister.
       Annie loved pretend stuff. But Jack was eight and a half. He liked real things.
       “Watch out, Jack! The monster’s coming! Race you!”

You might read this and think it feels halting and awkward. But these books are not written for you. They are written for new readers, and new readers need shorter sentences. If you're writing the longer type of chapter books, you can get away with more than you can in the shorter ones.

5. Purposeful repetition is encouraged.
Find things in the story that you can bring back and repeat. Magic Treehouse does this each time the treehouse spins and travels through time. It's the exact same words. The kids love it because they know what's happening. I was able to use this in my books each time Robo spoke and when he needed fuel.

Keep in mind, I haven't sold the RoboTales series. I only gave it to my agent to see if she could find a home for it. So I'm far from an expert on this genre. Do you write for younger kids? Anything I missed? Any questions?


  1. This was an inspiring blog post! I don't write for kids yet, although I can remember me telling stories to my siblings and my cousins ;-)
    I have a question, though: Are you able to turn off that thing inside which says: 'You shouldn't use the 'said' tag all the time. This is absolutely the wrong way to write' or things like that? I guess it must be hard to write children books, or is it easier than it seems?

    1. I don't turn off anything until I go back and rewrite. My first drafts are a mess. Then I fix them later. I do think it's harder to write for kids because you have fewer words to tell your story. And it's often harder to make fewer words excellent.

  2. I found this post really helpful! I don't want to write beginning chapter books, but I would like to take a shot at children's chapter books. I've had to work hard to use simpler sentences and not as many subplots, as I'm used to writing and reading YA.
    Thanks Jill!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    1. It is hard work! But it's also fun. :-)

  3. Really liked this post! I love the concept :D


  4. I guess that I write mainly for YA, but I write stories that are short enough for beginner readers. :)

  5. This helped me a lot! For Camp Nanowrimo this month I am writing a work for kids ages 8-12. It can be difficult, but I have three siblings in that age group that I can bombard about their likes and dislikes in novels.

  6. Originally, I wrote for kids. Sort of. Up until I turned thirteen, I only read middle grade novels, as most YA were too old for me at the time. Now, I write YA and I'm planning both an adult novel and an MG novel. Truth be told, I still have a huge fondness for MG and other kid novels. Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Warriors, Wings of Fire... All of those are technically MG (though Percy Jackson is starting to turn YA and Harry Potter starts turning YA around book 4 or 5.)

    But on one thing, I disagree. When you're writing for children, it just depends on how your sentences are structured and written - and by that, it really just depends on the age group you're writing for. Five through eight? Yeah, you'll want short, easy-to-read sentences. Eight through twelve? They can get a bit more complicated. My sister is eleven and she's reading the Maximum Ride series, having just finished her first full length novel, but that takes her about a week. I'm fifteen. I can read a Harry Potter novel in three days - but I only read those while I'm sitting down at the table and drinking tea or eating breakfast/lunch. So... It just depends, I guess.

    Anyway, yeah, writing for kids is important. They need good, healthy books. Novels. Short stories. Kidlit is slowly fading into the background - maybe that's OK for some, but I personally think we need a LOT more kids reading.

    And I'm only fifteen.

    Just my two cents.

    1. You are right that older readers need more complex sentences, Tabby. Let me try and clarify what types of books I'm talking about in this post. I'm not talking about middle grade books. There are some readers out there in the 8-12 age bracket that don't read middle grade because they are too difficult. Those readers tend to read simpler books, which are in the beginning chapter book grouping. And, like I said, there are two types of books in the beginning chapter book spectrum. Shorter ones that are 3000 to 5000 words long. And longer ones 5000-15000 words long. So sentence structure and vocabulary change depending on which type of chapter book you are writing. If you are writing middle grade, anything goes, for the most part. Those books are much more complex all around and tend to be 40,000 words and up, many over 80,000 words long. Most advance readers don't spend much time reading beginning chapter books. They skip right to middle grade and young adult. My son read Magic Treehouse in kindergarten and was done with them by first grade. But my daughter stayed with them much longer, mostly because she liked the pictures. LOL

  7. You're mainly referring to 5-8 though right? I think you can slip a few complex sentences in there because how else are they supposed to learn to read them?
    I write YA fantasy, but I want to write an MG. I love reading books, but the books I want don't exist yet so I write them! I'm way more clingy the MG selection than the YA (Better were the days without romance invading every book. I prefer deep stories over sappy ones. :P).
    Good post!

    1. Do you mean ages 5-8 or grades 5-8? My chapter books were on the upper end of the beginning chapter book spectrum, so I had some more complex sentences and some new vocab so they would learn. But if you are writing for the lower end, it's best to keep it simple. These are not middle grade books. They're a step below.

      I'm glad you've found a genre that needs books! Keep at it. That sounds awesome. :-)

    2. I met ages, sorry! Sometimes I type faster than I think.
      Thanks for replying!

  8. I love this, Jill! I've just started studying how to write beginning readers and chapter books. Thanks for sharing!

  9. It is not a genre I think I will be writing in myself any time soon, but it was an interesting and fun post to read up on Jill. Good luck with the RoboTales Series.

  10. This was interesting to read. I remember writing those stories when I was ten or so. In fact, the first "books" I remember writing were similar to the Magic Treehouse series. ;) I called it "The Story of the Magic Books" and it involved a magic whirlwind taking you into books...hmmm.

    That said, I haven't tried writing those basic books since then. I can definitely see how it would take a bunch of getting used, that's a lot shorter. Two, the whole simple sentences thing. I'm not sure I could do that very well after all this older writing I've been doing, or even if I'd want to. But we'll see. :)

  11. Such a timely post! I found a series of stories I had written years ago after moving recently and I thought, "I wonder if these could be chapter books for younger readers?" I'm taking your info and putting it to use, gonna dust those scripts off and try it your way.

  12. Wow--what a creative storyline, Jill! I'm supposedly a writer and yet my creativity is nothing like yours. . . .

  13. I was thinking about writing a steampunk trilogy for children. I was thinking that it might make them feel like they are reading something much more advanced than it really is. Do you think that this is a good idea? What age should the characters be if the book is directed towards readers 6-10 years old?

  14. This is a pretty cool post! I don't write stories for children yet, but I've definitely thought about it. And I actually still read Magic Tree House books sometimes...

    Alexa Skrywer

  15. My goal is to write for 12-15 y/o? :) I write younger kid stories too, and I see what you mean about contractions and sentence structure. :) Thanks

  16. Wow...this post is inspiring me to write a kids' beginning chapter book! I think my next writing project will be a book for kids ages 5 to 8. :) Thanks! *Runs off to brainstorm for a little kids' book*