There are those who believe that writing for young readers is easier than writing for adults, but they couldn’t be more wrong! When we write for young readers, we need to consider the same things for them as we do adult readers, with the added understanding of their developmental stages. So today we’re going to explore the different genres for young people and how to identify and understand your ideal reader.
Let’s start by defining the categories within children’s literature. (Just to clarify I’m talking only about fiction today.) The publishing industry defines these categories by age, and bookstores lump them all together this way, often regardless of the genre of the book.
Defining the Audience By Age
We start with picture books for the youngest readers, then move into early readers or early chapter books. The defining characteristic of both of these categories is that they use illustrations to help tell the story. I’m not going to spend any more time talking about these; if you are a picture book or early reader writer, feel free to get in touch with me and I’d be happy to point you in the direction of some good resources.
Middle grade fiction is generally defined as being for readers ages 8-12. Once we begin to move into the broader category of middle grade fiction, illustrations are scarce or nonexistent, unless the book is a graphic novel.
The next and final category for young readers is young adult fiction, commonly just called YA. YA is defined by the publishing industry as being intended for readers ages 13-18.
The age of your protagonist is basically your cue as to what age group you are writing for. Writers often come to me saying they’re writing YA when the protagonist is 11, or middle grade when the protagonist is 15. But of course, these examples are backwards.
One note about the age of the protagonist and the age of the reader: young readers tend to like to read stories about someone just a bit older than them. So if your ideal reader is 10, make your protagonist 11 or 12.
It’s important to recognize how broad these age ranges are. I’ve taught 8-year-olds and I’ve taught 12-year-olds, and they are very, very different developmentally. And those of us raising teenagers know that every year is different than the last. Asking the questions I’m going to give you in a minute will help, but just remember that, even though your book might be marketed as for a range like 8-12 or 13-18, you still have the responsibility to know the specific age of your ideal reader and write it to that general developmental stage, not above or below it.
Identify the Specific Genre
Once you understand the age range of your audience – primarily defined by the age of your protagonist – you should identify the genre of your specific story. Are you writing middle grade fantasy? YA mystery? Middle grade historical fiction? YA romance? Or are you writing a quiet contemporary story, like I am? Just because you are writing for a young audience doesn’t mean that you can ignore the conventions of genre or be any less intentional than you would be writing for adults.
Describe Your Ideal Reader
Now we’ve talked about ideal readers before; here’s a link back to that episode. It can be hard to narrow this down, because of course, we want all of the people to read it and love it, right? The problem is that, if we are writing to everyone, then really we’re writing to no one. Narrowing your focus doesn’t mean that anyone and everyone can’t pick up your book and enjoy it. But the more specific we can get about who we most want to pick up our book, the more our book will speak to them when they do.
There are a number of questions you want to ask about this ideal reader, including age, gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, personality type, etc. It may be that one thing, such as age in this case, matters more than something else, and that is important to notice for yourself, too.
There are also more personal questions you need to ask, such as
What are they struggling with?
What do they want more than anything?
And with young readers, we need to get even more specific about developmental stage.
Are they strong readers with rich vocabularies, or is that not so necessary?
Are they just beginning to approach puberty, or is that still a ways off?
Are they closely tied to their families, or are they beginning to assert some independence?
Where is the center of their world? Is it school? Their bedroom? A backyard hideout? A grandmother’s house?
Are they worried more about what adults think, or what their peers think?
Asking these types of questions, and others like it, will help you narrow your focus even further and to deeply understand where they are coming from so that you can tailor your story to meet their needs.
Writing for young readers is a joy and a privilege and is no less challenging than writing for adults. Take the identification of your ideal readers as seriously as you would for any other type of writing, and you will be more likely to hit the target when they pick up your book from the shelves.
Grab the Free Guide! 10 Essential Questions to Ask Before Starting Your Novel >>