Fiction for young readers is big business.
That’s because kids aren’t the only ones reading it. Look at the success of series like Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Divergent, and more—everyone can enjoy the themes of finding yourself, establishing relationships, and seeking change in the world.
But every genre that breaks out of its niche into the mainstream gets complicated fast. Gone are the days when there was just the “Juvenile Fiction” section at the library, cramming together picture books and books for teens.
Today, we have an explosion of categories for younger readers: children’s books, kidlit, middle grade, YA, new adult, books for young readers…the list goes on.
What’s the difference between all these different categories? And do they really matter?
Let’s check it out.
The overall name for books intended for young readers—loosely defined as “people who aren’t out of college yet”—is children’s literature.
Of course, this leaves a lot to be desired, given that you wouldn’t really consider a 16-year-old to be in the same reading category as a 6-year-old, an infant, or a 20-year-old!
That’s why we’ve ended up with all the sub-genres we have: it’s an attempt by librarians, booksellers, marketers, publishers, and others in the book industry to narrow down the scope of literature for young readers so that they can better understand their audience and target their interests.
This overall category is also sometimes known as juvenile literature, but that isn’t a great name, either, as it implies that the books might be less than serious or professional—which isn’t the case. Books for young readers often deal with very heavy topics, like death or illness. They’re defined less by their subject matter and more by the age they’re intended for.
In the past few years, the name kidlit has become popular with a lot of writers who target younger readers—it’s a shorter, snappier way of saying “children’s literature” or “books for younger readers.”
This category also covers a lot of territory: some people use it to define any book with a target audience under the age of 18 or so, while others narrow that down to books meant for readers about 8 and under.
Regardless, there are a lot of different types of books to be found here.
First books are exactly what they sound like: baby’s first book. Some of these are even meant to be read to the baby before it’s born!
Often, these books are actually more complex than books meant for slightly older kids, as the child isn’t really meant to understand the words or concepts—the books are more to get them used to the sounds of words and reading.
Grownups read these books to their very young kids, often as part of reading groups or playgroups at libraries and community centers. They focus on introducing babies to their new world and giving parents an opportunity to soothe the baby with their voice.
Picture books are what most of us think of when we think of books for small children. They are often beautifully illustrated, but don’t have many words—they’re meant to be easy for very young children to understand.
Frequently, picture books only have 200-300 words, but the pictures more than make up for that.
Picture books are often the result of intense collaboration between an author and an artist, and the illustrator may play a key role in developing the book and its plot—which is a switch from the usual author-illustrator relationship.
Because illustrations are so critical to a great picture book, it’s important that you either be a good artist yourself or be able to work with a good artist to develop your picture book.
Always be sure to get a signed contract for any art that’s created, whether you’re commissioning it for a fee or partnering with the illustrator on a royalty share—that will be important when your book is published.
Board books are a lot like picture books, but they’re meant more for very small children to use themselves, whereas picture books might be read together between parent and child.
To encourage young readers to get used to using books, board books are very sturdy. The pages are made of thick cardboard to stand up to small hands flipping the pages and playing with them.
That’s the main difference between a board book and other types of kidlit books: the pages are super-thick and stiff and they don’t tear or bend easily.
The types of content are similar to other picture books: lots of images combined with simple words.
Board books may also include various objects or items to stimulate the child’s sense of touch, like a piece of faux fur to pat or cutouts to stick things into.
Rhythmic books overlap with a lot of board books and picture books, but they deserve a category of their own because of how many there are!
Nursery rhymes, sing-song books, and even the work of Dr. Seuss falls into this group of books, which is meant to help children explore language and concepts through sound.
Concept books teach kids about the world around them. They may fall into the “picture book” category as well, but many of these books are a little more complex because of the challenging issues they seek to explain.
Concept books can cover any topic from death or illness to the environment to welcoming a new baby brother or sister—the key feature is that they’re trying to explain something about life to the child.
Even books about tying your shoes or being nice to animals falls into this sub-category of kidlit. If you’re trying to teach a child something about the world in an engaging and easy-to-understand way, you might be writing a concept book.
Early readers are meant for kids who are getting pretty good at reading on their own. The exact age range varies, because every child’s reading ability progresses at their own pace, but in general, early readers are for kids between 5 and 8 years old.
These books are more challenging and complex than picture books or concept books, but still use simpler words and more direct grammar than books meant for older children.
Early reader books are often a bit longer than other kidlit books—they may start introducing short chapters, longer paragraphs, and other features to gently ease kids into the kinds of reading they’ll do as they grow up.
Some of these books teach concepts and others are just for fun. Think of books like the Fancy Nancy series or even James and the Giant Peach—these books start to advance young readers’ skills and blur the line between “baby books” and “grownup books” as kids engage with reading.
Middle grade books are meant for younger readers who are comfortable with longer works, more complex topics and grammar, and full chapters.
There’s a huge range of types and styles in this area—everything from Black Beauty to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series could be considered middle grade!
Basically, if it’s appropriate for a kid between 8 and 13, it’s probably middle grade.
These books are often full of adventure, because kids in this age range are exploring their world and learning more about themselves.
The concepts frequently deal with making friends, understanding who you are, finding your place in the world, and figuring out how to stand up for yourself while also not being a jerk.
You know: all the things tweens deal with!
The language and structure of middle grade books is often on the simpler side of what a grownup might expect. That’s to help keep young readers engaged and prevent them from feeling frustrated by too many big words they have to constantly look up.
Some of the most popular middle grade subgenres today are middle grade fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction. Authors are finding great success writing about how kids lived in the past—or how they might live in the future.
YA, or “young adult,” fiction is one of the hottest genres around—both for kids and adults!
This category is technically intended for teenagers, but almost everyone can identify with the challenges and topics covered in these books, as the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter books and other supposedly YA series has proved.
Teens from 14 to 18 are the traditional target audience here, but both younger and older readers may enjoy the dynamic characters and scenarios that tend to appear in YA books.
YA has about a billion subgenres, from YA romance to fantasy to dystopia to sci-fi. Some of the most popular themes appear again and again: going off to a school for special individuals (whether spies, vampires, wizards, or Greek gods); fighting against injustice (often in a post-apocalyptic dystopia); finding first love; dealing with bullies; and coping with crazy families.
Themes are often more complex and mature than in books for earlier readers—there’s accidents, deaths, tragedies, love, and more. Still, a lot of the action takes place “off screen” when sex and violence are involved, because parents and others may not be comfortable with their 14-year-olds reading explicit scenes.
With all these variations, how can you tell if you’re writing a YA book? Well, is the main character somewhere between the ages of 14 and 18, dealing with things that other 14-to-18-year-olds would be interested in?
It’s probably a YA book.
One of the most recent categories to turn up is new adult.
This is largely a marketing invention, created because people realized that there was an emerging group of books meant for readers who are out on their own but not quite comfortable with that.
New adult books are largely meant for readers who are moving away from home for the first time, starting to experience life as an independent adult, but struggling with some of the many complications that brings on.
Finding your first job, getting an apartment, dealing with relationships and breakups, getting established in your career—all of these are typical new adult topics.
New adult books have been around for a long time, despite only getting a category name in the past few years. Many of them cross over with romance books, literary fiction, or chick-lit categories: think of The Devil Wears Prada or Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
There are really no rules when it comes to content, writing level or technique, and so on in new adult books—they’re meant for adults, after all…just ones in their early 20s. The defining characteristic of the group is simply that they’re meant for adults who are just starting to get a grip on what it means to be an adult.
Do Children’s Literature Genres Matter?
So now that we know what the various children’s literature genres are, the big question is: Do they really matter?
If you’re writing a great book, does it really matter what age range it’s targeted at? Do you have to put a label like “YA” on a book like Divergent if it’s going to appeal to a much, much wider audience?
Well, no…not really.
Great books will always find an audience. And that audience is often much larger than you might expect from the labels that are applied to the book.
After all, saying something is “a middle grade fantasy book” narrows its appeal to a very small group. But the ideas in that book could appeal to millions of people, given the opportunity—that’s where we get smash successes like The Golden Compass.
The best thing to do is to simply write the book that you want to write.
Yes, you should do market research and learn what your audience is looking for—but you should also write something you’re passionate about, because your love of the topic will shine through and make your writing sparkle.
But don’t simply jump on the bandwagon. Just because unicorns are selling like crazy in the middle grade area doesn’t mean that you need to write your next book about a 13-year-old unicorn! In fact, following trends may mean that you experience less success, because readers are already moving on to the next thing by the time you’ve published your trendy book.
Don’t worry too much about what age range your book targets. It’ll start to flow naturally as you write: a book with a 7-year-old protagonist will usually start to shape up as a middle grade book, and one with a 21-year-old getting his first job will naturally start to develop into new adult.
Now, this isn’t always the case—there are books that feature young protagonists that are meant exclusively for adult readers, like Life of Pi—but as you write your book, it’ll start to become clear what reading level you’re using.
When the book is done and it’s time to market, that’s when labels become handy. Being able to target possible readers using smart keyword strategies will help you sell more books and win more fans—and age-range categories are a big part of that keyword strategy.
So once the book is written, read through it again and have some trusted friends or fans read through it, too. Ask them what age range they think it’s most appropriate for: 8–13, 14–18, or 18 and up?
Use that to label your book for marketing and to start targeting your audience.
Literature for younger readers takes a lot of forms, but all of it deals with universal themes of finding your place in the world—so it can be enjoyed by anyone.
Share your experiences with writing for younger audiences in the comments!
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For more on writing and targeting fiction, check out these articles:
- How to Write a Fiction Book Blurb That Sells (Not Just Another Boring Synopsis)
- How To Earn a Full-Time Income Writing Fiction Books
- How to Write Better Fiction and Become a Great Novelist