Emily K. Thiede

Fast-talker, kitten-tamer, book-lover, author

May people who aren’t writers or teachers (and even some who are) may not understand the different categories of children’s literature, aka “KidLit.”

You may be thinking, “So? Who cares?” But, if you have a child, know a child, or teach children, you probably should. See, adults who don’t understand the differences may struggle to guide children toward appropriate books. And children without any guidance can run into problems, like getting frustrated or defeated by attempting to read books that are too challenging for them, or being exposed to content they aren’t ready for. Despite what many people think, some KidLit can and does include “adult” content. A precocious 8 or 9 year old may be capable of reading any book in the Youth section, but that doesn’t mean they should.

So, let’s break it down! (For a more in-depth article, click here, and Stayed tuned for Part 2, where I take a deeper dive into Young . Adult, the most maligned and misunderstood category, and also my favorite!)

Okay, let’s start at the beginning:

Board Books: (I know. Obvious. Stay with me.)
: Chicka, Chicka, Boom Boom; Goodnight Moon
: babies and toddlers
Features: Pictures, minimal or no plot, simple language
Words: 100 or fewer

Picture Books: (Give me a minute. I’m getting there.)
Ex: KnuffleBunny, SkippyJon Jones, Green Eggs and Ham
For: 3-8 year olds, often read to children by adults, but you’re never too old for a good picture book.
This may surprise you, but PB’s are very hard to write! Big props to my picture book writer friends. A good picture book is a thing of wonder.
-Usually a straightforward plot
_may touch on themes like kindness, family, friendship
-Stories are accessible to young children but language and topics range widely
Words: 500-600

Early Readers:
: Anything with “I can read!” on “Learn to Read” on the cover
For: 5-7 year olds learning to read. Designed to serve as educational tools, these may be written by a publisher’s in-house staff with input from reading specialists, rather than by “authors” in the traditional sense. (Not knocking the hustle, just saying!)
Words: varies by reading level, 100-3000
_straightforward, often repetitive sentences
_simple language
-should be mostly sight words or words that are easy to decode (*ahem* Fancy Nancy “I Can Read” creators, do we really need “through” and “enough” in a level 1 text? Really? I digress…)

Chapter Books:
Ex: Junie B. Jones, The Magic TreeHouse
For: 6-10 year olds
Words: anywhere from 3500-35,000
Features: simple themes, moderate character development as the characters learn lessons like, “Getting a new sibling isn’t so bad,” or “lying has consequences” but overall, these stories are primarily action-oriented and usually stand alone, even if they are part of a series. Often somewhat formulaic, which is not a bad thing–Chapter Book readers are usually still learning how to read, so some predictability helps them orient themselves and learn about story structure. There can be dozens of books in a series, sometimes written by multiple writers sharing one pseudonym. Not always. Don’t yell at me, CB writers!

Next up, Middle Grade!

Okay. Pause while I get on my soapbox.

This is the point where “target audience” becomes less about reading level and more about age/maturity. As children move beyond “learning to read” and become confident, proficient readers, authors have more freedom pertaining to style and topics. A Middle Grade book can be a hilarious romp full of fart jokes, or a lushly written tale about childhood and family, or an epic adventure through time and space, or a poetic exploration of grief. If your 7-10 year old is an advanced reader and you’re thinking of sending them to the Young Adult section of the library because you think they need a “challenge,” please, please, PLEASE stop and investigate Middle Grade titles first. There are so many MG books with complex language and advanced vocabulary, but they still have topics and themes that are appropriate for the minds and hearts of children. YA, on the other hand, is intended for teenagers and older. An 8-year-old’s brain is not the same as a 17-year-old’s, no matter how well they read.

*gets down off my soap box* Okay, onward.

Middle Grade:
Charlotte’s Web; The Narnia Books; Harry Potter (er…the first two books, at least. It’s complicated.)
For: 8-12 year olds
: 30,000-65,000. Contemporary/realistic is usually shorter, while science fiction/fantasy are longer (Notable exception-J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book has nearly 80,000 words. Why? Because she CAN, that’s why.)
-Plot: fully developed, 3-act structure
-distinct character arcs (characters learn, grow, and change throughout the story)
-Often a focus on characters finding their place/role in their families or immediate social networks.
-range from fart-joke-laden humor to heartwarming sibling adventures, and can touch on serious topics like losing a loved one, grief, bullying, divorce, etc.
-Regardless of topic, almost always end on a hopeful, optimistic note
Prohibitions: Usually no (or very limited) profanity, romance limited to a crush, no sex or graphic violence

Young Adult (Whee, here we go!)
Examples you’ve definitely heard of: The Hunger Games, which came out in 2008… Twilight… published in 2005. It seems like every week there’s a new think piece bashing YA written by someone who hasn’t read anything written in the past decade, and it is exhausting.
MORE RECENT EXAMPLES you may have heard of, plus some you didn’t realize were YA: Pride; The Hate You Give; Lord of the Flies, Children of Blood and Bone; The Fifth Wave, Catcher in the Rye; The Fault in Our Stars; the final Harry Potter books…sort of. Remember, J.K.Rowling isn’t bound by the same rules as everyone else?
Features: The main character must be a teenager.

That’s about it.

-Fine, it’s a bit more complicated, but that’s the most important rule
-usually told from a young person’s point of view, rather than an adult narrator looking back on a previous stage of life
-protagonists are often growing into their adult identity, discovering their place, and shaping and/or being shaped by the larger world/community beyond their immediate friends and family
-YA stories explore formative life experiences, so characters are expected to change, grow, and develop. As the story or series unfolds, events and the reactions to those events change the character’s perceptions of themselves and others.


Whew, we made it! I hope this was helpful. If it was, or even if it wasn’t, check back later for Part 2. Especially if your experiences with YA started with Twilight and ended with The Hunger Games, in which case, you have some catching up to do, and I think you’ll enjoy it. The Hunger Games is awesome (I’ll die on this hill) but regardless of your feelings toward that book, A lot of other books have been written since it was published. Many, many, many books, across genres.