Thursday, March 10, 2016

Who is My Audience? Age Categories for Children’s Books

By Laurisa White Reyes, @lwreyes

Part of the Indie Authors Series 

If you are as avid a reader as I am, you are probably familiar with the term “children’s books,” but if you write for children, you should also be familiar with the specific categories of children’s books, and there are quite a few. Recently, in my writers’ group, a new writer raised this question—Which category does my book fit into? Too many new writers start writing with the general idea that their audience will be children but have no idea which group of children they should target. This is problematic for several reasons, which I’ll explain a little later. First, let’s take a closer look at children’s books and how each category is defined.

Board Books & Picture Books

At first glance, these categories might seem pretty straight forward. Board books appeal to babies and toddlers, while picture books connect with slightly older kids who appreciate the colorful pictures and simple storylines. In general, picture books should appeal to ages 3-8, but the age of your target audience is really determined by how complex the story is and how much text is involved. For example, the indie-published counting book 5 Polar Bears by Wes Nehring is perfect for pre-school aged readers, while the emotional complexity of Neil Waldman’s Al and Teddy appeals to early grade schoolers.

Early Readers & Chapter Books

These two categories sometimes overlap in regards to the ages of their audiences. Early readers, such as Mo Willems’ We Are in a Book, are very short with text designed to assist children ages 5 to 9 in developing their reading skills. However, chapter books, such as The Magic Treehouse and The Secrets of Droon series, are aimed at children just beginning to read independently, between the ages of 6 – 10, and the stories often focus on humor, mystery, or adventure.

Middle Grade & Young Adult

Despite the fact that many writing contests lump middle grade and young adult into a single category (which drives me nuts), they are two distinct categories. As the Editor-in-Chief of Middle Shelf Magazine, a publication about books for middle grade readers, I can’t tell you how frequently authors request reviews for their books, claiming they are for middle grade AND young adult readers.

NO. It doesn’t work that way. You must choose one category or the other. Libraries and book stores shelve books according to these categories. Often times the sections are in completely opposite ends of the building. A book cannot be shelved in both. Also, teachers, parents, and librarians need to know the intended audience for a particular book so they won’t accidentally hand an inappropriate book to an underage reader.

That said, the middle grade category is for readers between the ages of 8 to 12, or if the subject matter is a little more mature, ages 10 to 14. Both of these ranges allow for generous interpretation. For example, most of the Harry Potter books are listed for ages 8 to 12, despite their length, complexity in story-telling, and even violence. George by Alex Gino, a book that examines the issue of child transsexuality, is also listed for ages 8 to 12. This same age range also encompasses more innocuous books, such as Faery Swap by indie author Susan Kaye Quinn and Six Kids and Stuffed Cat by Gary Paulsen.

Young adult books, such as Moonbeam Award winner Nora Olsen’s Maxine Wore Black or Spark Award winner Shredded by Karen Avivi, are for ages 12 & up or (if the book contains more graphic or controversial issues) ages 14 & up. Young adult books may tackle topics of particular interest to teens, such as romance, issues of identity, peer pressure, sexuality, or substance abuse, and may or may not contain profanity, drugs or alcohol, and/or sex (though not explicit).

For all the categories mentioned above, the protagonist’s age should reflect the ages of the readers. For example, a middle grade book aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds should have a protagonist who is about ten or eleven. In addition, the story should be told from a child’s point of view (1st or 3rd person doesn’t matter). Adults may be present in the story, but the kids are the stars of the show.

Some “no-no’s” for writing for this age group include books told from an adult perspective reminiscing about when they were young, and stories told from a kid’s POV but where the subject matter could be considered mature.

New Adult

The New Adult category recently appeared as a bridge between young adult and adult books. New adult titles, such as Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire, generally target college-age readers and have characters between 18 and 25 years of age. This category quickly gained the reputation for containing explicit sex, but that is not always the case, and is certainly not a requirement.

If you have considered writing for children, which age group do you feel fits your story best and why?

Laurisa White Reyes’ middle grade novel, The Storytellers, was awarded the 2015 SCBWI Spark Award for best self-published children’s book of the year. She is the author of several other books as well, including The Celestine Chronicles series, Contact, The Crystal Keeper, and Teaching Kids to Write Well: Six Secrets Every Grown-up Should Know. She is the former Editor-in-Chief of Middle Shelf Magazine, the Senior Editor of Skyrocket Press, and a professor of English at College of the Canyons in Southern California. You can find her at

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  1. I write picture books for the 4-7 age range. And my MG is for upper MG (sometimes called tween) ages 10-14. I disagree with your point that the protagonist’s age should reflect the ages of the readers. Kids love reading up (they want to read about characters who are older than they are). So my middle-grade main characters are 13 and 14. Thanks for an interesting post.

    1. That's fine, Robyn. Write what you love, but these are not my guidelines. They come from hearing dozens of industry professionals say it over and over again. But again, these are just guidelines. Not hard and fast rules.

  2. I just released Fable Rangers: Summons. It's a fairy-tale mash up where the protagonist is age 12. From reading what you shared today, looks like the publisher and I have gone the right direction by categorizing it as middle grade.

    I have a few other story ideas I'm looking at and this post will be very helpful in regards to better targeting my audience for the stories.

    Thank you!

    1. Congratulations, Angela, on your book release!

  3. I was chuckling over your board book category of ages 3-8. My children were chewing on board books before solid food.

    1. Mine, too! :) And my older kids still love reading them. Oh, and the 3-8 category is for picture books. Board books are considered for toddlers.

  4. Sharing this with my Writers of Southern Nevada group. Thanks!

  5. Great post, thanks for sharing! Do you mind if I share this link on my blog? ChatEbooks posted:

  6. Thank you for this highly useful post, Laurisa!

    I'm having a bit of a conundrum regarding a five-book fantasy series WIP by me and a partner. The adventures star a group of young people from 13 - 18.

    Trouble is, while the first book starts comfortably in middle grade (not just age-wise but in tone/content), the later books get pretty dark, equal to or really above the tone in the last two HP novels.

    What to do? Personally I'd feel more comfortable aiming them at YA, but there's the pesky first book. Should we change up the tone of Book 1 so it's all suitably YA, or just have a book series that takes readers from MG to YA as they (and the characters) age? Is that even possible?

    Any suggestions would be extremely helpful. Thank you again, and to Janice for this fantastic resource.

    1. Laurisa might chime in later, but here's my two cents worth...

      It's a tough call.

      Harry Potter starts in MG and ends in YA, but HP can pretty much do whatever it wants (grin). But the Alanna series by Tamora Pierce also starts young and ends older. (she's 10 in book one, 18 by the final book) So there is precedence for that.

      You could just stick to YA and adjust book one a little, or you could run the entire thing as MG that gets older, same as those other series.

      I'd suggest thinking about how *you* see the series. Do you feel it's more suited to the older crowd or the younger? Who do you think your readers will be? If you feel it's more appropriate for one side vs the other, perhaps tailor it for that market.

      If you plan on going the agent route, you can also always say it's MG or YA and let them and the eventual publisher decide. Some books fall into the gray area and the publisher decides which market it wants to sell it into. (for example, I wrote and sold my trilogy as YA, but they published it as MG with a few minor tweaks)

  7. I'm working on a fantasy manuscript (with plans for a sequel) that I had originally intended as YA. The characters are all non-human (long story short, I'm personally very irked by the fact that most YA dragon fiction isn't about dragons at all, but about shapeshifters) so age doesn't quite translate. Some of the themes and events (rape, for one) I'm afraid may be too mature for "young adult." And they're too important to the story to edit out, or change, and they aren't graphic so much as emotionally evocative. What is too dark, too mature, for YA? Where's the line? It feels both YA and NA to me, but I can't imagine a publisher accepting such a gray age range.

    1. There's very little that's too dark for YA. The market deals with rape and abuse and all kinds of dark adult themes.

      The difference is in how graphic things gets. YA closes the door so to speak, and doesn't describe the graphic nature of the darker themes.

      If you're not graphic, odds are you're fine.

  8. Hello,

    I've just written a book based on a 12th century legend from Northern Spain about a Christian princess falling in love with a Muslim. The castle in question (still standing) is now a 4 star hotel and is apparently haunted by said princess, who was locked up by her family when they discovered her illicit love and died shortly after. In my book, the ghost of the princess travels back in time, with two 16-year-old twins who are holidaying in the hotel, and after lots of adventures is finally reunited with her lover.
    I imagined myself as writing a historical fiction novel, (think Bernard Cornwell) with elements of YA and romantic fiction, whereas all my adult readers to date says it is suitable for the 11-14 age range.
    Has anybody here had a similar experience i.e. written a book thinking it was targeted towards a specific age range only to be told it fitted into a different age bracket? The reason I ask is because I feel rather idiotic.

    1. Don't feel that way, this is actually pretty common. Lots of writers write the book that speaks to them and don't plan on any one genre or market, they just tell the story and figure it out later.

      What you describe sounds YA to me (and fun), as a 12th century princess is likely to be a teenager. But if you wrote it for adults, then it could be an adult novel with teen characters (Stephen King does this all the time and his stuff is not YA).

      You can't have "elements" of YA fiction since it's a market, not a genre. YA novels are books aimed at YA readers.

      I can't speak for the writing tone itself since I haven't read it. I also don't know the YA experience of you or your readers, so here's some general info I hope helps :)

      It's not uncommon for those unfamiliar with YA to write it younger, thinking it has to be "simple" for teens (not true). It's possible you gave it a younger tone thinking it needed to be that way.

      It's also common for adults who don't read YA to misunderstand what a YA novel is supposed to read like. It's possible your adult reader friends don't know YA well enough to identify it.

      It's possible your adult readers are more well versed in YA/MG novels than you and the tone is indeed skewing younger.

      It's also possible, if you're unfamiliar with writing teen characters, that you made them sound younger, even though this book is meant for adults.

      I think it depends on what you wanted to write. If you intend this to be an adult novel with teen characters, it might sound too young and you'd need to adjust the voice. Same if you wanted it to be a YA novel.

      The subject matter doesn't quite fit the middle grade market (you rarely seen romance in MG), so it doesn't sound like it's MG book.

      Hopefully that covers your situation and helps! If not, let me know the specifics and I'll try again.

  9. Hi Janice, thanks for your reply. I did indeed write the book that spoke to me, as you say.
    Anyway, a friend of a friend who's a scout for several publishing houses (she snaps up English fiction writers who've just signed their first deals in the UK, on behalf of foreign publishers) read my book and while very complimentary, was adamant that it fit in the 11-14 age range. Maybe she based this conclusion on the subject matter - ghostly princess travelling back in time with 2 kids from today, lots of adventures (ambushed in a forest, escaping from dungeons and so on, having to break a curse that keeps the lovers apart), is finally only reunited with her lover and becomes flesh and blood after a miracle involving religious relics etc.
    My wife agrees with her so you know that a wise man like me will hold his peace.
    Anyway, I know it appeals to adults, because all the ones who've read it love it, but unsure if it will go over the top of teenagers' heads. Have passed it on to 2 children of friends of mine, both 13-year-olds, and anxiously awaiting their verdict.

    1. It sounds like your friend knows what she's talking about, so it's probably MG :)

      Teens are pretty smart these days, so odds are they'll pick up on what you're doing. MG/YA novels are far more sophisticated than they were when we were kids.