Being able to read chapter and middle grade books is an exciting time for a young reader. This is when they're able to start identifying which genres they like, and choosing authors they actively want to read from.
Learn about middle grade fiction and non-fiction with Puffin publisher Ben Horslen, to help you start writing your own children's book.
What does 'middle grade' mean?
Picture books start children on their reading journey. Chapter books are then a stepping stone towards what the publishing industry refer to as ‘middle grade’ books.
Both chapter and middle grade books have chapters, but the differences are in reader age and word count. Chapter books are designed for younger readers, and middle grade books for slightly older. There will always be slight overlap, but both are an exciting time for newly independent readers, as this is when they are able to start developing their own tastes.
What are the differences between chapter and middle grade books?
Chapter books are typically written for children ages 5 to 10, and range from a few thousand words up to 20,000. Chapter books are often seen as the gateway to longer, more developed stories.
Middle grade books suit readers from ages 8 to 12 and are between 25,000 and 50,000 words. Page count for both can vary widely because it very much depends on how the text is set – i.e. how large the type is – and how much space there is between the lines and in the margins.
A good rule to remember is that the story’s main character should be the same age, or slightly older than the reader. Chapter books and middle grade books feature things that pre-teens experience in their own lives – things like making friends, changing family dynamics or school. If a book features romance, a character finding their place in the wider world, swearing or violence, it’s probably tipped into young adult territory. "If your main character is a teenager, you’re probably writing a young adult book", says Ben.
What about non-fiction?
Traditionally, people think of chapter books and middle grade as purely fiction, but Puffin are always on the hunt for non-fiction titles too.
Non-fiction for ages 5 to 12 should be engaging and exciting, written with a strong and sparky narrative voice, and cover core topics from a new and original angle.
The reading experience for non-fiction titles should be just as fun as reading fiction, and just like stories, these books can be highly creative and packed with illustrations.
You don't have to stick to one category either – publishers are always looking for fresh perspectives, so you can be an author who writes both fiction and non-fiction.
Are there illustrations in middle grade books?
Not all middle grade and chapter books have pictures, but some can be highly illustrated, with pictures on almost every page – these tend to be books for younger readers, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Others might have a few pictures dotted throughout, or just on the pages that start each chapter.
As an author, it’s good to remind yourself that you aren’t expected to draw the pictures yourself. Most of these books are illustrated by a professional illustrator hired and paid for by the publisher.
Want to read more about the author illustrator relationship?
What makes a brilliant chapter or middle grade book?
If you think about the reader and what will excite them, you’ll be on the path to a strong story. Like all good books, chapter book and middle grade stories should have a clear beginning, middle and end, as well as characters who face challenges and overcome them. But most importantly, a book should capture a child’s imagination and inspire them to put themselves in the story.
When developing your book, Ben's top tip is to think back to the books you yourself liked as a child: "What were the things that most appealed to you? If you have children in your life, think about what they like to read – what excites or scares them? Is what you're writing as exciting as that? Is it too scary or just scary enough?"
And there is one very important thing to remember – don’t think that writing a children’s book is easy. "There is no harsher critic than a kid", says Ben."If your book isn't interesting to them, they will not hesitate to drop it and go to find something else to do!"
If done well, middle grade books create the next generation of readers and foster a hopefully lifelong love of the written word. "It’s a responsibility, a privilege and enormous fun!"
Feeling ready to start writing your own middle grade book, or finesse work you've already started? Head over to WriteNow to submit your book before midnight on Sunday 11 July.
Illustration: Mike Ellis for Penguin