Hi, Mary Jo! It's nice to have you back at the table. I always look forward to the days you come in. Do you have time to drink a cup of café au lait while you're here? That's perfect drink for this blustery day. I know you've come to tell us helpful information for writing children's nonfiction books. Why don't you get started?
"Lynnda asked me to tell you about age levels in children's nonfiction books. I'm also going to touch on the different types of children's books within the age levels.
"Generally, children's book publishers break down age levels in children's books as follows:
ages 0-3: board books, touch-and-feel books, cloth books, bath books. Because book packagers often produce these books, it isn't an easy area for aspiring writers to break into.
"Preschool: age 18 months to 3 years. Very simple picture books, novelty books, such as lift-the-flap books, board books. Information books for this age might include concept books (colors, counting, size and shape), books about everyday objects (cars and trucks), or animals (farm animals, animal babies).
"Picture Books: Preschool to grade 3. Classic picture books, generally 32 pages long, in which pictures and text are of equal importance. Longer picture books or photo essay-type picture books might be geared to older readers, ages 5-9.
"I've read recently that the publishers have cooled on longer picture books (retellings of fables, folk or fairy tales), but are looking for picture books with spare language for the very young. Multicultural books continue to be popular.
"Nonfiction picture books include: biographies, behind the scenes (how a crayon is made), explaining money (How Much is a Million), historical events (the Oregon Trail), science and the environment, astronomy, pets, animals (polar bears, sharks, whales), holidays (particularly multicultural), dinosaurs, and sports.
"Easy-to-read, easy reader, or leveled readers: Grades 1 and 2. These are the first books that children read to themselves and have controlled vocabulary that increases in difficulty at each level. In a bookstore or library, easy readers are usually shelved separately.
"In nonfiction, easy readers might be about animals, the rainforest, sports, biographies, dinosaurs, easy scientific concepts (why leaves change color), space, etc. Leveled readers are also usually published in series.
Grades 2-4: Some publishers no longer use this term, but these are the transitional books between easy readers and thicker middle grade books. Jon Scieszka's Time Warp Trio series and the Captain Underpants books come to mind. Many of these chapter books are also published in series. However, publishers are in search of good books for boys, so it might be worth a try writing a nonfiction chapter book. Many boys get lost in the shuffle at this age and fall behind girls in their reading skills, and boys at this age often prefer reading nonfiction to fiction.
"Middle grade. Grades 3-6. This is the prime reading age for kids. They often have their own topics in which they become experts, and gender difference becomes more apparent in the nonfiction books they choose to read (for example, horses, ballet, or gymnastics for girls, and space or sports for boys). There are two types of nonfiction books for this group--books designed primarily for libraries and schools (unfortunately called the "institutional market") and the fun, lighter fare for recreational reading--nonfiction you might find in bookstores or sold through book clubs.
"The series I co-wrote, the Undersea Encounters series, was designed for school/library market, but we tried to make the books fun and appealing enough to be in bookstores (fun design, amazing photos, etc). Some Undersea Encounters paperbacks were sold to bookstores, but for the most part booksellers don't want to carry books they perceive to be school support books (no matter how lively the design!).
"To get an idea of library-type nonfiction books, look in the children's room of your local library. These types of books about countries, states, biographies etc (for example, the various Children's Press series) are usually shelved separately. Each book in the series will have a similar format and must include the following: table of contents, subject broken in chapters, index, glossary, and bibliography. Generally the books have also been reviewed by experts in the field (either chosen by the publisher or by the author). For the Undersea Encounters series, for example, we asked renowned marine biologists to be our consultants.
"Trade books for this age include ephemeral mass market books (paperbacks about the latest fads, celebrities, etc), and more substantial books such as the DK books, which have spectacular photographs and interesting designs. The DK books cover all sorts of topics of interest to kids.
"Some of the nonfiction topics for middle grade level include: biographies, environmental issues (rainforest, ecology, being green), animals, sports, books about historical events, music, ballet, how things work, geography, horses, science experiments and projects, fun facts book, nature, cookbooks, craft books, holiday books, computers, drawing books, pop culture.
"YA: Ages 12 and up. This area has grown increasingly important in recent years, though I think primarily in fiction, not nonfiction. YA nonfiction books would include school support material (books, for example, about anorexia and drug abuse), or books that speak to the concerns of young adults: pop culture, music, puberty, self-empowerment, stress, cliques, identity, health, and social issues. Some interesting historical nonfiction has been written for this age level. See, for example, Ann Bausum's With Courage and Cloth, about the women's suffrage movement.
"Final thoughts: If you don't have much contact with kids or teens, it's important to read magazines, watch TV shows and movies, talk to kids, and read books for kids to get a handle of what might interest them. If you're writing primarily for the school/library market, look at what's been written on the topic already. Are the books on this subject already out of date? Check, for example, National and State Educational Standards. Perhaps you can think of a topic that might fit perfectly into the school curriculum.
"Also, I recommend joining the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators - scbwi. As a member, you will receive information about SCBWI conferences around the country (where you can meet editors and agents), and you can network with other children's writers. In addition, the SCBWI bulletin has a section called "what editors and librarians are looking for," which often includes nonfiction topics."
Thanks, Mary Jo. I will return to your advice often as I decide what to write for whom when I have an idea for a children's book.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends. You are definitely at the top of my list of people for whom I'm thankful.