Here’s a typical conversation at a social gathering, grocery store, or school fundraiser:
Then they hold eye contact, waiting for me to ask them what it’s about. I smile and leave the silence for just a teeny bit longer than a normal conversation would have because I’m a jerk.
Then I finally ask “What kind of book?”
Usually they’re taken aback because it’s not what they expected to be asked. They say something like “to teach kids about fire safety” or “it’s about the first day of school.”
I say, “No, what I meant is, is it a picture book? A Young adult?”
“It’s for kids,” they’ll say.
“But which kids?”
“All kinds of kids.”
I’m not getting through. I take a deep breath. “Let me ask this way: Who is your reader? What age?”
“Oh, any age, I guess.”
“Well that’s not how children’s books work. There are picture books, for, say kindergarteners, like Dr. Suess. Picture books are read to kids that don’t know how to read yet. There are middle grade books for 3rd thru 7th graders, like, say, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, that are read by the kids themselves. And there’s YA like John Green’s ‘Fault in Our Stars’ or that vampire series that are for mainly high schoolers.” [Even I won’t mention those books by name] “And there are some that fall in between.”
“Oh, well I guess picture book then.”
“So, the pictures will help tell the story.” They nod. “Your main character is around seven years old?”
“No, he’s an adult. He’s teaching kids about fire safety.”
“Oh, well, that’s not really a book, then, it’s more of a brochure or safety manual. For it to be a kid’s book, the main character has to be the same general age range as the reader. Otherwise the reader doesn’t find much common ground, and doesn’t connect with the story. Could you make the story from a child’s perspective?”
“Well, I guess I could.”
Kids want to relate to the story, to see themselves in it. They want to have felt what the main character has felt, or want to have felt it. They can’t, or don’t want, to connect to paying a mortgage. Or thinning hair. But eating a too-warm jelly sandwich that’s been sitting in the sun since school started, one that ants are already chomping on? Not only is that gross, it’s real to them. It’s in their world. They can relate.
The age of the main character more or less defines the age of the reader. Genre can mean the kind of story, like horror or non-fiction. It can also mean the age range. Here’s a guideline:
Board Books are for newborn-ish up to age 3
Picture Books are for ages 3 to 7
Early Readers are for ages 5 to 8
Chapter Books are for ages 7 to 9
Middle Grade Books (MG) are for ages 8 to 12
Young Adult Books (YA) are for ages 12 -17 (but often read by >18)
New Adult Books (NA) (a relatively new category) are for ages 14 to 35+
Of course there are exceptions. But one of the best ways to figure out how to get somewhere is to know where you’re going. Want to write a children’s book? Figure out what kind. Then take it from there.