FROM YOUR EDITORS Who are you writing for?

How do you feel about categorising children’s books by age and reading level? Words & Pictures Co-editor, Claire Watts, gives the question some thought.

During their childhood, you would expect a child to read their way through books that increase gradually in complexity of style and vocabulary and ideas. Of course, they will have favourites that they read and reread, but eventually even these will end up on the top shelf with the worn teddy bear.

So of course it’s useful to mark children’s books with some kind of scale to show the purchaser or borrower or reader where they fit into a child’s reading life. Everywhere you find children’s books they’re divided up in some sort of system that relates to reading ability. It’s easier for publishers, for librarians, for teachers, for parents.

And it’s easier for writers too, to think of ourselves as addressing a particular section of the market. As a writer, the first thing that’s expected in a submission letter to publishers and agents is ‘xxx is a picture book/middle grade/YA …’ We categorise ourselves in this way how often has a fellow children’s writer introduced themselves by saying, ‘I write picture books/MG/YA’?

Whether or not it’s better for children is debatable. We have to take into consideration the hierarchy that children impose upon themselves. An eight-year-old might re-read a favourite picture book in the privacy of their bedroom, but they’re going to hesitate before they pull one out of the picture book box at school or at the library in front of their peers. Too babyish, they’ll think. I can’t be seen choosing from there.

But what about the books that don’t fit into the system comfortably? 

Beautiful illustrated books that aren’t for five- or six-year-olds?

The Sleeper and the Spindle written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chis Riddell

Books written in a simple way but full of complex ideas?

Skellig by David Almond

Even those classics classed as children’s books but too dense and full of unwieldy ideas to be tackled by most children alone.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Many of my absolutely favourite children’s books seem uncategorisable on the usual scale.

And what about your book? How comfortably does your writing address one of the standard chunks of audience? Do you know how you will address this question in your submission letter? And if your book doesn’t fit easily, somewhere along the line, when some agent or publisher or editor asks you to cut or expand or change your book, are you prepared to knuckle down and make the changes that will make it fit, or have you got a persuasive notion to explain why it is that your book is different? 

Best get thinking about exactly who it is you’re writing for.

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