Chapter books bridge the gap between beginning readers and middle grade. They are for children who are becoming fluent readers, but who aren’t ready for longer novels. Children this age want to read about characters who are like themselves, or who are in situations like theirs.
Writer Jennifer Jensen says, “The most successful chapter books let kids laugh, cheer or cry over characters doing things they can imagine. You can develop characters that stretch readers’ imaginations, but if they’re really off-beat, try leaving them in a familiar setting. But, if you have family relationships that your young readers can relate to, go ahead and set your story in outer space or some other exotic place.”
Here are guidelines to writing for this age group.
CHAPTER BOOKS are:
- Fast paced
- Interesting and lively writing
- Simple, clear plots
- Use lots of dialogue to show characterization
- Shorter sentences – leave out unnecessary words
- Short paragraphs
- Shorter chapters than middle grade novels
- Larger text
- Heavily illustrated
- Lengths range from 4,000 to 12,000 words. chapters run 400-1,000 words.
- Vocabulary is straightforward and the sentences are relatively short, but you can use words that are not from a grade-level spelling list.
- Vivid use of language is still important. Children will be able to sound out words they don’t recognize.
- Readers are typically 7-9 years old, but that can vary. A child who has grown up with books may be reading chapter books alone in first grade; there will also be children in third and fourth grade who are just moving up to chapter books.
- Leave the anthropomorphic stories (animals acting like people) for younger children.
- Writer Jennifer Jensen says, “Humor rules! Include adventures, mysteries, squabbles between family and friends.” Write about clever children who outwit blundering villains, or about clumsy dragons or smelly dogs and such, and make them laugh.
- Fantasy and science fiction at the lower levels must be very simple in structure. Younger readers have good imaginations, they can imagine a talking dog that they meet on the school grounds, but they don’t grab concepts of different worlds, alien societies and mythical creatures.
- Protagonists are usually “good.” They might be mischievous, and they make mistakes, but they shouldn’t be amoral. Grey areas are difficult for less sophisticated readers. If a protagonist does something wrong, like stealing, the reason for the theft should be clear. Seven-year-old readers will accept a child hero stealing food when he is hungry, but not one who steals to get someone else he envies in trouble. They might do something wrong themselves, but would mostly see it in fiction as your character being a villain.
- Again Jennifer Jensen says, “Events can be dramatic, but they should not be nightmarish.”
- Usually told through the viewpoint of a single character/or about the adventures of a single character who is generally around the same age as the reader, not younger. This is a basic rule that your characters’ ages should be older then themselves.
If you want to write chapter books, then go to the book store and read lots of them. Try to shoot for 100 chapter books. Make sure you start with the award winning books. Note, what you like and dislike with each book. Many chapter books, end up becoming a series, using the same characters, but not all publishers publish chapter books, so also check to see who published the books you like.
Here are some chapter books that Jennifer Jensen says you might want to read in your quest to reach 100 books.
- Junie B. Jones, by Barbara Park
- Ruby Lu, by Lenore Look
- Judy Moody, by Megan McDonald
- Mallory and Max, by Laurie B. Friedman
- Flower Fairies Friends, by Cicely Mary Barker
- The Magic Treehouse, by Mary Pope Osborne
- Fish Face (The Kids of the Polk Street School) by Patricia Reilly Giff and Blanche Sims
Jennifer Jensen has nearly 250 non-fiction articles in print publications, primarily in Indianapolis Monthly and the Indianapolis Star, plus more than 200 online articles. She has received two Indiana Arts Commission grants for her fiction, and has a few adult short stories and a dozen children’s short stories published, some internationally. She has an article you can read on this subject: http://suite101.com/article/chapter-book-basics-a17311
If you have suggestions for other chapter books, please let us know.