Chapter books: They’re a massive part of a child’s journey to becoming an independent reader and, written properly, can encourage a lifelong enthusiasm for reading.
If you’ve got a chapter book inside you bursting to get out, make sure you read Lesley’s five must-dos to set yourself off on the path to success.
1. Understand who your reader is
Chapter books are aimed at children between six and nine years of age, and Lesley says it’s vital for writers to understand where those readers have come from and what they need from a book. They've moved on from reading picture books with their parents to reading independently – but they’re not ready to move onto a middle-grade novel.
“Because these are children who have only just learned to read, chapter books are a very short story and they're packed with illustrations,” she says. “But there's still a complex enough story and a long enough story to be divided into chapters.”
Lesley says it’s important to think about how you can make the story appropriate and interesting for their reading ability, their daily life and interests. And to learn how to get the right balance between text and illustrations.
“The most important thing about knowing the audience is knowing that they have just learned to read on their own,” she says. “So things like decoding unknown words tires them really quickly, and they can lose concentration, and all this affects their comprehension of the text. For this reason, chapter books need to support that newly independent reader, and it's going to really affect the way this sort of book is written.”
2. Fit your word count to your target reader
Chapter books can vary between 1000 and 10,000 words, with huge variation driven by the exact age of the child you’re writing for. An average six-year-old reader and an average nine-year-old reader will have vastly different needs, so you need to think about which specific reader age you’re targeting and shape your word count around that.
“Something like Billie B Brown by Sally Rippin is only 1500 words and for a really young audience; my Fizz books sit at about 5500,” Lesley says. “Then you get some that are still called a chapter book, like Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers Third Grade by Kate and Jol Temple and that's 17,000 words. That's really pushing it at that very end before we fall into a middle grade novel category.”
3. Choose your language to support emerging readers
Lesley says it’s important to remember that chapter book readers do need some support, and that things like sentence length and vocabulary all make a difference as to how easy it is for them to stay engaged with the book. So it’s important to learn what each age group will respond to.
“Simple things like sentence structure, we're going to find a lot more simple sentences and compound sentences for the younger age group,” she says. “As the children get up towards nine years of age, you're going to have a few more complex sentences thrown into the mix – sparingly, sparingly, but it does become slightly more complex.”
4. Make your story high impact
Chapter books have to compete with a variety of distractions, as well as the fact that readers may be struggling to read. To get readers to put in time and effort, they have to provide a big payoff in terms of story, Lesley says.
“Create high stakes for your character: if they don't get what they want, what's gonna happen, what's the downfall – it has to be something that really strikes at the heart of a child that the stakes are really high,” she says. “Another way of making a high impact story is to use a ticking time bomb, that's one of my favourites. So using a time frame to disaster – if your characters don't do something by a certain time, the ‘bomb's’ going to go off.”
5. Remember your narrative structure
Though chapter books may seem simple, making sure that you use writing techniques like ensuring they follow a story arc will help build the tension and intrigue you want. Lesley says that students in her course often think that a story arc is challenging, but she uses her Fizz series to demonstrate simple but specific things to do.
“If you've written a story and you feel it's falling flat, a good thing to do is to go through a story arc with your story, fit it in, see if you're missing anything,” she says. “You’ll probably find that you are and that may be the reason why it isn’t working.”