What do picture books and chapter books have in common?

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This post is written by Cathie Tasker, expert picture book editor and presenter of the course Writing Picture Books at the Australian Writers’ Centre.

If a picture book is 500 words or fewer, how is it similar to writing a chapter book of about 10,000, 15,000 or so words? What about a novel for 10 to 12 year olds?

Child readers of chapter books are newly-independent readers, so it is important to use many of writing techniques from picture books to make their transition easier. That’s especially voice, tone, structure and characterisation.

Many of the genre conventions of chapter books are very similar to those found in writing picture books —

  • The literary structure is that of a picture book.
  • The emotions are intense. A strong emotional need should underpin the story right from chapter one.
  • Ideally they use several different text types — lists, texts, dictionary definitions, maps and more.
  • The writer creates potential for illustration and leaves “space” for the illustrator to do their job.
  • In most cases the illustrations extend and enhance the meaning of the text — they are more than merely decorative.
  • The narrative voice should be that of the child reader, similar to that of a picture book. Usually the character’s spoken voice, as well as the narrative voice is strong, feisty and with a fast pace.
  • Active, accessible language.
  • Clear character development.
  • Characters who are active, solving their problems using their own physical and intellectual skills.
  • Chapter books are often read aloud, so they must be wonderfully rhythmic with sparkling language just like a picture book.
  • Social realism and humour are very popular at present.
  • The pace is usually fast, and the characters feisty.
  • The more gentle and serious books have a strong emotional drive which is evident from the beginning of the story.

So picture books and chapter books are similar mostly because the voice and tone for the stories are similar. The characterisation and pace are also similar.

Writing a conventional children’s novel (such as Harry Potter) is more akin to writing young adult fiction or even adult fiction.

Many writing techniques, such as the three-act structure, can be applied across the genres and categories of books. Good writing is good writing, for whatever age level it suits.

Recommended reading
Chapter Books
The Truly Tan series by Jen Storer & Claire Robertson (Scholastic Australia)
The Juliet Nearly a Vet series by Rebecca Johnson & Kyla May (Penguin Australia)
The Cleo Stories series by Libby Gleeson & Freya Blackwood (Allen & Unwin)
The series written by Sally Morgan, Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Craig Smith (Illustrator), the best of which is Going Bush with Grandpa (Scholastic Australia)

Younger Readers (slightly older)
The Stuff Happens series by various authors (Penguin Australia)
The Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford & Sarah Davis (Walker Books Australia)
The Anastasia series by Lois Lowry (Yearling). The first book was published in 1979 the series is still relevant today.

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