By Nicole Hayes
When I started writing, I thought I would only write for adults. But when I shared an early draft of my second manuscript with beta readers, one of them rang me, declaring, ‘I didn’t know you wrote YA!’
Until then, neither did I.
That manuscript eventually became my debut Young Adult novel, The Whole of My World, and launched my publishing career. But I think we can all agree that the author probably shouldn’t be the last to know what sort of book she’s writing!
When I turned to writing Junior fiction, I was determined to approach writing for this new age group fully informed on the conventions, and having read shelf-loads of successful (and less successful!) Junior Fiction.
Here are some things I’ve learned along the way.
How to decide
Deciding whether a story is YA, Junior Fiction or Middle Grade comes down to the fundamentals of all writing. That is: story, idea, setting, language, character, voice, structure, length… All these factors help shape what sort of story you’re writing. But in making this decision, possibly the most important thing to decide is… Who is your reader?
All about the reader
When writing for children, the most fundamental aspect of determining your reader comes down to their age. There’s some scope and variation here, because these categories are all largely marketing concepts, but a commonly cited guideline is that Junior Fiction is for readers 5 to 9 years, extending to 12 years. (By comparison, Middle Grade generally refers to the upper primary group up to Year 7: readers aged 9-12 or 13 years, while Young Adult is generally recommended for readers 13 years plus.)
Junior fiction is also often recommended for upper primary school readers identified as “reluctant readers”, which accounts for that extended upper range. But also, kids read up and down. Just like adults, they respond to what interests them, not what they “should” be reading. Which is why this is a guide for the author, rather than the reader!
What’s the story, morning glory?
While it’s ideal to have a strong sense of your reader early, maybe you’re still sorting out what the story is? Sometimes that’s where you want to start. Junior Fiction covers a range of themes and scenarios, including and especially: friendship, school, hobbies, sports, pets, and family. While this is true of all kidlit, in Junior fiction there’s usually one thread, or one central idea driving the story. In Middle Grade, by contrast, it’s expected to have a B and/or C plot. And in Young Adult, that can expand further again. (And, of course, the expectation for is the additional and requisite inclusion of romance.)
Whose story is it?
And, of course, we need to think about character. As a general convention of writing for children, the expectation is that your protagonist(s) will be slightly older than your readers. In my latest books, the Little Legends series (co-written with Adrian Beck), the protagonists are from the Little family; Ellie and Oz are twins, and their cousin, Sanjay are a similar age, 10-11 years old. They play for the Under 11s Fresca Bay Falcons. Remember that the protagonist’(s’) school year level is important too. Ellie, Sanjay and Oz are all in Year 5 at Fresca Bay Primary.
You’re the voice (try and understand it!)
Voice can mean different things depending on context, but in this case I mean tone, style, and energy. Popular Junior fiction is frequently funny, action-packed, and full of adventure. You can still handle “bigger issues” within the themes listed above, but the focus is on fun and movement. In Little Legends, because the backdrop is AFL, the action is often a short passage of play from a footy match. But we’ve also loaded the books up with pranks, classroom activities, schoolyard games, and cooking! Ellie, Oz and Sanjay have their own separate loves – Ellie is a maths whiz, Sanjay is an excellent dancer, and Oz loves arts and crafts. The more visual you can make these actions the better. The key is to think about movement, visuals, and energy. But most of all…
If you’re writing Junior fiction, humour is key. The most popular Junior fiction books right now are laugh-out-loud funny to their readers. Your job as a junior fiction author is to ramp that laugh quota up – and turn the volume up high while you’re there. If you can do that, you’ll find an audience.
And don’t forget to think about pictures! Most Junior fiction has illustrations. In fact, even the text can be presented as a visual treat. In Little Legends, our amazing illustrator, James Hart, brought our characters to life with fabulous, silly, and detailed pictures that draw on the bigger “visual” moments in the text. There’s another reason why you want to think visually – it makes the illustrator’s job much easier.
Junior Fiction is a fast growing and much in demand category of kidlit. So keep the above tips in mind and give it a shot.
Nicole Hayes is an award-winning author of books for children and young adults. She is also a writing instructor who has taught with the Australian Writers' Centre for more than eight years, as well as at universities, TAFEs and schools around Australia. Her latest project, a collaboration with Adrian Beck on a Junior fiction series, Little Legends (Hardie Grant 2020-2021), celebrates the great game of AFL, a sport Nicole loves.
Her other books include the young adult novels A Shadow’s Breath (Penguin Random House 2017), The Whole of My World (Random House, 2013), and One True Thing (Penguin Random House, 2015) — winner of the Children’s Peace Literature Award, CBCA Notable Book, and shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Literary Award, WA Young Readers Book Awards and YABBA Awards.