Today, as my new book, Four on the Run, has recently launched, I’d like to talk about writing chapter books. Chapter books are part of what may be loosely termed ‘junior fiction’, for readers between 5-9 years old. Readers of that age still read picture books, but they like longer stories, too, though many aren’t quite ready for that leap into the lengths of middle-grade. Of course, depending on the confidence of the young reader, texts may vary in length and complexity, so junior fiction texts may be between 5,000—20,000 words or so, and include different genres, including fantasy, humor, family and school stories, adventure, and lots more.
Chapter books, sometimes known as ‘early readers’, are at the shorter end of the junior fiction scale: usually between 5,000—7,000 words. They are ‘mini-novels’ with a smallish number of short, sharp chapters (between 7-12 chapters is common) and at least one or two illustrations (usually black and white) per chapter. These illustrations are often full page but may also be half page or even inset. Fantasy and humor are very common genres in chapter books, as are family stories. They may be published in a different size to other junior fiction and middle-grade books—often a slightly larger size, with print size also being larger. They are always attractive books, with bright covers and snappy titles.
I have written a number of junior fiction books over the years, but Four on the Run is my first actual chapter book, and I thoroughly enjoyed writing it—the length limitation of chapter books acting not only as a challenge but as a spur to ingenuity and creativity. Indeed I enjoyed it so much that right now I am in the middle of writing the sequel to it, Four All At Sea. So here are some tips for the chapter book format, based on my experience and looking at the books of some other authors I know:
- Chapter books really are mini-novels and need to work like that: they are not elongated picture-book texts. Each chapter needs to build on the one before.
- Chapters should be of similar length, though that is not a hard and fast rule.
- Characters are of paramount importance and should be immediately appealing and very distinctive. My main characters– ‘the ‘four’ who are ‘on the run’–are vintage vehicles with lots of personality: two cars, a tractor and a motorbike, who decide to run away when they overhear their owner talking about the scrapyard. Phoebe McArthur created a lonely, bright little witch, a bossy spellbook and a grumpy cat for her debut. The popular chapter book series of another author, Lesley Gibbes, features go-getting police dog Fizz, while another great chapter book mystery series, by Ursula Dubosarsky, showcases the detecting talents of a pair of Argentinian guinea pigs, Coco Carlomagno and Alberto. In the non-fantasy line, the bestselling, long-running Billie B. Brown series by Sally Rippin features a funny, feisty kid who many young readers across the world have taken to their hearts.
- Plot needs to be simple, but strong—and surprising! Best not to have sub-plots, though of course twists and turns are good.
- The world of your story should be quickly and deftly set up: illustrations will help to convey a lot about a story-world so you don’t need to describe too much. Ditto by the way for characters—illustrations will help readers to visualize them so you don’t need to describe their physical appearance much.
- Pace needs to be brisk, and language both accessible and lively. A light touch is essential! You can also have great word play in a chapter book but best not to use complicated sentence structures.
- Beginning needs to propel you right into the action and ending needs to be satisfying and complete, even if you are planning a sequel.
Over to you: what do you think makes a good chapter book? And which chapter books would you recommend, for aspiring writers planning to write in that area?