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Writing Kid Lit: Word Counts & the Age of Readers

questionmark-228x300Ok writers, let’s take a look at word count and the age of the reader for children’s books. For now I’m only going to focus on picture books, middle grade, and young adult fiction. Please understand that I’m giving you a general overview here. Of course there are exceptions to what I’m saying, for all three category of books. As a writer trying to nab an agent or get the attention of an editor, you should know what the market bears though.

In today’s market, picture books are mostly geared toward a younger audience. So, think of kids from babies to around 4 or 5-ish. This hasn’t always been the case, and I’m sure it can change again, but for now, it seems that’s where we mostly are. As such, word count for picture book manuscripts are very low. When I first started in the business around 7 years ago, we looked for picture book manuscripts that were less than 1000 words. Now, I have to look for word counts that are more like 500 words or less because many editors won’t even look at something that’s 700 or 800 words. I’m not saying I agree with this, but it’s how it currently is.

You might want to remember though that the language in a picture book doesn’t always have to be so simple, because it’s assumed that a picture book is going to be read aloud to kids by a grownup. What that also means is that you should make sure your story sounds good as a read-aloud! I’m talking pacing, using some internal rhyme, assonance, repetition. You know what I’m talking about, right?

Middle grade books are geared towards kids who are between 8 and 12 years old, so anywhere from 2nd graders to 6th graders. Word counts are usually between 30,000 and 50,000 words. There’s a lot of wiggle room for content and complexity here, because an 8 year old (or a precociously reading 7 year old) and a 12 year old are in very different places, emotionally, intellectually, socially. The protagonist should be a kid though, as well as the point of view. Middle grade stories tend to be inwardly focused, so the protagonist is usually in some way trying to figure out who they are.

Young Adult stories are more outwardly focused and tend to have a protagonist figuring out who they are in the world, that is, in relation to what’s happening around them. Again, the point of view must be that of the kid, or in this case teenager. YA stories are geared towards 13 to 18 year old readers, but as you must know by now, gazillions of adults read YA, too. Word counts for YA are usually about 50-75,000 words. I won’t say that’s definitive, because there are certainly YA novels with longer word counts. I do think that if you’re a debut author trying to get an agent or editor to notice and want your work, it’s probably better not to be the exception by more than about 5,000 words in this regard.

Just because Neil Gaiman penned the picture book, The Sleeper and the Spindle, which is geared to older readers, and is well over 1000 words, doesn’t mean that you should be aspiring to do that. Just because some of the Harry Potter books, which are middle grade, go way over the word counts I’m talking about, doesn’t mean that you should let yourself off the hook. Just because Daniel Kraus’s YA, The Life and Death of Zebulon Finch, weighs in at 642 pages, doesn’t mean you should be planning on doing that, too. These are exceptions, by established authors. It’s my opinion you should give yourself a better chance of attaining your goal of getting published by trying to stay within the accepted norms. (But you know, you’re the author, so you do you, right?)

For a more in-depth look at word counts, I point you to Jennifer Laughren’s blog post. It was written 5 years ago, but I think much of the information is still relevant.

Many people have questions about content. What’s “appropriate” for middle grade? What’s “appropriate” for young adult? That’s a bigger conversation than this post has room for. I’ll address that in a separate post.

So… I apologize for the plethora of places I felt the need to stress things with italics. Now, any questions, thoughts, comments?


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What I’m Looking for in 2016

f2240bacec62ba2a118914720e348d97 The start of another year! You may be pleased to know that I am open to submissions again. I represent children’s literature exclusively. That is, I’m looking for picture books, chapter book series, middle grade novels and non-fiction, young adult novels and non-fiction, and graphic novels by author-illustrators.

Please make sure to follow my submission guidelines carefully, or your query will be deleted. You can find the guidelines on the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency website, as well as here on the blog, and down at the end of this post.

In particular, I am looking to represent the following things:

  • I would very much like a more diverse client list, so I invite and would like to encourage more people of color to query me.
  • I’m always looking for distinct voices, unique stories, and remarkable writing. It’s fine to be a newbie, because everyone has to start somewhere, but I’m looking for superlative writing.
  • I’m interested in character driven stories that don’t skimp on plot.
  • For MG and YA I like realistic contemporary, mystery, literary, historical fiction, speculative fiction and magical realism, science fiction that’s not too science-y, anything feminist (but no hating on boys), mythical re-tellings, and characters with some sass. As always, I’m partial to GLBTQ stories and authors.
  • I’d love an epistolary novel, and although I don’t usually represent short stories I’d also really like a series of linked short stories (like a MG or YA Olive Kitteridge.)
  • For picture books, I like funny, odd, voice-y stories. I’m not partial to rhyme (unless it’s fantastic), and I steer away from writing that’s too saccharine. I never take on new clients who don’t have more than one picture book manuscript, so although I don’t want you to pitch me more than one project at a time, please make sure you have other things you can show me if I ask.
  • I would like to see more non-fiction and narrative non-fiction for children. Think STEM and Common Core topics, but also specifically biographies, history, and weird topical interests.

I’m sure I’ll think of other things, as soon as I hit “publish,” but for now this is what I’d like to see coming into my in-box.

To query me, send a short, snappy, professional query letter with the first 20 pages of your manuscript in the body of your email. For picture books, please include the full manuscript in the body of the email. Do not send me an email asking me if it’s ok to query. Do not ask me in the comments section of this post whether <insert what you’re writing> would be something of interest to me. Put “Query” and the title of your manuscript in the subject line. Send it to QueryLindaEpstein (at) gmail (dot) com.

If you’re not sure if your manuscript is a good match for me, do your research. I’m on Twitter, Facebook, have been interviewed, and have blogged enough here that you can certainly get a sense of who I am and what I like.


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2015: It’s a Wrap!

end title 590.jpgLooking back on 2015 to see what I’ve done on this blog, trying to take stock, assess and reassess…

  • I did a lovely series of interviews with some of the top children’s book editors in the business called Quick Questions, where we heard from Stacey Barney of Penguin/Putnam; Lisa Yoskowitz at Little, Brown; Nancy Mercado at Scholastic; Joy Peskin at Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and Rotem Moscovich at Disney Hyperion. Thank you for your generosity, ladies!
  • When the beautiful, new JDLit website launched, you all were some of the first to see it, because I highlighted it here.
  • I posted a beautiful nugget on writing, by one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  • We did a couple of book giveaways and gave lots of writing and publishing advice, on topics ranging from breaking through writer’s block, to how to write an effective query letter, to the benefit of going to writing conferences.
  • My former intern (hi Kimberly!) wrote a terrific monthly series, Inside Scoop: Dish from a Literary Agent Intern, sharing her experience of interning.
  • Some of my clients stepped up and blogged for me over the summer, giving me a break. Thank you, Jodi McKay, M-E Girard, Jessica Rinker (Cooper), Joe McGee, R.L. Saunders, Katherine Sparrow, Elaine Kiely Kearns, and Natasha Sinel! And then when I was at a loss for words at the end of the year, Jodi, Jessica, Joe and Elaine stepped up again.
  • By far, my most-viewed blog post though, was by the inimitable Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest. If you’re one of the very few people left on the planet who didn’t read Chuck’s post, check it out here.

What will 2016 hold in store for me? Who knows?! Here are some things I do know though…

  • I’m very much looking forward to seeing the publication of a couple of client books, announcing a few deals that are done but not fully executed, finalizing deals for some other clients, selling a bunch more client manuscripts, and finding and welcoming new clients.
  • I’m starting off the year doing something I love, going to the Miami SCBWI conference. Then in the spring I’ll be at the Pike’s Peak Writer’s Conference. I so enjoy meeting authors and trying to make a bit of a difference for them.
  • I’m making a commitment to finish the first draft of a middle grade manuscript I’ve been writing (by July 1st). I’m outing my writing self here. Hold me to it, friends!

What are you looking forward to in 2016? What are you committed to?

(Scroll down to the comments section. I really want to know!)




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