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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11 responses to “Writing Kid Lit: Word Counts & the Age of Readers

  1. My MG novel is near the 28,900 word count mark. This happened naturally. I feel the reading level is for the lower Middle Grade readers and maybe even a 7 year-old with higher reading skills. It’s good to know I wasn’t off with the length of my book. Thanks! I also like to include more complex words. Not too many, but enough to introduce a few new words in their vocabulary.

  2. Linda Johnson

    Thanks for the great information! We writers sometimes obsess over word count and how our books compare to what’s out there. I especially love a little gem I found on Jennifer Laughren’s blog, AR Bookfinder. I write rhyming picture books and novels in verse and being able to find the word count of similar books in verse is fantastic.

  3. jennagrodzicki

    Thank you for your advice. So, would you say that if you received a PB manuscript that was about 650 words, you would automatically dismiss it?

  4. What is the current word count sweet spot for nonfiction PBs? And does that number include only primary text?

  5. It’s difficult for me to keep in mind that my picture book illustrator is going to be telling as much of the story as I am. Possibly more. So I always begin with a long draft and have to cut repeatedly. It’s not an easy skill to learn!

  6. I’m writing for middle grade and often wonder if I need to dumb down my vocabulary. For instance, do I use “Mike was an affable kid.” or “Mike was an easy going kid”?

  7. What about books for the 5 to 7 age range? If they’re not reading picture books, is it “first readers” or “chapter books”? I thought I was writing a middle grade for younger readers (8 to 10), but my word count is going to be around 12,000 words for the first draft. That’s way shorter than the 30,000 you mentioned above.

    • Your story wouldn’t automatically be an early reader or chapter book just because of word count. Yes, chapter books have lower word counts, but also very importantly much simpler language, and less complex content. You can’t throw too much at a person when they’re still learning how to decode the words. If you have a middle grade manuscript with a very low word count there’s a good chance you’re not as finished writing as you think you are. Look for where your story needs to open up some.