The Children and Young Adult Cheat Sheet

After attending one of the excellent sessions with Brian Henry (, we put together a cheat sheet to tell you what you need to know about writing for children, teens, and young adults.

Children and YA Cheat Sheet

The differences between children (<18) and young adult fiction: shorter, about things that interest children, written to the way a child sees the world.

Breakdown of Children Markets

  • Board books, for babies: Not much text.
  • Picture books: Read by adults to children. About 15 pages of story, under 1000 words. Here you’re not creating a story, you’re creating a book. The text needs to lend itself to a picture book. No description, no dawdling. Stuff happens that can be illustrated and the artist will invent the exact details. The characters don’t sit around and think. About 15 plot points.
  • Easy readers: Designed to help children learn how to read. There are a lot of rules, they come in levels, they use every day language, phonetic words and sight words, short sentences, and are frequently done in verse. Perhaps the most difficult to write.
  • Chapter books, early grade: Grades 1-3, between 5000 and 12000 words, each chapter about 600 words, which means getting significant plot within two pages. The writing is not sophisticated, they know how to read, but not well-practiced. Use simple language and short sentences/paragraphs, about a single topic. But don’t sound jerky or awkward. Channel the sensibility/worldview of a child. These stories are about the kids, not cuddly animals or parents, more independent.
  • Mid-grade: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Lemony Snickett. 40-50K, character development, more sophisticated.
  • Teen and Young Adult and Crossovers. 90K

Breakdown of Age Group Interests

Baby/Toddler Boardbooks

  • Family, objects, tactile

<6 Picture Books

  • Cuddly Animals
  • Family

>6 Picture Books – Kids become the heroes and act out scenarios in a safe fantasy setting, less adults.

  • Gross things
  • Control – Ex. I have to Pee by Robert Munsch
  • Rebellion – Ex. Spongebob
  • Toilet Humour
  • Scary stories – Ex. Hansel and Gretel
  • Fantasy
  • Abandonment

Mid-grade (grades 4 – 6)

  • Acceptance by peers — there needs to be a group of kids to think about.
  • Family, their place in the family, “what’s going to happen to me?”, child is centre of the universe
  • Developing self-concept. Who are they? Where do they fit?
  • Puberty. Looks. Self-concept.
  • Future. Their future and the future of the world and everything.
  • Humour!!

Young Adult Books

  • Looks/opposite sex/romance
  • Self-concept
  • Peers/Acceptance – less pack mentally, small groups/best friends

Crossover Books

  • Not a “teen issue” book
  • Has to have an adult romance, not about first kiss, but a long term/mature romance

Regarding “Issues”

It’s not the subject matter, but how it’s approached.

  • Younger teen and middle grade deal with issues like alcoholism, but at a psychological remove, like a child’s mother who they are not living with is an alcoholic and she comes back. Not the kid and not around.
  • In older young adult, a protagonist who is an alcoholic or best friend who is a heroin addict. No remove, more graphic and intimate.

Things Not To Do

  • Do not teach. Write to entertain, children will smell a lesson miles away. Can provide useful information, but only as part of the narrative, like what to do if you get lost. Do not write ABOUT a topic. A story can involve it, can be complicated by it, but shouldn’t just be about it.
  • Offer marketing advice when querying.
  • Say that you tested your manuscript on young readers.
  • Query a story that does not meet basic requirements for length.
  • Query a poorly written story.
  • Query a story that lacks originality and is derivative (if it’s flavour of the month, it’s too late).
  • Have a passive hero. The hero should drive the story and save things.
  • Offer an adult perspective, keep it out. You’re writing for young adults. Never say, “For a young…” — kids are always serious about what they say and do.
  • Have weak characterization. This is more common in short things. “Rosemary Wells” is a good example of how to accomplish good character in short space.
  • Be dishonest. Not that innocence is not allowed, but you can’t lie. Needs to be true to life and true to your reader’s lives.
  • Cheat. Where everything is fixed because it turns out to be a dream or deus ex machina.
  • Have the wrong psychology for the age group (see lists of interests above),
  • Write for your own childhood. You should write for kids now.

Most Important Factors

  • Originality
  • Humour
  • Charm/Playfulness
  • Inhabit the world of your readers, write for them, get at their interests

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