What is a Children’s Novel?

This sounds like a basic question but you’d be surprised how many submissions miss the mark! Children’s fiction is incredibly specialised, with debates ongoing about what makes something ‘teen’ or ‘YA’ or ‘middle-grade.’ In middle-grade there are age categories for pretty much every two year increment (7-9, 8-10, 9-11 etc) and three year increment, and then there are books squarely in ‘8-12.’ YA can mean, in a sweeping sense, anything for 12+ but then, where does ‘teen’ fit in? Or ‘tween?’ In a broad sense, I usually mean 10-13 for tween, 12-15 for teen and 15+ for YA.

In terms of word counts, these can vary massively depending on reading level (it could be aimed at anywhere between advanced and reluctant readers) and genre (a common mistake, for me, is people counting ‘children’s’ as a genre. It isn’t! It’s a sweeping term for an age range, and there are many kinds of different book within it). A fantasy middle-grade, for instance, will be longer than a contemporary – much like in adult publishing. Broadly speaking, books for kids between 7 and 12 can range between around 20k and 60k. And teen and YA can range from around 50k – 90k.

Looking at themes, there are certain things which are typically ‘no-go’s for younger age groups, that can be addressed in adult or YA. But then again, topics like mental health or death which are more commonly found in YA may be found in middle-grade, only handled in a completely different way. Personally, I would never dismiss a children’s novel on the basis of any content, so long as it was written in the right way. (Although what ‘the right way’ is can be tricky to define).

It can be confusing but, when you think about it, of course it is. At no other time in our lives do we go through such huge developmental changes as we do before the age of eighteen. And then one kid’s reading level may not be equal to another’s. One kid’s emotional maturity may be wildly different to another’s. One kid’s parents may have different views on what or what isn’t appropriate. (And there is another reason children’s literature is highly specialised – there are often two buyers and readers involved, the parent and the child).

If you’re thinking about starting out with a children’s novel and feeling clueless, I would recommend buying a pile of books in the genre you’re looking to write in. Read lots, count roughly how many words are on each page to work out an approximate total and get a sense of the tone and feel.

Another thing to add is, many submissions I see make the mistake that having a child protagonist is enough to make a children’s book – it isn’t! When reading a kids’ book one has to feel as if they are seeing life through the eyes of a child, rather than looking back on childhood memories from an adult perspective – which again can be a tough thing to hit the nail on the head with!

Tips on Writing and Submitting a Children’s Novel

If you’re thinking of submitting a children’s novel to agents, I would start by asking yourself two questions: ‘where does the book fit in?’ and ‘how does the book stand out?’ (This is actually general advice for submitting any kind of book to agents!) We get a lot of submissions that say ‘this is unlike anything you’ve ever read before’ and if that is really the case, there’s probably a reason. Submissions that say something like, ‘this is similar to Tom Gates, but with a female protagonist’ instantly let me know that the book will be marketable, but also what makes it different enough to pick up.

This brings me onto comparisons. If they are apt and modern, comparisons are great. They help agents visualise how to market a book and let us know the author has read a children’s book that isn’t a Roald Dahl or a Harry Potter. (Both amazing, but not especially relevant to launching a debut career in 2019). If you really cannot think of any apt comparisons then don’t force them, otherwise they can be counterproductive. But if you haven’t read any current children’s books then, more importantly than cover letter comparisons, it will most likely show in the writing. Again, I believe it all comes back to reading! Many authors claim they are afraid of reading in case they unwittingly steal another author’s ideas. In my experience, most authors who steal ideas are the ones who don’t read and aren’t aware how many times an idea has already been done.

So, I would probably avoid comping your novel to books that have been out for ten years or more. Picking a modern comparison will give your book a better chance of being taken seriously. As will submitting to the right agent in terms of what they represent (e.g. I don’t seek picture books whereas my colleague Alice does, yet I get a lot of picture book submissions) and what their list/taste seems like. (Do they have interviews you can read? A wishlist on the website?) Keeping the cover letter short and sweet and clear will also help. Agents have so many submissions to wade through. We just want to know what the book is, a little about the author, and perhaps why you think it would be a good fit for us. (Again this is general submission advice. It’s surprising how many submissions come into our agency that don’t let us know what the book is!)

A few other common mistakes we see in the children’s inbox, outside of the guidelines on ‘what makes a children’s novel’ above, are writers trying to ‘teach’ children something too emphatically. There’s nothing wrong with subtle messages in kids’ novels, but if something reeks of an adult talking down to a kid about something, they will spot it a mile off and it won’t engage them. The same goes for trying too hard to ‘get down with the kids.’ If you don’t know what words or technology they’re using, or what music they’re listening to, that’s totally fine and I wouldn’t try to shoehorn it in – the ability to capture the feeling of being a child/teen is what matters.

Trying too hard in general is something I would avoid e.g. trying to sound smart. That’s not to say kids’ books aren’t smart (I believe some children’s books are some of the finest and most clever on the shelves today). Only that, whereas an adult will push on with something because it’s ‘worthy’, children don’t. The writing I see engaging children is genuine and straight from the heart. For a similar reason, it’s also worth thinking about where the story might be slowing down, because where adults will put up with a drop in pace and tension, kids may not.

I could talk about my own specific wishlist, and what seems to be working in the current market, but wishlists differ and the market is ever-changing. What all agents are really looking for is something that puts a fresh spin on the wonder and magic, or the difficulties, of being a child or a teenager – in a way that the age group will connect with.

To send your manuscript, check out here agency page here.

Chloe will be doing 1-2-1s at our Writing Weekend in Stratford. Details here.

She will also be joining Lindsay Galvin on our Upper MG course, starting 10th February. More information here.

Chloe is a Children’s & YA agent, working alongside Alice Sutherland-Hawes.

She began her career at Titan Books where she developed an interest in sci-fi/fantasy, and it was working with V.E. Schwab that made her realise her true passion was in YA and children’s. She joined Northbank Talent in 2015 where she built a children’s and YA list from scratch, selling rights in the UK and internationally. Whilst there she worked with Carnegie nominated author Emily Critchley, the children’s tie-in titles of Rachel Wells’ bestselling Alfie series, and discovered many debut authors including Anna Fargher, Ben Oliver and Inky Willis.

Chloe is also a writer. She penned the Emma Nash books, a YA series published with HQ, and is currently collaborating on a new middle-grade series. She runs #bookclubYA, the bi-monthly sister event to #drinkYA, and co-hosts YaOughta!, a podcast about UK YA books.

Actively looking for: Middle Grade age 7 and up; clean teen; young adult; non-fiction across all ages.