How to Reward Children in Your Writing, Part 3

Sat Mar 26 2016

This is part 3 in a series on how to write so as to reward children for the work they put into reading. If you're new to this series, here's Part 1, which covers the key way in which kid-readers are different from adult readers plus tips for the very youngest audiences, and Part 2 which covers picture books, early readers, and "training wheel" books.

Next week we'll finish up with young-adult books, but this week we're looking at books for kids 8 to 12 or thereabouts. The boundaries are slippery; maybe as young as 7 for precocious readers, and up to 13-ish for kids who have been slower to get into reading.

Chapter Books

Kids in this middle-grade range are for the most part independent readers, reading more or less without any help. Chapter books get their name from being the first books kids read independently and are large enough to be broken into chapters. Perhaps not the most creative name in the world, but there you go.

Chapter books can have illustrations, but many don't. When they do, the illustrations are typically less than a full page (often with text flowing around them), and only every few pages or so.

Story-wise, the themes can range from serious to silly to sublime, though on the whole silliness starts to play a lesser role in chapter books than it did for younger age groups. More on that in a bit.

The Work and the Reward

For chapter book readers, the act of reading is noticeably easier than when these kids were younger. They may not be especially fast readers yet, but they're not struggling with the basics anymore.

While there is less overt humor in chapter books than in early readers and training wheel books, it isn't gone entirely. There's still plenty of humor present, it's just not the motivating component of reward anymore. The majority of the reward comes from classic story elements of drama, concern, excitement, curiosity, and resolution.

For us as writers, the most relevant component of work in chapter books is readers' confidence. If all you've ever read on your own are early reader books like Frog and Toad (see last week's article), a 100+ page chapter book can seem quite daunting. The hard part for kids is overcoming their disbelief that they even can read such a thing.

Of course we know they can. It's a difference in quantity of work, not in type of work. But try telling that to a kid who thinks the book is too big for them; no amount of rational argument is going to change that attitude. You can't tell people how to feel. For them it's daunting, so when they finally do it, it's a big deal.

Thus there is an internal component of reward in chapter books that echoes the goal-achievement rewards I talked about back in part 1: pride. This is what affects how you write the story.

I've seen in my own kids the pride they feel when they finally do read a chapter book by themselves. It's a beautiful thing, and I have no reason to think my kids are somehow special in that way. I expect all kids feel that pride, as they should. Facing down the daunting challenge of all those pages is a real accomplishment.

But you can't rely on pride to get a kid through your book. Partly because they'll never admit to that pride, because that would mean admitting they felt daunted in the first place. Second because the pride wears off quickly after their first chapter book, and you have no guarantee that yours will be their first.

But mostly you can't rely on the pride because if your story doesn't reward them page-by-page, they won't finish the book at all.

That would be disaster.

If that happens, you'll have given them a negative reading experience, which they're more likely to blame on themselves than on your crappy book. You'll leave them thinking "Oh, I can't read big books like that. Reading isn't for me." You won't give them pride but a feeling of disgrace and failure that will leave them even more timid towards reading.

In other times and places I have said that children don't deserve lesser writing just because they're children. Just because they don't have the experience to appreciate nuanced use of language. Quite the opposite, I say kids deserve the very best writing we are capable of, because you truly have their self-esteem in your hands.

What Should You Write and How Should You Write It

Conquering chapter books is a critical turning point in a kid's reading life. Thus, if you're going to take on the responsibility for that segment of their self-esteem, you damn well better take it seriously. Your story better reward them on every page to keep them buoyed up for the next page. More-so, if you can manage. If you're not up for that responsibility, please don't write for this age group. Maybe start out writing Adult or YA material and work your way down.

But if you find yourself looking in the mirror and saying "kids really do deserve great books, and why shouldn't I be the one to write them?" then the question becomes what do you put in there so as to reward them appropriately.

Chapter books are generally smaller stories. Not necessarily in their length, but in the scope of what the plot affects. They have a narrower focus, and stakes that are more intimate to the immediate lives of the characters. These are stories of personal situations, not fate-of-the-world stuff.

Psychologically, you can create a layer of reward by recognizing that readers at these ages often read as a way of looking ahead to their own near-term futures. A seven or eight year old will often prefer books about characters that are a couple of years older than themselves, because they're looking for examples of the kinds of situations they'll be able to handle when they get to that age. It's a way of preparing themselves for the challenges that lie ahead.

This gives you great guidance as a writer in picking the ages of your protagonists (target reader's age plus a couple of years), great guidance in what should be happening in your plot (what is challenging yet plausible for characters of that age to tackle), and great guidance in your marketing strategy (protagonist age determines who you should be marketing your book at).

Plot-wise, I see two main styles in chapter books: Single-adventure stories vs. episodic stories.

Single-adventure stories are what they sound like. The characters face a single central story problem, and the whole story leads up to that problem's eventual resolution. This is classic "hero's journey" territory, which you can google to your heart's content so I won't go over that here.

Episodic stories for this age group tend to pick a semi-lengthy segment of time in the characters' lives, during which several smaller episodes take place, each involving a smaller-scale story problem. For the most part, each problem is fully resolved before the next one begins, though an excellent plotting technique is to overlap them so that one or two other episodes have begun before the first finishes. You can layer episodes at different scales, too: have a preponderance of episodes that are small (with or without overlapping), and one large-scale episode that builds slowly over the course of the whole book.

Whatever you do, keep it moving. In this context that means making sure that every page provides at least one of the reward categories these readers are looking for:

Object of Study: Ramona Forever

If you ask me, it will be a cold, dark day on planet Earth if Beverly Cleary's books ever go out of print. Perhaps more than any other writer I've encountered, she gets middle-grade readers like no other. (Also, her 100th birthday is coming right up on April 12th! Happy birthday, Beverly, if by some bizarre miracle you're reading this!)

All of the Ramona books are delightful, but I pick this one as an example to study because it does a great job on all of the points I've talked about above.

Ramona Forever is essentially an episodic plot, as are most of Cleary's works. In this book, Ramona faces a number of situations she has to respond to in one way or another: a day care situation she's less-than-thrilled with, new responsibilities she has to live up to, the death of a pet (I still get choked up about that chapter. Jeez.), a secret her aunt is keeping, and an impending new baby in the house.

These situations span different scopes. The day-care situation is resolved fairly early on, but its resolution leads to the next situation about living up to new responsibilities. They don't really overlap. However, the situations involving her aunt's secret and the new baby are introduced early but don't resolve until quite late in the story. Indeed, the book closes with the birth of the new baby. The way Cleary overlaps these threads and weaves them together keeps the book feeling like there's always something new going on even while older questions are answered.

Let's look briefly at some of the rewards in the story:

And all of it, from first page to last, is handled with a sensitivity to children's emotions that is simply lovely. Having a new baby coming, having extended family members get married, these things strike at the heart of the relationships kids have with the most important people in their lives. They are very normal, personal situations that tons of readers can relate to. In essence, Beverly Clearly has pitched the stakes in the novel at exactly the right level to appeal to her audience's core concerns, as well as to provide them with a realistic role model for how those situations can turn out.

Finally, notice that the stakes in this book are very personal. They are intimate to Ramona Quimby's life and the lives of her closest family and friends. But realistically, there's not much reason for anybody else in the world to be particularly concerned--that is, to experience much drama--about how the story's situations play out. If Ramona really did have to spend all her after-school time at Mrs. Kemp's house, nobody would really care except Ramona. But to Ramona, that outcome is super-important.

That's what I mean about small, personal stakes. The fate of the world does not even remotely hang in the balance, and yet still the story gives characters and readers alike an awful lot to care about.


I don't mean to scare off any would-be chapter book authors by pointing out the sacred duty such books bear to their readers.

I do mean to impress upon you the sacred nature of this trust, this responsibility to provide a rewarding reading experience. But I don't mean to scare anyone off, because it's not all that hard to create the rewards.

I've given you five main story-reward categories to play with. All you really have to do is keep those things in mind as you plan out your story. When you're introducing a story-problem, be it for an episode or for the whole story, ask yourself how you're going to do that in a way that creates concern and curiosity. When you reveal a clue, ask yourself what question this clue is the answer to, and did you make sure to raise that question in the first place. Because if you didn't raise that question, then the clue comes as out of a clear blue sky, thus carrying no feeling of resolution with it.

Keep the rewards in mind as you plan your story, as you write your story, as you revise your story, and all will be well.

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