Help! I don’t know what I’m writing! Categories in kid lit


You might have caught a glimpse of this post a while back. I accidentally published the draft. Then I had a nervous breakdown trying to reel it in.

Luckily, there were no swear words in that draft. Nothing too incriminating. It’s a miracle, really. Considering the topic.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: Unlike most of my posts, this one’s not gospel.


This is a ROUGH guide. Categories in kid lit vary hugely and are always and forever evolving. That’s why this topic is a headwreck.


Picture Books

Board books: Newborn to age 3

Standard board books are 16 pages. Or 8 pages. Depends…

There’s not a lot of scope for writers in this category. It’s more of an illustrators’ playground. A lot of the manuscripts for these books are written in-house or commissioned. Or purloined from the kid lit canon. You know, let’s do a series of board books based on nursery rhymes… No author fees.

Other than this, illustrators often come up with their own concept and handle the lot.

Picture books: Newborn to age 3

Often referred to in-house as ‘baby books’. Because, like, you know, they’re for babies.

Generally, these books are 500 words (or waaay less), and 32 pages.

Hard to write. Sometimes, bloody hard to write.

Picture books: Ages 3–8

Standard picture books in this category are 500 words or less, and 32 pages.

You don’t have to go far to find exceptions.

Forget the exceptions when you’re first starting out.

Or don’t.

Maybe you want to be brave.

Junior Fiction

This category wins the headwreck medal.

JF books are sometimes chapter books or early readers. But they can be full-length novels, too.

Always contain illustrations. Sometimes full colour, usually b&w

* For beginner/emerging readers aged 6-8, word length 2,000-10,000 (may or may not be divided into chapters)

Someone asked the other day, how do I know when I’m writing a short story/reader as opposed to a chapter book?

You don’t. It’s your call.

It becomes a chapter book when you decide to break the story into chapters. Simple.

When you’re starting out, try writing both forms. You’ll learn heaps.

Another point: Authors often get their specifications from publishers. That is, the author is commissioned to write JF chapter books. Or a short story without chapters. The point is, most little JF chapter books and readers, are only published as part of a series. It’s too hard to sell one lonesome little chapter book. Flimsy. Skinny spines. They get lost on the shelves. They need a bigger vehicle, aka a series, to support them (and justify their existence) in the marketplace.

Which does NOT mean you should stop writing them! Opportunities for well-written chapter books are always popping up.

Other Junior Fiction 

* For confident/independent readers aged 7-10, word length 10,000-30,000

Please note, 30,000 is/was an absolute favourite word count for JF. I got that straight from a Big Five publisher ages ago. Seriously, I can still remember the cafe, the cake and those golden words.  I clung to those words for ages. They were my mantra. 30,000 30,000 30,000 I can manage that.

But then…

Exception alert

My illustrated fantasy novel, The Accidental Princess, is junior fiction. It’s 45,000 words.

It was written and designed as a read-to bedtime story for little ones, OR as a read-alone for confident readers.

See how the boundaries get blurred?

On the other hand, my Truly Tan books are also junior fiction.

They started out at 30,000 words.

But readers demanded more.

By book three we had ramped things up to 45,000 words.

The Tan books contain lots of b&w illustrations. But the books are focused entirely on confident readers (7+). The language, the concepts and the humour are way more sophisticated than in The Accidental Princess.

Same category. Very different books. 

Note: The Truly Tan books also contain a sprinkling of b&w stock images, ie photographs. This seemingly random tweak adds to their sophistication and helps elevate them to ‘upper junior fiction.’ Or in the very least, feel more ‘grown-up’.

Blurry, blurry.


The Billy B Brown books are junior fiction.

The Rainbow Fairies

Chook Doolan

The Tashi series

My Danny Best series is junior fiction. But more ‘juniory’ than the Tan series

Clementine Rose


Timmy Failure

The Treehouse Books

The Twits, and most stand-alone Roald Dahl-y books like that.

Dear little Violet Mackerel


Junior fiction is all over the place, yeah? 

Again, word counts can go from 2000 to 45,000.

How’s your head, darling?

Middle Fiction

Now we’re on firmer ground.


*For middle readers, aged 8-10, word length 30,000-45,000

*For upper-middle readers, age 8-13, word length 45,000 – 75,000

Go any higher than 75,000, and printing and shipping costs will skyrocket. Publishers will start to sweat.

Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children is upper-middle fiction. 75,000 words, no illustrations.

The Fourteenth Summer of Angus Jack sits comfortably in middle fiction. But it’s 65,000 words. And has b&w illustrations. Plenty of ’em. Like in, erm, junior fiction.

Defining categories in kid lit is like sticking a pin in mercury.

Tweenie Fiction

For upper-middle readers on the cusp of YA. Generally around 45, 000+ words

Books in this category (see the queen, Cathy Cassidy) are still classified as children’s books. But the niche is tight, fairly uncommon and can be confusing for book buyers and reviewers.

I learned this firsthand when I wrote the Crystal Bay Girls.

Booksellers weren’t sure where to shelve them. Should they put them in middle fiction or YA? I often found them in YA. It made me feel sick.

Reviewers complained because they liked their YA more gritty. Ha!

The covers were pretty but they were…camels. You know, designed by a committee, tried to say too much and ended up saying nothing. They did not trade on my author brand, either.

I was desperate for those covers to be illustrated. Illustrations would have said volumes, ie, these are Children’s Books not YA, make no mistake, people.

Quincy Jordan

Young Adult (YA) novels

*For ages 12 and up, word length 60,000+

*For ages 14 and up, word length 60,000+

Themes and issues often become more hardcore in this 14+ arena. You can really swagger here.

New Adult

*Novels for 20 somethings

I think Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff sits nicely in this category. Others might shout me down, though.

I don’t know much about this category. It’s a bit of a sub-category, really. Cool, though. Worth exploring if it appeals to you. I never felt at home when I was in my twenties. I could have done with some novels to inspire me. Or disrupt me. Or comfort me.

I loved this book.


Above all, do your research when writing for a particular age group. Look into who’s publishing what and in what format.

Strive to be familiar with the conventions in that category, the word length, layout etc.

Grab lots of examples and have them at hand. My bookshelves have loads of books from all categories. I refer to them often for inspiration and guidance. And yes, I’ve been known to physically count the words. Just to satisfy my curiosity.

At some point you have to get super clear about the age group and category you’re writing for.

But not at the start. Not when you’re still finding the story.

First, give yourself time to fiddle and faff. Allow room for surprises.


Note too: Booksellers often display children’s books differently to what the publishers intended.

Booksellers love books that sit firmly in one category. They’re not keen on crossovers as they’re hard to display and therefore harder to sell. Look at all fuss over Harry Potter. They had different covers depending on where they were to be shelved in the bookstore.

People are weird, hey? Big sooks. Can’t be seen reading a book with a kiddy cover.

Harden up, I say.

Oh. Did I mention junior fiction can get super confusing?


One more thing.

A fine example of divisions within JF is the Penguin, Aussie Bites series.

This series was beautifully conceptualised. (And the authors and illustrators were beautifully briefed. Everyone knew exactly what they were doing.)

Aussie Nibbles: Illustrated (b&w) chapter books for early readers, 1500-2,000 words

Aussie Bites: Illustrated (b&w) chapter books for confident readers, 4,500 – 7,000 words

Aussie Chomps: Chapter books for established readers, 8,000 – 13,000 words. No illustrations except for small chapter headers.



Phew. I’m done!

I need a cup of tea.

Maybe you do, too.

If you’ve stuck with me all this way, you deserve chocolate as well.

Jen xo


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10 Replies to “Help! I don’t know what I’m writing! Categories in kid lit”

  1. Great post. Just to make it really confusing … I know these categories get so blurred even in the library business – some picture books like Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree are catalogued as junior fiction and not picture book even though it is picture book format and half of skulduggery series is junior, half YA! It’s blur blur blur. Write well!

    1. I could not agree more, barnaby. It just goes to show how random categories really are, and how vast the imagination is. It can’t be contained! Yay for us all!

  2. Where were you when I was starting out?! In a strange way, by taking into account all the vagaries of publishing, this is actually the clearest thing I’ve read about kid lit categories. Good on you, Jen.

  3. Thanks, Jen. Always the lines blur. As someone learning the ropes, every time I go back to check, especially picture book word counts, the boundaries change. At least this is a guide. And, as you say, there are exceptions.

  4. A lovely read and confirmed all my concerns…lots of blurry bits and agree the first step is ‘find the story.’ Then figure out which little box to put it in! Thank you for such clear advice!

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