Monday 1 October 2018

Exploring Genres - Picture Books & Chapter Books

by Penny Reeve

Picture books and middle grade – invitations to the world!

I was in conversation with my daughter the other day and, as is fairly common at our place, the
conversation turned to books, children’s books in particular. She related how, upon sharing her
excitement at discovering the children’s books section of her university library, none of her young adult friends understood her enthusiasm.

‘They don’t understand,’ she commented. ‘They think, just because they’re grown up now, they should leave children’s books behind. They don’t realise some of the best books written are children’s books.’

Of course, I agreed. I’m a children’s book writer!

But, feelings of successful parenting aside, I do believe she has a point. Somehow our society has decided that children’s books, picture books and middle grade novels and the like are simple. But I’d encourage you to go browsing, next time you’re in a library or a bookshop, and take a closer look.

Children’s picture books and novels can be fun, silly, hilarious, rebellious, challenging, heart breaking, tear jerking, thought provoking and altogether beautiful in a way that no other genre can imitate. AND they have the incredible ability to do all of this, frequently at multiple levels (so each reader – despite their age and experience – can connect with the text in their own way).

So what exactly are the features of the genre that allow for such depth and, in my opinion, treasure worthy pieces?

Picture books

A picture book is a book in which illustrations carry a significant (if not majority) role communicating a story. A picture book cannot exist without it’s artwork, but some can exist without text.

The conventions of writing a picture book are very strict and they are known, for good reason, to be some of the hardest pieces of writing to pull off. Here’s why:

- A picture book needs to fit within 32 pages (and this includes the title page and imprint pages). So it’s typically 14-15 page spreads.
- Picture books are typically only 600 words long. (So that’s the WHOLE story in 600 words, or less if possible)
- The text of a picture book must be written in a way that allows an illustrator to extend, enhance and fulfil the storytelling.
- Many times illustrators and authors never meet, so the text must be as perfect as possible, often richly poetic (though not necessarily rhyming) with absolutely NO wasted words.

It is this mysterious interplay between words and pictures in great picture books that is the wonderful strength of the picture book genre.

Some highlights in the genre:

Check out the illustrations of Jesus as a child in Mighty Mighty King (Penny Morrison and Lisa Flanagan)
Notice the powerful role of illustrations in When I See Grandma (Debra Tidball and Leigh Hedstrom)

See the gentle communication of emotion and personality in Same (Katrina Roe and Jemima Trappell)

Children’s novels

Children’s novels are another genre that’s worth dipping into for us ‘grown ups’ but also for sharing with kids. 

From a literacy training perspective, they bridge the space between picture books and young adult novels. Whereas picture books assume an adult reader and child listener, children’s novels assume a child will, at some point, approach the book alone. This inevitably creates child friendly structure for the book in terms of:

- Word count. At the lower end of the scale are ‘Chapter Books’, these are a child reader’s first foray into the novel genre and word counts can be as low as 1000. The upper level nudges closer to 40 000 words for what is considered ‘Middle Grade’.
- Chapter length. This can vary, but is usually kept shorter than YA to encourage a fluid, realistic reading experience for young readers.
- Child protagonists are usually at a similar age to their intended reader.
- Plot complications, characterisation and description. Although these must be heavily worked by the author to make for authentic writing, they are communicated sparsely and with precision. Young readers aren’t going to tolerate long descriptive passages of the view from the cliff top, and yet (especially if that cliff top is important to the theme/setting/plot) they need to know what it looks and feels like. So a light touch is required.
- Illustrations. Many children’s novels include illustrations of some sort. The occasional black line illustration etc. The longer the novel, the smaller a role such illustrations play.

Some highlights in the genre:

The Grand Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler (Lisa Shanahan) is a beautifully written story of friendship, bike riding, courage and family.

My Tania Abbey novels tackle issues of faith, friendship and responding to poverty amid a setting of everyday life.

Kelsey and the Quest of the Porcelain Doll (Rosanne Hawke) is a lovely adventure story for young readers and considers topics such as belonging and learning about different cultures.

Author bio:

Penny Reeve is the Australian author of more than 20 books for children, including the CALEB Children’s Category award winning Madison picture books. She writes to empower children to engage with - and respond to - the world around them. Her most recently published books are Camp Max (a children’s novel for 6-10 year olds) and Out of the Cages (a YA novel about human trafficking). You can learn more about Penny and her books by visiting her websites: and


  1. Penny, thanks for this great introduction to children's fiction.

    1. Thanks, Iola.
      I love reading, writing and writing about children's books - so it was a pleasure to write this post!

  2. Thanks for this reminder. I work in a Primary School and get to delve into this wonderful world through the choices the students make for our one-on-one reading sessions. What a delight it is when a hesitant reader catches the fire and becomes an enthusiastic consumer. )i(

    1. Yes, I agree! And such a treat when you're able to match a child with a story that captures their imagination and shows the the value of sticking with the reading process. Thanks for all you do assisting children to discover reading too!


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