Monday, February 3, 2014

Editor Jen Arena's Expert Advice on Writing Chapter Books

CHAPTER BOOK TIPS by Jen Arena, author of 50+ books and most recently line manager of Random House Chapter Books.

Most kids’ book authors gravitate toward a certain type of books when they start out, usually picture books, middle grade, or YA (young adult), but there are many other formats—easy-to-reads, novelty, board books, graphic novels, and, one of my personal favorites, early chapter books.

So . . . what is an early chapter book?

Have you ever seen Rainbow Magic, Junie B. Jones, Ivy and Bean, or Captain Underpants? Those are all early chapter book series. The thing is, few people write naturally for this level. Here are some tips if it’s a format you’d like to explore:

1) Early chapter books are short . . . but not too short. You still have plenty of room to develop characters, build the action, and have a satisfying climax and conclusion. Usually an early chapter book is between 5,000 and 12,000 words.

2) Make sure the problem that needs to be solved is clear early on in the story. A good rule of thumb is to reveal it by the end of the first chapter.

3) Since the audience for early chapter books is kids who are fairly new to reading, the reading level should be on the low side (above 1.0 and lower than 3.5). You don’t want to frustrate the reader and have them put down the book. This means shorter sentences and simpler vocabulary. How do you find out a manuscript’s reading level? In a Word document, run the Spelling and Grammar Check (under Tools) with your Preferences set to Show Readability Statistics. At the end, a reading level will pop up (it will say “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level”).

4) Try to keep the plot fairly straightforward. Elements like a switch in the narrator or a flashback might end up confusing a reader.

One of the nicest things about early chapter books is that, more than almost any other format, these books work really well as a series. So if you like writing for this age level, there’s a chance you could end up doing a lot of them!

Jen Arena: Formerly an editorial director at Random House BFYR, Jen Arena has written over 50 books for kids under her maiden name, Jennifer Dussling, and under the pseudonym Tennant Redbank, including fiction and nonfiction, licensed and original. Her first book, Stars, was published in 1996, and has never been out of print, and some of her other titles are Gargoyles, Bugs, Bugs, Bugs, Slinky Scaly Snakes, Pink Snow and Other Weird Weather, Fair Is Fair, Deadly Poison Dart Frogs, Gotcha!, and The Rainbow Mystery. Her books have been published by Scholastic, Grosset & Dunlap, DK, Scholastic, Kane Press, and Bearport Publishing and translated into French, Spanish, and Arabic.

Jen Arena's most recent book One Little Flower Girl won an Oppenheim Gold Award and was featured on Martha Stewart's wedding website, plus she has a number of books coming to print later this year including books with Amazon Children's Publishing, Penguin Random House and Little, Brown.

When she's not writing or editing, you can find Jen in her garden, on a volleyball court, or curled up with a good book.

Sign up for A PATH TO PUBLISHING online face-to-face writing workshops. Wether you choose the NOVEL TRACK or the PICTURE BOOK TRACK, our goal is ensure you understand concept, plotting, character development, scene development, action and emotional arc development, as well has how to pitch your work to agents, editors, and readers.


  1. I admit that early readers intrigue me. As a mom of a precocious boy, we had a tough time until we found MAGIC TREEHOUSE. Now it's all the STINK and MY WEIRD SCHOOL we can handle. I've been led to believe that early chapter books are a tough market to crack, so I've avoided attempts at writing one. Is this not the case?

  2. Crap....All these years and I still can't spell...sorry for the Advise, that is now ADVICE, Jen!

  3. Great tips, Jen. Thank you! I never realized the word count for early chapter books could be that high. =)

  4. When you write these early readers, do you seek agents or query publishers with them. What are your thoughts?


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