Thursday, August 25, 2016

Duckies, dragons, dinos: how old is your reader?


Can you tell the difference between a three-year-old and a ten-year-old?

I’m guessing you answered yes to that question.  But do you ask yourself this question when you sit down to write a picture book?  When you’re writing the thing, of course, it’s most important to follow your inspiration and get the words down on the page (screen!). 

But once you’re ready to think about submitting it or publishing it yourself, it’s a different story.  THEN you have to start thinking about audience.

Somebody got in touch the other day to chat about a kids’ book project and he happened to mention that the book was aimed at “kids ages three to eleven.”

Three to eleven???

If you’ve studied any psychology at all, you know that there are about a million massive changes going on in a child’s mind during those 8 years, which are about the most formative of our entire LIVES.  A kid at age 11 is basically a whole different kid from one at age 3.

Now, this guy is smart.  I’m guessing that if I asked him the question you just answered, he’d for sure be able to tell the difference between a 3-year-old and an 11-year-old!  But many writers don’t know that when it comes to writing a kids’ book, they MUST think about a difference… and exactly what that difference is.

So who’s your book for?  Here are some tried-and-true guidelines when it comes to picture books:

  • DUCKIES: Younger kids (2-3) – simple words and concepts, under 400 words, sometimes “idea” books without a plot, simple art
  • DRAGONS: Middle kids (3-5) – more advanced words and ideas, art that is richer and more complex, up to about 600 words
  • DINOS:  Older kids (4-7) – even more advanced words and ideas, some sarcasm, cynicism or (inside) jokes, or reality, informative, “real world” info, up to about 900 words, though this is long for a picture book these days

It’s THAT simple:

Are you writing duckies…




Or dinos…???


That dino age group is tricky, by the way.

By ages 6-8, kids are far more cynical and will hesitate to consider a picture book at all, particularly if it takes itself too seriously.  So how do you win them over?  Humor, sarcasm, or “yuck factor” ideas like fart jokes or sight gags they’ll feel clever for noticing.  They’ll enjoy a book that makes them feel cool and grown-up – the less like a junior picture book it looks and feels, the better.

So what did I tell this writer about his book?

First of all, I said that 3-11 is way too broad an age range, even if he had a "sweet spot" in mind somewhere in the middle. 

But I pointed out that it’s an honest mistake.  Writers who have kids actually do this all the time.  Because, in real life, if you’re a mom or dad, you’re usually reading to more than child in more than one one age group. 

But ask yourself:  if I read a book to my 8-year-old and my 20-year-old is in the room listening, does that mean the book is appropriate for ages 8-20?  Absolutely not!  Because the 20-year-old would never pick up the book on her own.  She just happens to be listening.

So think about the difference between a three-year-old and an 11-year-old.  Which one are you writing for?

Now, write your book for your target age group.  If other kids happen to be around and enjoy the book too, that’s a bonus… not your target audience.

By the way, having a good sense of your target audience is important if you’re approaching agents or publishers, too.  It’ll also give you an edge when it comes to finding “comps” – comparable books that are like yours (but not TOO alike!), because you can rule out anything that’s not aimed at that age group.

In other words, it’s just part of being a smart, savvy writer.

So just ask yourself:  what age group are you writing for?  Are you writing duckies… dragons… or dinos???


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