finding an audience–how old is your heart?

I’ve been asked to post this article I wrote for the Institute of Children’s Literature, online. They bought the rights for one year, and the year is up. But geez, why should the world be denied my genius? *cough*




Lisha Cauthen

You’ve wrestled with your demons, angsted online, joined six critique groups, and finally decided that you are a Novelist for Children. TA DAAAA!

I regret to inform you that you still have a decision to make.

Publishers often divide children’s novels into three genres according to age level: Early Chapter, Middle Grade and Young Adult. And they want to know where your work will fit on their list. Do not tell them your arresting, yet accessible novel appeals to folks 8 to 80, or you’ll find yourself sitting on the curb with a big shoe print on your keister.

Try this exercise and find out where your writing fits: Write the same fairy tale as an Early Chapter book, a Middle Grade and Young Adult novel. I used a scene from Little Red Riding Hood:


Little Red Riding Hood rapped on the door.

“Who’s there?” asked the wolf.

Little Red Riding Hood thought her Grandmother sounded funny. “You sound hoarse, Grandma. Are you sick?” she asked.

The wolf cleared his throat. “I’m not a horse, Dear Child. I’m your grandmother. Come in.”

Little Red Riding Hood tiptoed into the room. Someone hairy was in her grandmother’s bed. Little Red Riding Hood didn’t get too close. “Grandma, what big eyes you have,” she said.

“My Dear, why are you so timid? What do you think I’ll do? Bite your head off?”


Red Riding Hood loved her grandmother, but she didn’t want to be here today. She had a soccer game in less than an hour. She banged on the door.

“Who’s that?”

That doesn’t sound like Grandma, she thought. Grandma always sounds sweet, even if her bunions are acting up. “It’s me. Red Riding Hood.”

“Come in!” called the voice.

I don’t like this one bit, thought Red Riding Hood, but she went in anyway.

She almost fainted when she looked into the rumpled covers. Red Riding Hood didn’t know who this was, but it sure wasn’t her grandma. “Uh—uh—gosh, Grandma. Your eyes are poppin’ out of your head today.”

The wolf snuggled its snout under the blankets. “Don’t question your elders, Kid. Shut up and do what you’re told.”


“My mother sucks,” said Red. “I can’t believe she’s making me take this craptaculous stuff to Gram. Doesn’t she know that Edward is waiting for me? Hiding in the shadows in my room, ready to hold me tenderly while I sleep?” Red kicked the door.

“MMMMmmmmm,” said a strange voice.

Stupid grandmother. She doesn’t like Edward. Just because he’s undead doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. He does care! He loves me just for me! Not because I smell tremendously delicious and have super-special blood pulsing in my neck that stretches the limits of his self-control.

Red shoved the door open. Before the wolf could speak, Red said, “I don’t care what you think! Edward would never hurt me! He’s good! And I want him to bite me and make me one of the undead too!”

“Don’t talk to me about Edward,” the wolf growled.

Red stepped closer, closer. “Why, your eyes…they’re so brown, so wild…”

“Think so?” he whispered.

“Oh, Jacob…”

Maybe you can tell that writing the Early Chapter and Middle Grade excerpts was a chore for me. But the YA. Ah, that spurted from my fingertips like—like blood from a severed artery.

While you’re sampling the genres, remember:

  • Children’s writers are supposed to write as if THEY are the age of the audience they’re writing for. Do not dwell on whether it’s proper for a 30-year-old mom to feel like a 9-year-old boy.
  • Your natural genre is the one that is easiest for you to channel from your subconscious. Figure out what age you feel like when you’re writing. Writers often discover their work in progress belongs to a different genre than they originally thought.
  • Find books similar to what you want to write. See which age genre appeals to you. Children’s books have evolved tremendously, so be sure the books you read are no older than 5 years. Once you know your audience, read 1,000 books in that genre. That is not a typo. 1,000. See what the norms are and why they work. Then study the exceptions and when to use them.

Before you retire to the mud room and pull your lawn chair up to the ironing board you use as a desk, look over these brief descriptions of the three age genres of children’s novels:

EARLY CHAPTER (ages 7-11)

  • First books that kids read completely on their own.
  • They want to read about a character who’s like them, or in situations like theirs.
  • ACTION! The act of reading itself isn’t intoxicating anymore.
  • Sentences are a bit complex, but paragraphs run 2-4 sentences.
  • Usually, a thread runs from chapter to chapter.

MIDDLE GRADE (ages 8-12)

  • Main character focuses inward. These readers are working on their own identities, who they are and what they think, while their relationships and bodies change.
  • Conflicts often involve friendships, school, siblings.
  • The main character must grow and change during the course of the book, but these changes are internal.
  • Don’t worry about word choice or sentence structure. Middle graders are good readers. Stories may involve subplots involving secondary characters woven through the story.
  • This audience gets addicted to characters. Consider writing a series with the same cast of players.
  • Use hooks at the end of chapters to keep the reader turning the page.


  • Complex plots with several major characters, though one emerges as the focus of the book. You must make the reader identify with your main character right away. That’s why so many YA novels are first person.
  • Everything is HUGE! EPIC! Teens have no perspective, no sense that bad times will pass and the world will go on. Every situation is new.
  • YA readers are stepping outside of their hearth and home, and they want to read about characters whose internal change comes from external events. They want to see how the conflict affects the main character, and how the main character affects the world.
  • Be subtle. YA readers are smart enough to figure things out for themselves.
  • Be ruthless. Impale your main character on the merciless horns of a dilemma. (Insert maniacal laughter here.)

Experiment and find your best age genre. You’ll access your creativity faster, your writing will be stronger and I’m pretty sure bluebirds will light on your shoulder.


About Lisha Cauthen

Lisha Cauthen writes YA novels for guys that girls like to read too.

Posted on April 6, 2011, in writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I enjoyed this post. Oh, and I channel in the 8-12 range. 🙂

  2. Thank you for sharing this! Loved your YA rendition of Red (nice timing, with that movie out and all) My parents had hoped I’d be a boy. They were going to call me Kevin. Kevin writes all my stories and books, and never reaches 13.

  3. Judy, I’m not surprised you’re middle grade.

    Michelle, I love the fact you’ve got a name and persona for your muse.

    Or maybe I’m scared.

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