She’s written two acclaimed teen novels, Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth. Her third book, Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, chock-full of exercises and tips on the ins-and-outs of writing and the publishing business, is the culmination of her hard-earned experience.
Joy Chu: Your book deftly identifies the variety of young readers. That is, young adult fiction is an umbrella term for two distinct categories, middle grade fiction (ages 9-14), and young adult fiction (ages 12-17), or teen fiction. Since the primary focus of this blog is on illustrators and their collaborators (authors, editors, and art directors), I’d like to hone in on books that get art treatment.
Would you tell us what distinguishes middle grade texts from chapter books, and books for reluctant readers?
Deborah Halverson: Distinguishing the book levels that transition young readers from picture book to middle grade novel can be confusing, that’s for sure. Try this breakdown:
Beginning reader: Ages 5 to 8; short text, simple language, usually part of a larger beginning reader series. Example: Mr. Putter & Tabby series.
Early chapter book: Ages 6 to 9; moving away from emphasis on illustration, with longer texts broken into short chapters. Example: Magic Treehouse books (below).
Chapter book: Ages 7 to 10; fully developed characters and longer text (roughly 100 or more pages) broken into chapters; may include decorative ornaments and/or limited black-and-white illustration. Examples: Chet Gecko series.
This realm of children’s books is dominated by series. Reluctant readers are more likely to choose and stick with books that feature familiar characters, author style, and themes.
Joy Chu: Sometimes I run across picture books which I feel probably should have been middle grade illustrated books instead. That is, the books will contain way too much text, and the subject matter is a bit advanced for the target audience. Do editors find themselves in such quandaries when evaluating the target audience for a manuscript with good potential?
Deborah Halverson: “Older” picture books target kids aged 6 to 9, or 5 to 8, and thus they tend to have a more sophisticated subject matter and approach to illustrations than the general picture book range (ages 3 to 7).
Notice the overlap of the age ranges for these older picture books and chapters books? Yep: same audience.
The organization of the material is different, though, because of the introduction of chapters. Chapter books are for readers who want a longer narrative and plot, with character development across multiple chapters. The illustrations tend to serve more as decorative elements. In picture books, the illustrations tell at least half the story.
Let’s not forget this factor: little peoples’ pride! Some older kids crave the independence of reading their own “big kid books,” and chapter books satisfy that yen.
And then there are those kiddoes who wouldn’t be caught dead carrying a picture book around (baby book!) but can’t wait to show off their new Magic Treehouse book to their BFFs.
As well, the topics of older picture books and beginning readers are usually different, with the picture books often tackling larger concepts or events, while the chapter books are focused heavily on the relationships between characters.
These factors play into an author’s and editor’s decision between “picture book” and “chapter book.”
Joy Chu: How does an editor decide if a middle grade book or chapter book requires illustration? And would the text feature different traits if it were for a picture book?
Deborah Halverson: Middle grade novels and older chapter books, which can range from 75-100 or more pages, have different illustrative needs.
MG novels may have no illustrations at all, or “spot” illustrations (maybe one per chapter). This art complements the text, giving the young reader something extra for interest’s sake.
In contrast, the illustrations in a chapter book play a bigger role in the storytelling, assisting young readers as they work to decipher the sentences and making the spreads less intimidating.
Some chapter books even spice up the text itself with graphic elements—funky fonts, colored words, that sort of thing. The Geronimo Stilton series is a perfect example of this technique . . . which may account for my three sons’ instant love of that spunky mouse. I was sitting in a lawn chair flipping through The Phantom of the Subway (Geronimo Stilton #13) one day while my then-five-year-olds played in the garden. One boy peeked over my shoulder and never looked away. The other two boys soon peeked over my other shoulder, and then the four of us sat there, on the driveway, and read all 128 pages of the book. They stayed tight at my side the whole time, as mesmerized by the pages themselves as by the story.
Joy Chu: You’ve worked with a wide variety of illustrators, authors, and target audiences. You were the editor of Searching for Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt), the sequel to The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman. Tell us about working with Joe Cepeda.
Deborah Halverson: My knee-jerk response: dream illustrator.
I absolutely adore Joe’s palette, his imagination is off the chart, and he is a master at visual storytelling—moving the “camera” around as we turn the pages, creating a palpable sense of movement with his viewpoint changes.
He’s also a total professional, working well with deadlines and seeing editorial feedback as “collaboration” rather than “interloping.” Believe me, editors love that. Plus, Joe’s just the sweetest person. Can you tell I’m a fan?
My favorite example of Joe’s visual storytelling prowess occurs in The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman. In that book, Oliver is a wooden man who is conveyed city-by-city across the U.S. by kind travelers.
The original manuscript contained only the text that appears on the postcards sent by the kind travelers to update Oliver’s creator of his progress. Joe decided that Oliver’s travel scenes would be wordless art-only spreads, and he filled those spreads with amazing American landscapes. Green skies, pink skies, blue skies… these wordless spreads are breathtaking and energetic.
[You can read more about Joe Cepeda's work process here — JC]
Joy Chu: What led you to the creation of four life-size wooden Olivers?
Deborah Halverson: First, it’s important to know that Joe is a hobbyist woodworker as well as an illustrator. Thus, Joe drew Oliver as if someone might actually build him. All the joints, angles, what-have-you were easily created with real wood.
It’s also important to know that my husband is also a hobbyist woodworker, and that I had enough interest to take some woodworking classes myself.
So when Harcourt Children’s Books publisher Lori Benton brainstormed the idea to send a real Oliver on a book tour, I volunteered the Halversons as his creators.
We ended up making four Olivers, and a member of the marketing team sewed four brown bookbags to travel with him. Here are some photos of us at work on Oliver, and the final “product.”
The best part in all this was the moment when, shortly after I’d arranged a finished Oliver in a sitting position on my living room couch, I accidentally bumped the wooden man’s foot while walking past and told him, “Oh, excuse me.” He’d become very real to me.
Those four Olivers traveled the country—bookstores, classrooms, libraries—collecting postcards and souvenirs from kids along the way. It was outstanding.
And now readers are getting into the act, using wood or paper to make their own Olivers. They take their little Olivers to wonderful places and photograph him there. My boys took a paper Oliver around Europe a few summers ago.
For a free downloadable Oliver pattern, click here.
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Want to meet Deborah live? Pre-register for her Webinar with Katie Davis here. It’s happening Wednesday, July 27, 2011, from 9:00 PM – 10:00 PM (ET).
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