Throughout the history of children’s literature, children’s books have existed in large part to teach lessons. Not only do they teach children to be compliant, grateful, pious, and to work hard, children’s books socialise children. Today we might say they teach ’emotional literacy’.
“Everybody else on the block rides two-wheelers. Only babies ride tricycles.” She made this remark because she knew Howie still rode his tricycle, and she was so angry about the ribbon she wanted to hurt his feelings.
— Ramona the Pest, Beverly Cleary
Adult readers are left to work out motivations, ironies and desires for ourselves — we read between the lines. And this is true for young adult novels, too. But when children are learning to read they are also learning to recognise and name their feelings. Chapter books such as the Ramona series are good at doing that because they add that little extra bit of explanation.
This little bit of extra explanation can be found in children’s books for older readers, too:
“So you should have told me before, that’s what. You shouldn’t hide things like that from people, because they feel stupid when they find out, and that’s cruel.”
— Northern Lights, Philip Pullman (Lyra to her father)
When an adult is unable to identify their own feelings it’s called alexithymia.
Alexithymia is defined by:
difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal
difficulty describing feelings to other people
constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a scarcity of fantasies
a stimulus-bound, externally oriented cognitive style.
Alexithymia is found more commonly in the autistic population, but not all autistic people have trouble understanding and identifying emotions. In fact, only about one in two autistic people have trouble with this.
Lately I’ve been reading chapter books with my 8-year-old daughter. We’ve been reading realistic comedy dramas from various American eras, from Ramona Quimby to Junie B. Jones to Judy Moody to Clementine. We’re just starting to (re)delve into the work of Judy Blume.
We’ve also read similar books produced locally such as Philomena Wonderpen by Ian Bone, Billy B. Brown by Sally Rippin and the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
Many of these stories are great. All of these stories have things to recommend them.
But there is a formula running throughout most chapter books aimed at girls which isn’t doing women any good at all. In fact, in this week heading into the American election, I’m getting pretty cranky about it, because this narrative is having a real world effect.
The chapter book formula concerns the character web, which looks like this:
There are variations on this basic plan, of course.
For instance, the girly-girl might actually be the fake opponent.
Considered together as a corpus, this kind of character in middle grade fiction is saying something quite damaging about a certain kind of girl — the young Hillary Clinton archetype. A non-sympathetic character.
The Mixed Message of Ivy + Bean
An example of that is the relationship between Ivy + Bean. In their case, ‘tomboyish’ viewpoint character Bean mistakes the girly-girl across the road for someone completely uninteresting. But when she takes the time to know her, Bean realises that Ivy is just as scheming as she is, and because of her good-girl appearance they are actually better equipped to carry out their often quite nasty — but always fun — plans. Various parent reviewers criticise this series for its unpunished bad behaviour, but one good thing about the Ivy + Bean series is that the girls learn in the very first book to look behind appearances.
A possibly quite damaging unintended message is that girly-girls are basically fake. And unless a girly-girl reveals a more masculine side, she remains unsympathetic.
The girly-girl opponent of the Philomena Wonderpen series is a girl called Sarah Sullivan, who the reader knows to hate due to her overtly feminine accoutrements. Her matching pink accessories and her pink bag. Then there’s the way she competes against our imperfect hero and ends up winning the literal ‘gold star’ at the end of camp, dished out by an unsympathetic Trunchbull-esque school principal.
Even though Philomena has all the advantages of a magic wand (her father’s Wonderpen), Sarah Sullivan still wins the gold star — mostly through her own hard work, I might add, though she is also a rich girl and dishes out store bought sweets.
The more successful a woman is, the more pleasure we take in demolishing her and turning her into a two-dimensional villain. Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary success may only be tempting the God of Trainwrecks to make her our biggest and best catastrophe yet.
To dwell upon the ‘fakeness’ of girly-girl opponents, Sarah Sullivan’s ‘store bought’ sweets are depicted by the author in opposition to Philomena’s home-baked treats, and once again, Sarah Sullivan is deemed a ‘fake’, in a way any modern mother should understand implicitly as coming straight from the ad-men trying to persuade us to buy this cookie over that, because it tastes just like a homebaked one, and women are therefore allowed to serve it up. (Because ideally, women are in the kitchen baking genuine cookies, but if we can’t manage that, we must at least make a good attempt at faking it.)
Even in the Clementine series, which I do love, overt markings of femininity are punished. This dynamic is set up in the very first paragraph of the first in the series:
I have had not so good of a week.
Well, Monday was a pretty good day, if you don’t count Hamburger Surprise at lunch and Margaret’s mother coming to get her. Or the stuff that happened in the principal’s office when I got sent there to explain that Margaret’s hair was not my fault and besides she looks okay without it, but I couldn’t because Principal Rice was gone, trying to calm down Margaret’s mother.
— Clementine, Sara Pennypacker
Since hair (and handbags and high-heels) are strong markers of femininity, Margaret the girly-girl opponent is immediately brought down to size, and the reader is encouraged to despise the hysterical mother who is upset about something so frivolous. Putting aside the fact that actually, cutting someone’s hair is a violation of personhood that women have been talking about for decades and which, from boys and men, is actually really unacceptable.
In the seventh book we see the girly-girl character cut down to size by breaking her ankle after insisting on wearing high heels. And so on and so forth. Not so subtle subtext: Clementine is adorable because she is not like one of those girly-girls. She is basically everything we are encouraged to love in a boyish trickster.
Judy’s girly-girl enemy is Jessica Finch who at least breaks the mould of blonde bitches by having dark hair.
Judy Moody marched into third grade on a plain old Thursday, in a plain old ordinary mood. That was before Judy got stung by the Queen Bee.
Judy sat down at her desk, in the front row next to Frank Pearl.
“Hey, did you see Jessica Finch?” asked Frank in a low voice.
“Yeah. So? I see her every day. She sits catty-cornered behind me.”
— Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald
‘Cater-cornered’ means to sit diagonally behind someone, but the common pronunciation gives me the feeling that ‘catty’ is supposed to be a sexist pun. (When women are compared to cats it’s because cats don’t ‘fight fair’. They hiss and spit and posture, and will scratch you with their long ‘nails’.)
We are encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she is the Queen (Spelling) Bee. We are encouraged to root for Judy’s defeating her mostly because Judy is the viewpoint character but also because Jessica’s presentation is ‘perfect’ — she sits up straight in class and doesn’t have a single hair loose from her high ponytail.
We are also encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she tries hard, much as Donald Trump criticised Hillary for preparing for the second 2016 presidential debate:
“I have spelling posters in my room at home,” said Jessica. “With all the rules. I even have a glow-in-the-dark one.”
“That would give me spelling nightmares. I’ll take my glow-in-the-dark skeleton poster any day. It shows all two hundred and six bones in the body!”
“Judy,” said Mr. Todd. “The back of your head is not nearly as interesting as the front. And so far I’ve seen more o fit today than I’d like.”
— Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald
Obviously, our siding with Judy is helped by the fact that both girls were talking but only Judy gets told off by the teacher authority figure.
A positive aspect of the Judy Moody series is that Judy is allowed to express a slightly wider range of emotions, including anger. But mostly she displays spite, and actually ‘moody’ itself is a highly gendered word. Boys are not called moody for displaying the exact same range of emotions. (And yes, I acknowledge there is also a — completely different but still sexist problem — concerning the narrow range of allowable emotions in boys and men.)
Junie B. Jones
Like Clementine, Junie B. Jones has a loving relationship with her school principal, owing to her pranks being adorable and the principal being a caring type. (In this post I make the case that Junie B. is a fictional representation of an ADHD phenotype child.)
Junie’s girly-girl enemy is Richie Lucille. The reader knows immediately that Lucille is horrible and unsympathetic because she has long blonde hair tied up in a perfect ponytail, whereas Junie B. looks rough and tumble and doesn’t care about neatness.
Billy B. Brown
By now it should be clear that messy hair is prerequisite for empathetic girl heroes.
Billie B. Brown has two messy pigtails, two pink ballet slippers and one new tutu.
— The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin, opening sentence
It’s almost as if the girliness of the ballet outfit has to be neutralised by the messy hair. The messy hair says, “I’m wearing ballet clothes because I’m doing ballet, but don’t let that fool you into thinking I care about what you think of me.”
Billie’s best friend is Jack. Billie and Jack live next door to each other. They do everything together. If Billie decides to play soccer, then Jack will play soccer too.
— The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin
Rippin avoids much of the ‘girl drama’ by making Billie a ‘guy’s gal’, basically. Billie’s close friendship with a boy elevates her social status.
The only real gender subversion here is that Jack learns ballet just as Billie plays soccer.
Because once again we have the horrible girly-girl enemy. She is called Lola. Once again she is drawn (by illustrator Aki Fukuoka) with her blonde hair in a perfect bun. She closes her eyes with her nose in the air.
The message for young readers is that being a girl is fine and girls can do anything they want … so long as they are not too much of a girl. This femme phobic message works in opposition to the feminist ‘girls can do anything’ intent.
Frenemies: A feature of girl fiction but not in books for and about boys
I have also read the Wimpy Kid books and others like it, and it seems the very concept of ‘frenemy’ is specific to books aimed at girls. There is no frenemy in Wimpy Kid — Rowley is a genuine WYSIWYG friend. Fregley is an out-and-out comedic archetype and the girls are somewhat complicated but one-dimensional opponents — these heterosexual boys don’t like the girls as people but they’re starting to feel inevitable adolescent attraction. The most popular books among boy readers are both reflecting and reinforcing a completely different but equally problematic dynamic — a discussion you can find elsewhere.
In fiction aimed specifically at girls, however, we often have frenemies. This is an outworking of a culture in which the allowable emotional spectrum for girls spans between friendly and neutral. Anger, distaste, disgust is not allowed from girls.
So we have these girls who trick the adults into thinking they’re perfect but actually they are horrible: a sexist variation on the trickster archetype. The reason this is sexist is because the prevalence of these girls suggests, to widely-read kids that:
Only girls are able to pull this off
Boys are all surface and no depth — boys speak their minds and you always know exactly what you’re going to get.
Girls are basically liars.
The worst girls are the prettiest ones. And by ‘pretty’ I mean the girls with the most feminine accoutrements. The more feminine a girl is, the more likely she is to be fake underneath.
Hillary Clinton has a unique talent to make people viscerally angry. Just look at the footage from Trump rallies: supporters carry “Lyin Hillary” dolls hung from miniature nooses, cry “Lock her up” and “Hang her in the streets”, and wear Trump That Bitch T-shirts.
There are plenty of boy tricksters but they are presented in a completely different way.
Boy opponents, for example, arrange to beat someone up, after school, behind the bike sheds, but we aren’t inclined to call him ‘scheming’ for arranging the fight outside the range of adult supervision.
Boys take girls’ dolls, attach them to kite tails and send them sailing into the air, but boys aren’t schemers — they are simply having fun.
The bully-boy characters in children’s stories are not raking in all the academic awards. The fact that girly-girls also know all the answers is one more reason for the reader to despise her. We don’t like women to have all the answers.
The lesson is clear, and has been reiterated in countless hacky comedies about cold, loveless career women ever since. Success and love are incompatible for women. For a woman, taking pride in her own talents – especially talents seen as “masculine” – is a sin that will perpetually cut her off from human relationships and social acceptance. She can be good, or liked, not both. The only answer is to let a man beat her, thereby accepting her proper feminine role.
Feminine Girl Opponents Are Always Brought Down A Peg
When the girly-girl gets water dumped all over her (accidentally on purpose), or her pretty dress covered in ink, the reader is encouraged to hate her even more. It’s not just that the girl hero manages to come out on top — punishment usually focuses on ruining the very thing that stands for femininity.
Don’t forget that punishing female characters in children’s stories has a long history. Below, the Wicked Witch melts. The Wicked Witch is truly wicked, not just an annoying perfectionist classmate with frilly dresses and bows in her hair:
I would argue that Clinton irritates people not just because of her gender, but because we simply can’t process her narrative. There are no stories that prepare us for her trajectory through life and, therefore, we react to her as if she’s a disruption in our reality, rather than a person. We love public women best when they are losers, when they’re humiliated, defeated, or (in some instances) just plain killed.
It Didn’t Start With Ramona Quimby And Susan Kushner
As Doyle explains, this view of femininity goes back as far as Greek mythology and perhaps even back into the Paleolithic era:
Aversion to successful or ambitious women is nothing new. It’s baked into our cultural DNA. Consider the myth of Atalanta. She was the fastest runner in her kingdom, forced men to race her for her hand, and defeated every one of them. She would have gotten away with it, too, if some man hadn’t booby-trapped the course with apples to slow her down, which is presented as a happy ending. By taking away her ability to excel, he also takes away her loneliness.
Then, there’s the story of Artemis and Orion: He’s the most handsome hunter in all Greece, and she’s the Virgin Goddess of the Hunt, who’s ready to get rid of the “virgin” portion for him. Until, that is, her jealous brother Apollo tricks her into an archery contest – she’s so proud of her aim that she lets Apollo taunt her into shooting at a barely visible speck on the horizon and, therefore, winds up shooting her lover in the head.
You see it again in the Bible and actually my high school classics teacher had this quote from Pericles on the wall as if it were a maxim to live by:
[I]njunctions against female self-expression or fame are everywhere in ancient history. The Christian New Testament “[suffers] not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man;”Pericles wrote that the greatest womanly virtue was “not to be talked of for good or evil among men”. In the colonial United States and Britain, women who talked too much and started fights were labelled“common scolds” – recommended punishments included making them wear gags or repeatedly dunking them in water to simulate drowning.
Boyish Tricksters Are Heroes; Girlish Tricksters Are Punished
[T]hough Clinton activates the darkest parts of her critics’ sexual imagination, our yearning for her downfall goes beyond even that. It’s not just that her success makes her unattractive or “unlikable”, it’s that, on some level, we cannot believe her success even exists.
You hear that disbelief in the frantic insistence of certain Sanders supporters that the primary was “rigged”, simply because Clinton won it. You hear it when Trump sputters that Clinton “should never have been allowed to run”, making her very presence in the race a violation of the accepted order. You can hear it when pundits such as Jonathan Walczak argue that even if Clinton is elected, she should voluntarily resign after one term “for her own good”. (Also, presumably, good for George Clooney, whom Walczak offers up as a plausible replacement.) Even when we imagine her winning, we can’t imagine her really winning. Unadulterated female success and power, on the level Clinton has experienced, is simply not in our shared playbook. So, even when a Clinton victory is right in front of our eyes, we react, not as if it’s undesirable, but as if it is simply not real. And the thing is, it might not be. Or at least, it might only be temporary: the rise before the big, spectacular, sexism-affirming fall.
The caveat in chapter books is that ‘tomboyish’ girls, like boys, can also get away with anything. It’s the particularly feminine way of being that is not acceptable.
This is where I give a shout out to the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
Violet is kind, inquisitive, creative, understanding, thoughtful and loyal. The author avoids the girly-girl frenemy dynamics and instead focuses on Violet’s relationship with her hippie family and to the natural world around her. Her ‘opponent’ might be her mother, who meets a friend at the mall and bores Violet talking about the price of petrol, for instance. The conflict is not contrived. We do still have, though, a teenage girl snarker in Nicola, the older sister.
Admittedly, this makes for quieter plots with less Bestseller appeal.
Illustrator Elanna Allen dresses Violet in practical clothing and Violet sometimes has quite neat hair, other times quite messy. The covers of this series are not heavily pink, which I find ironic given the pinkness of all the other books implicitly criticising pinkness.
Fancy Nancy is another interesting case because this is a character who embraces all of those feminine accoutrements vilified in most chapter books.
For pedagogical reasons, I’m sure, these books also teach young readers ‘fancy words’, which Nancy uses with full explanations for the young readers. In other words, there are many ways of being fancy, and one of those ways is to be smart.
There are also lots of standalone books about different kind of girls, but it’s the bestselling series which are the most widely read and therefore the most influential.
Real World Consequences of the Female Maturity Formula In Storytelling
I have previously written about the way in which girls and women in popular stories are consistently portrayed as ‘the only sensible’ one in the room. Typically, the girl is more of a swot, more organised, more witty than the ‘everyday boy’. We see it all sorts of narrative for both adults and children:
Everybody Loves Raymond (the long-suffering wife)
Harry Potter (Hermione)
Calvin and Hobbes (Suzie)
Big Nate series (Gina, and also the female teacher Mrs Godfrey, who is far more studious about doing her actual job as teacher than the laid back Mr Rosa.)
At first glance, to the uninitiated, this might seem like sexism indeed… but against men. After all, isn’t it good for women’s rights that women are consistently smarter than the men?
These women are the sidekicks, not the heroes. They start and end the story as sensible; the character arcs happen to the men. You can’t be the hero of a story unless you undergo some sort of character arc. This makes men the main characters of the stories.
These women are motherly. When the only role for the girl is the motherly type, we end up thinking that’s the only role she’s good for.
While these motherly types are allowed smart comebacks (a la Suzie from Calvin and Hobbes), they are are often limited to sarcasm. As often as not they are in fact completely humourless, adding to the cultural stereotype that ‘women just aren’t funny’. This sensible, parental role suits the straight ‘man’ more than it suits the funny ‘guy’.
But more disturbing than any of these points are the very real political consequences, as described below at a feminism and linguistics blog, in a discussion about the recent English election:
One answer to that question invokes the concept of the ‘glass cliff’. In politics as in business, women are more likely to be chosen as leaders when an organization is in serious trouble and the risk of failure is high. In that connection it’s interesting to recall one of the phrases used about Nicola Sturgeon last week—‘the only grown-up in the room’. Since then, other women, including Theresa May and, in the wider European context, Angela Merkel, have also been described as ‘grown-up(s)’. Though the term itself isn’t gendered, I’m beginning to think the metaphor is: it’s a reference to the most culturally familiar and acceptable form of female authority, that of adult women over children. When the men are responding to a crisis by throwing their toys out of the pram, it’s time for Mummy to sweep in and clean up their mess.
So whenever the girl character swoops in to save the boys with her book learning and smart ideas (a la Monster House, Paranorman, Harry Potter), what we’re really seeing is the Glass Cliff effect.
We might also call it the Happy Housewife view of female politicians:
I have heard many women (and some men) say that they want to see more women in power because women would make the world a better place, lift the tone of parliaments and be all-round kinder to the planet. Some go all quasi-spiritual on me, wittering on about female energy and our goddess-given nurturing nature. This has always struck me as the happy housewife model of leadership, where female leaders whiz around cleaning up the men’s mess, leaving the world all sparkly, clean and sweet smelling. It sounds like it’s a compliment but, in fact, it is a burden.
— Jane Caro, after the first 2016 Trump-Clinton debate
This view dictates that women must be better than men before they can aspire to leadership, that they must offer something special and different or they have no right to take the top job. Frankly, it sets us up for failure because it sets a higher standard for female leaders than for their male counterparts.
Please don’t mistake this for ‘girl power’. And definitely look out for it in your own country’s politics.
A New Vision For Chapter Book Series Aimed At Girls
Could we change the character web template and still engage girls? Here’s what I’d love to see:
More imagination when it comes to dreaming up opponents. Perhaps this is where fantasy shines. Fantasy, unlike realistic drama, is open to all sorts of monsters, ghosts and ghouls and does not need the girly-girl frenemy/enemy. However, as number 2 in the Ivy + Bean series shows (The Ghost That Had To Go), fantastic imaginings can be included even in realistic fiction.
More complex boy characters. I’d like to kill the stereotype that girls are fake and wily while boys are shallow and simple and unencumbered by social difficulties. If writers think they’re reflecting realities, by exaggerating them for comedic effect they are also reinforcing them. Is it possible to model good relationships while still including sufficient tension between characters? (Don’t tell me that these stories shouldn’t be didactic, because they already are.)
In real life, girly girls are not usually the enemy. The girl with the neat hair is probably sitting quietly in the corner doing her work. I know it’s tempting to write only about the Clementine/Ramona/Junie B. wreckers of this world because these girls are propelled into action by their very nature, but there is an invisible majority of girl readers out there whose compliance and hard work are not only invisible, but actively punished throughout children’s literature. Let’s change that. Because it’s affecting how the actual world is being run.
Each of these pairs represents a perceived dichotomy of girlhood: the girly girl versus the “tomboy”.
While I use the word “tomboy”, the speech marks indicate my disdain for the very concept. A girl who likes rough-and-tumble and dressing for practicality is no less of a girl. The word itself upholds a narrow notion of what it means to be a real girl.
This is the very political position taken by many popular modern writers of chapter books and middle grade novels. Publishers and readers love it, right now. This upturns the now offensive political position of earlier children’s stories; until very recently, if girls were depicted in children’s books at all, they were the minor characters — the inevitable sisters and mothers and giggly schoolyard opponents. Even books for girls and about girls actively encouraged domesticity in their young readers, preparing them for their futures as mothers and housewives by returning them safely to the home, if they ever left home at all.
Modern literature for girls is mostly the inverse of that. Modern girls read about girls doing brave, adventurous and amazing things. It’s a truism that the most interesting kidlit characters are proactive, sometimes naughty, often cheeky. Imperfect and relatable, in other words. Sometimes they are average kids in every way (oftentimes ‘underdogs’); other times they have a special super power.
I don’t just mean ‘super power’ in the fantasy sense. Modern heroines of kidlit might be a Hermione trope — good at school work and often annoying in girly kinds of ways, but useful to the boys in their quest for self-knowledge due to her extensive knowledge on a subject, which must take place (rather boringly) off the page, since swotting requires many hours of solitude.
What It Means To Be A ‘Girly-Girl’
Upholder of social rules (a la ‘Tattletale May’ from the Junie B. Jones series)
Feels the need to look pretty and also judges others on their appearance
Good at memorisation
Well-behaved in school, sometimes a teacher’s pet.
Helps the mother at home and is often the ‘mother’s pet’
Aligns self with adults who have conservative, old-fashioned attitudes about a child’s place: Children should be seen and not heard.
Fearful, anxious temperament
No sense of humour, though she may develop a sense of humour/how to have fun if she ‘learns’ it from tomboy types
What It Means To Be A ‘(Tom)Boy’
Breaks the social rules. Is sometimes punished, other times rewarded
Dresses for practicality rather than to look pretty, and is interested in other people for what they can do rather than what they look like. Non-judgemental.
Tasks such as rote memorisation are rejected due to their boringness.
Misbehaves in school. Has trouble sitting still. Drawn to movement.
Is mischievous at home and is often in conflict with the mother, aligning self with the father (who may often be absent)
Aligns self with adults who are open-minded, kid-friendly and even tempered and fair
Open to adventure; unafraid of consequences; brave
If you’re looking for a chapter book to bridge the gap between beautifully illustrated picturebooks and pictureless novels, the Mercy Watson series is a great option, because the illustrations are just as enticing as any found in a high-production picture book.
STORYWORLD OF MERCY WATSON GOES FOR A RIDE
1960s American suburbia.
Children’s authors and illustrators seem to love this era — in hindsight it feels so safe, with the housewives cheerfully putting on endless spreads of food. For every happy housewife we probably had a Eugenia and a Baby, sisters forced to live together because there was no pay equality, a dearth of husbands after the world wars, and no freedom for a full life outside the confines of marriage. However! This image of suburbia, illustrated in bright, sunny pastel colours by Chris Van Dusen, is a genuine utopia. You’ll find nothing rotten in the basements here. This is a parody of the era, in which everything can be fixed with hot buttered toast.
Chapter books are better able to be defined than other types of books because they are for quite a narrow developmental process so you can say certain things about what most children will be capable of when introduced to chapter books.
The reading progression: Picturebooks, more complex picturebooks, chapter books, novels.
Chapter books are ideal for building confidence in reading without help.
Walker Books have been fantastic in how they publish and pitch chapter books at the right age.
Chapter books have certain features:
They’re not readers that you’re learning to read on — they’re a different thing again, because they have a carefully calibrated vocabulary. This is not what’s happening in chapter books. Chapter books have a wider vocabulary. Different authors explore the width of that vocabulary in different ways.
They can be read to the child, or the child may read chapter books themselves. Both.
There is a certain simplicity about them, and a certain ambit (scope) in the storytelling. The readers are now entering the wider world, so characters in chapter books include people you meet at school and out-and-about. But it’s also a period in a child’s life where friendships are developing and readers are learning to co-operate. Children in chapter books tend to have more agency than they might have in a picturebook (bearing in mind there is a huge range of picturebooks out there now), but in a chapter book the main character does not have complete agency because they are 6, 7, 8, 9 years old. So the progress of a story can be aided by the child’s agency but also with assistance of someone else, even though this assisting character is often another child.
They’re often school stories/family life/holidays, and there will be a problem to be explored, maybe something to do with dealing with things in the world, or something stopping the child from having they really desire etc. There is often an animal that is important in the child’s life.
They often feature black and white or colour illustrations.
Text is written in short paragraphs. Plots are clear, simple and fast-paced. Strong narrative drive. Lots of dialogue.
The aim is to make the young reader feel accomplished so they go on to read more books.
Most readers are 6-9 but the entire range of chapter books can serve readers from 5 to 10.
Early chapter books: also called transition books are for younger readers 5-8. Or perhaps the parent is reading them to a 4 year old. 2500 to 7000 words long. Chapters are 500 words or less. Colour illustrations fill up a lot of these books. There’s a lot of space for the reader’s imagination. Unlike in a picture book, the illustrations aren’t really going to add information to the story that isn’t apparent in the text. (Low ironic distance between the text and picture.) The reason being, the reader is going to look to the illustration to help them decode the words. e.g. The Princess In Black. Illustrations and text support each other. The Kingdom of Wrenly is another excellent example of an early chapter book. Early chapter books are written at about the second grade reading level but some children in first grade can also read them.
At the end of the early chapter book category the illustrations are a bit fewer and tend to be black and white. With Eerie Elementary there are 96 book pages, 6000 words. (When you write it yourself it won’t be 96 pp long — this is including the illustrations.) This series from Scholastic has a bit of a spooky feeling. It includes friendship dynamics.
Older/later chapter books are for 7-10 year old readers, sometimes all the way up to Year 4. Texts are 7000 to 12000 words. Generally black and white illustrations, not necessarily on every page. “Spot illustrations” — mostly text with a little picture. Clementine by Sara Pennypacker is an older chapter book. Lots of depth in terms of character but not complication in terms of plot. Ivy + Bean is about 120 book pages, 8000 words. These girls have a wonderful dynamic on the page. They go on very minor but delightful adventures. They tend to have slightly larger than spot illustrations. The pictures might add a bit of extra information, telling a secret, but it’s not carrying the plot. Lots of dialogue, conveying lots of story in a really fast way. 12000 is the upper limit but quite long for a chapter book. The Time Warp Trio: Your Mother Was a Neanderthal by Jon Scieskzka is 80 book pages, 10,500 words. There’s a trio, a time warp. 8 year olds are interested in time warps and Pokemon and similar. Lots of text, one small illustration which adds story movement/humour. A child isn’t getting frustrated trying to picture something before moving along with the story. This book has excellent dialogue. There are three boys and everybody’s dialogue sounds different.
Every publisher classifies chapter book slightly differently. There’s some crossover in ages. Countries also do it differently. The story itself will determine what kind of chapter book it is. If mainly action and dialogue it’s probably an earlier chapter book. If it shows some of the protagonist’s internal thoughts and feelings or has a strong secondary character central to the plot it’s probably a later chapter book.
They can have interesting, creative, super fun formats. Graphic novels, a mixture of graphic novel and text on a page (Captain Underpants).
Certain subject matter crops up time and again in chapter books. For example, a character sees a ghost becomes the main plot of Owl Diaries: Eva Sees A Ghostand Ivy + Bean And The Ghost That Had To Go.
Young readers fall in love with characters which explains why chapter books are published in series. They tend to tell their friends about their favourite books.
Characters can be kids, animals, adults or anything else you can think of.
Humour is key.
There’s not much interiority in chapter books compared to YA and adult books.
Chapters in chapter books tend to be titled. (Maybe this is partly why — or because — they’re called chapter books?) That appears in the table of contents.
Either present tense or past tense is used in chapter books.
How does a really good writer stitch together something with a very prescribed word length?
1600 word stories – heavily illustrated, though not as much as a picturebook. (e.g. Walker Shorts, Scholastic Branches.) Many chapter books are part of the Accelerated Reader assessment program used by schools to track students’ reading progress, which helps teachers, who are increasingly required to provide data to prove they can teach these days. Various different companies provide Accelerated Reader programs to countries around the world. (There are various opinions on the AR program.)
It’s probably slightly easier to get a chapter book published than other kinds of books because there are fewer being submitted, especially if it’s one of the earlier chapter books. Those earlier chapter books are perhaps not quite as fun to write, or maybe it’s just that an active knowledge of vocabulary usage is required, and this skill is not common. There are programs you can run your text through to give you the reading level of your book, like the function in MS Word, but these aren’t especially accurate. If you’re using lots of commas in a sentence you’ve probably got too much going on in that sentence.
Published by Walker. Mostly English writers in the Walker series but also some Australian and NZ writers in this short series. 1500 words is almost too short. But Violet Mackerel is lovely, especially with the black and white drawings running all the way through. The pictures are an important part of the story, setting tone and mood. This book has a proper hard back and nice pages and feels like a proper, grown-up book. The story is perfectly paced, the relationship between Violet and her friend Rose is really nice.
De Goldi recommends Violet Mackerel for 6, 7, 8 year olds, girls probably. Of course there will be some boys that this appeals to but the stories are aimed at girls in every possible way. There’s a lot of gender division at this age.
Similar to Violet Mackerel, with black and white line drawings throughout but much more text.
As you may have noticed, Annie Barrows also makes stuff for adults (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, with Mary Ann Schaffer)
Amy Marie Stadelmann
Olive and Beatrix are twins, but they are very different from one another. Olive loves science, and Beatrix is a witch!
Best friends who are very different from each other make for popular chapter book dynamics, even though in real life it’s almost a rule that best friends in primary school have to pretend they’re they have the same interests. (Birds of a feather.)
Jan Mark was very good at writing stories of about 2500 words. This is a masterly book to unpack from a writerly point of view. Five chapters, a very simple story about Jane and her cat Furlong. It deals with bullying. This story is very suburban, with a strong sense of place. What’s remarkable about it is the psychology of the characters, the plot, the resolution, the setting, all that is caught in 2500 words. Mark knows what to leave out and what to embellish. There is a pleasant old-fashioned feel to this, even though this book was written in the 90s.
So why does a book published in the 90s feel slightly old-fashioned? It might partly be to do with the regional accent and therefore the word choice, but this book is also written in the past tense from third person point of view. These books are almost always written in the third person — and there is a good reason for this. Take a slightly different kind of book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which is written in first person. Why aren’t books of this length written in first person? It must have something to do with the fact that the child hasn’t developed a strong sense of ego. Instead, they’re planted in a world where they’re part of a general sort of organism/community.
Perhaps this is happening less now, with first person fiction creeping down into this length chapter book now, and it seems we’ve entered a phase where the child must be the agent all the time. Individuals assert themselves even in quite early children’s fiction.
Noah Z. Jones
Jones writes for television and seems to have gotten started with illustration, later moving into both writing and illustrating his own stories.
Princess Pink And The Land Of Fake-Believe: Moldylocks and the Three Beards was both written and illustrated by Noah Z. Jones. The series is funny fractured fairy tales. The Princess Pink stories are part of Scholastic’s early chapter book line called Branches.
Plot of Moldylocks and the Three Beards
In the Land of Fake Believe, Princess meets a strange girl named Moldylocks. When Princess’s stomach grumbles, Moldylocks takes her to the home of the Three Beards. The girls sit in the Beards’ chairs, eat their chilli, and jump on their beds. The Three Beards are not happy when they get home–and they are very, very hungry! Will Moldylocks and Princess go into the chilli pot?
This book is about 80 book pages, 2,200 words. There’s a focus on repetition. Lots of illustration and fun and humour.
The main character’s main point is that she is despises pink, which I guess is meant to be ironic since her last name is Pink. However, Princess Pink’s hatred of anything associated with girls comes across to me as femme phobic, especially when you take a look at the thumbnail character sketch of Princess Pink which occurs at the beginning of every new book — in each story it is revealed that Princess Pink hates yet another girly thing.
Rebecca Elliott is the author and illustrator of Just Because, Mr Super Poopy Pants, Sometimes, and Zoo Girl, for which she was nominated for the 2012 Kate Greenaway Medal. She both writes and illustrates the Owl Diaries.
Owl Diaries is a chapter book series by Scholastic. This is another series in the Branches imprint.
It is written in diary format from the point of view a young owl girl, Eva Wingdale. She has a best friend called Lucy. Sue Clawson is the enemy. In her diary, Eva records all of her likes and dislikes, relationships with family and friends, and her daily routine, as well as her experience trying to plan a spring festival for her “owlementary school.” (Treetop Owlementary.) She has strong opinions and is thoroughly likeable. Puns and illustrations abound. Designed to appeal to girls ages 5 to 8.
In book #4, a new owl named Hailey starts in Eva’s class at school. Eva is always happy to meet new people, and she’s excited to make a new friend! But the new owl befriends Lucy instead of her. So Eva gets jealous. Lucy is Eva’s best friend! Will Eva lose her best friend? Or can Eva and Lucy BOTH make a new friend?
(I think in cover copy, the answer to a rhetorical question is always ‘yes’.)
There are two plot threads in this one.
Plot One: Eva’s class has started a newspaper. Eva is a reporter. Other classmates have other jobs for the paper.
Plot Two: Eva’s class will be welcoming a new owl, Hailey. Eva really, really, really, really wants Hailey to be her friend. In her mind, the two are already close friends. Eva makes her a welcome necklace and a special drawing–a map. But when her plan to change seats so that Hailey can sit by her backfires–Hailey chooses to sit in Eva’s old seat, the one by Lucy, Eva’s best-best friend, Eva is left confused and frustrated. No matter how hard she tries, Hailey is not becoming her best friend. And Lucy and Hailey are becoming closer and closer and closer. Eva finds herself alone but all is resolved in the end.
The life lesson is “never overlook your old friends when trying to make new friends. Adult gatekeepers love it when chapter books contain life lessons, which is a problem Ivy + Bean sometimes has because those two are sneaky little shits at times and go completely unpunished.
Don’t use animal characters to get out of more interesting things young readers might be interested in. This series is about owls, but actually they are girls. Bad Kitty is another series using animals as protagonists. The only thing to remember is that no matter the ‘skin’ of your protagonist, you have to do the work of character development.
The I Survived Series is also from Scholastic. This non-fiction series tells stories of young people and their resilience and strength in the midst of unimaginable disasters such as the September 11 attacks, the destruction of Pompeii, Hurricane Katrina, and the bombing of Pearl Harbour. She has to stay true and real but also has to tell a story.
These are good examples of how to keep a reader engaged, by bringing them into the scene.
Mary Pope Osborne
Magic Tree House series has been around for a long time.
The earlier ones are early chapter books but they get more complex and the later books are for older chapter book readers. The Merlin Missions are much later chapter books.