by Erin Darby Gesell
“Tell me a story,” I asked my parents every night before bed. I wanted picture books. I wanted stories from their childhoods. I wanted stories from their own imaginations. All of my earliest memories involve stories from my parents, making books with them, or playing make believe.
Once I could read for myself, I picked up everything I could. I had to live most of my days in my own world, my free time was spent escaping into the world that authors created for me. When I entered high school and started leading a summer camp and coaching children’s sports, I became the creator of stories. These kids wanted to know what I was like when I was their age.They wanted me to read to them. They wanted to hear my stories of my life. This is when I began to realize that a child’s imagination and desire to learn are two of the most inspiring things in this world.
Because I was with these kids all day, I continued to read their books. I read picture books at camp during the day and my own, age appropriate, novels for teens at night. In college I majored in Creative Writing with a concentration in Fiction with the intention of writing for young people. These were still the stories that interested me most. The language, the situations, the characters all floored me as writers of children’s, middle grade, and young adult books are competing against school, friends, video games, movies, TV, the internet, riding bikes, and a million other things that kids have to stimulate their brains.
In grad school I was finally able to narrow my concentration to study Writing for Young People. When starting a draft of your story for young people, consider two things:
1. Who is your target audience?
Once you know who your readers are, there are some formulas to remember about each age division:
Picture books are intended for early readers. Standard picture books have 32 pages (however, only 24 of these are used for the story) and, generally, less than 700 or so words. Let your pictures help you tell your story. Give your words cadence and rhythm.
Middle grade books span audience ages 8-12. Protagonists can be up to age 15/16 depending on content. These stories usually focus on the protagonist and their relationships with their friends, family, and the world immediately around them. Characters tend to react to what happens to them with little inward reflection. They learn, grow, have conflict, but these stories end with closure.
Young Adult stories span an audience of 13-18. Protagonists can be 15-18 but generally not in college. These novels focus on the protagonists’ place in the world outside of their friends and family. There is more inward reflection and focus on analyzing the meaning of things. These books can have more open ended endings as young adults are on an open ended, launching point in their own lives.
Erin’s class, Playground: A Workshop for Middle Grade, YA and Children’s Authors begins begins July 18
Erin Darby Gesell is a writer, personal trainer, ultra marathon runner, yogi, and lover of chocolate, dogs, and all things fictional from Norfolk, Nebraska. She now lives in Omaha where she obtained her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2011 and her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing for Young People from Antioch University Los Angeles in 2014. Erin’s short stories have appeared in various journals including The Magnolia Review, Riding Light Review, and A Sharp Piece of Awesome. A section of her Young Adult Novel “Where You’re Going and How You Get There” appeared in For Books’ Sake anthology in February 2016.