Kurtis Scaletta: Six Things I Learned About Writing Chapter Books
Last summer I wrote four transitional books for ages seven to nine, each about ten thousand words long. I figured chapter books would be a great way to branch out from my middle grade novels. Chapter books are breezy and light, so they’d be a piece of cake, right? Well, wrong.
1. I realized setting out on my first chapter book how much of my writing is the kind of stuff younger readers skip: descriptions, flashbacks, narrative commentary and speculations about what might happen. Cutting back on those passages made my prose more economical, but my daily word counts were smaller and harder to come by.
2. For most novelists the secret to giving a work a feeling of urgency is to raise the stakes. You can’t do that in a chapter book, or rather, you have to get good at making small stakes feel large: friendships tested, worries about succeeding at small tasks. Those are kinds of challenges young children really experience day by day, so I had to trust that they would related and keep reading even if zombies weren’t banging down the door.
3. Middle grade novels are all about the changing main character. I’ve built my entire writing process around that idea. But the main characters in chapter books don’t change as much. For one thing, lower stakes translate to slighter changes. For another, kids should be able to pick up a chapter book series anywhere or read the books out of order, so things have to be more static in that world. I relied on small but significant changes, like the hero gaining respect for a rival or mastering a new skill. There’s nothing preachy, but I hope readers feel like the hero is learning things along the way.
4. Because of the lighter stakes and less-changed character, it’s tempting to see chapter books as vignettes, without the necessary structure of a novel. That’s a mistake. They must have exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement.
5. Chapter books usually don’t enjoy the same “buzz” as middle grade or young adult or even picture books. I think this is because they have fewer grown-up readers, where chapter books are still mostly kid-exclusive territory. However, I did find kids, parents, teachers and librarians who’d read the books and appreciated them.
6. After completing the four-book series in a busy summer, I returned to my middle-grade novel in progress and found myself slashing thousands of words from the first few chapters. I had learned how few words are really needed sometimes to convey a scene or tell a story. Writing chapter books made me a better middle grade author.
I will always write middle grade novels, but now I hope I can keep writing chapter books alongside them. They are not as easy to write as I imagined, but they are fun and rewarding. It’s a great format. I love seeing my books illustrated, and considering the many adventures a character can have. I like being able to see a project through in a few weeks (they may be slower to write, but they are a heck of a lot shorter!) I love having books to share with younger kids, and I love hearing from parents and teachers who see kids who usually don’t read picking up these books. Although lighter in tone, I don’t think we can underestimate how important chapter books are to helping turn kids into lifelong readers.
About Kurtis Scaletta: Kurtis is the author of three middle-grade novels (for ages 8-12), Mudville (2009), Mamba Point (2010) and The Tanglewood Terror (2011). All are published by Knopf Books for Young Readers. The Topps League, his chapter book series about the batboy for a minor league baseball team, launched in April 2012 with Jinxed! and Steal That Base!