Ask educators or editors, or even some parents, what constitutes the trickiest writing assignment in children’s literature, and a lot of them will say the same thing: the humble chapter book.
“I think it is perhaps the hardest category to write for, because you are writing for kids who are just learning to read on their own, but it’s incredibly important to create a book that will encourage them,” says Erica Finkel, who edits Ellen Potter and Felicita Sala's Big Foot and Little Foot series at Abrams.
“It’s a tough space because the danger is always that in trying to write simply, it might come off as condescending,” says Emily Feinberg, who took over editing Nick Bruel’s Bad Kitty books when Neal Porter left Roaring Brook for Holiday House last year. “You have to give the reader a challenge, but at the same time you have to create something that isn’t intimidating or you risk losing them.”
The target audience resides within a critical span in the development of the lifelong reader: kids seven to 10 years old. But those readers can include both the precocious six-year-old who is zipping through books at warp speed and the 10-year-old still struggling with reading. Publishers and educators know that engaging chapter books will help kids transition from picture books to novels—a progression that helps ensure academic success, creates a literate populace, and cultivates a future audience for increasingly sophisticated types of reading.
“Chapter books are such an integral part of the children’s market, because we know it is where a love of independent reading is born,” says Caroline Abbey, senior editor at Random House Children’s Books, which publishes perhaps the bestselling chapter book series in history: Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House.
The Invention of the Chapter Book
The chapter book is a late-20th-century creation targeted at the narrowest slice of the reading audience: kids who are expected to leave picture books behind but who are all over the map in terms of what kind of reading they are capable of doing on their own. Though many classic series—including the Encyclopedia Brown books by Donald J. Sobol, the Nate the Great mysteries by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, and the Cam Jansen books by David A. Adler—are now shelved with chapter book series, they weren’t marketed with that label when they were released in the 1960s and ’70s.
Delacorte Press senior v-p and publisher Beverly Horowitz cites the Polk Street School series—written by Patricia Reilly Giff, a veteran teacher—as an early entrant among the books published specifically with the chapter book designation in mind. The first installment of that series was released in 1986.
“Initially, I think that the school market opened up this category—and then B&N and other stores like Walden and Borders and the indies helped make this category an easy one for parents to find books to give to their kids,” Horowitz says. “First to third grade is vitally important. It is truly a time in a child’s learning when parents care so much about confirming that a child can read.”
At Candlewick, editorial director Mary Lee Donovan acquired the first Judy Moody book in the late 1990s and says she thinks the manuscript was originally submitted as a middle grade novel and eventually “aged down.”
“I’m not sure when the vernacular changed, but somewhere along the way we decided to broadcast more clearly that this is a book for kids who are newly independent readers,” Donovan says. “The formatting, the design, the font, the leading were all specifically selected with that reader in mind.”
Even children’s literature historian Leonard Marcus is unsure about who kickstarted the category or when it came about. “I have a feeling it postdates the ‘beginning reader,’ which means post-1957, the year of [Else Holmelund Minarik’s] Little Bear and [Dr. Seuss’s] The Cat in the Hat,” he says. “I think beginning readers were the first example of trade publishers working with reading specialists or other ‘experts’ to craft a new category of book that corresponded to a specific developmental reading level.”
It’s surprising no one has grabbed credit, however, because a good chapter book is a bit of genius. With easy-on-the-eyes design, heavy use of illustrations, and a focus on universal themes, the best of these books bridge a gap that would otherwise allow some readers to fall into a dangerous crevasse: illiteracy.
Where Do Chapter Books Come From?
Despite the importance of their mission, really good chapter books are not easy to come by.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in the business who wouldn’t love to find the next amazing chapter book series,” says Steven Malk, an agent with Writers House. “However, publishing into that category can be tricky. It takes a lot of patience on the part of a publisher because, in general, these books are a slow build.”
Because they are often heavily illustrated, chapter books can cost more and take longer to produce. Many of them are published in paperback only, making it harder for a publisher to recoup more than a modest investment. And most chapter books are slim, meaning unless they are part of an established, multivolume series, it’s sometimes (literally) tough to find them on a bookstore shelf.
Candlewick senior executive editor Sarah Ketchersid, who edits Shannon and Dean Hale’s Princess in Black series, illustrated by LeUyen Pham, says those books were designed specifically with the shelf visibility issue in mind. “We very deliberately went with hardbacks in a different trim size so they would stand out on the shelf from the stepped readers,” she notes.
And then there’s the high-wire act it takes to write a good chapter book. The notion of a book that’s simple enough for a beginning reader to conquer but compelling enough to hold the interest of, say, a second grade boy sounds like a magic trick—and editors say, in a lot of ways, it is.
“You can have more complicated language with a picture book, because there’s usually a parent or a teacher who can explain anything that isn’t easily understood or a reader can catch it from context,” Finkel at Abrams says. “But a chapter book needs to have crystal-clear, simple language while also having a sophisticated, compelling plot. It’s not easy to hit that balance.”
“I sit at SCBWI conferences thinking about this,” Feinberg at Roaring Brook says. “You need a story that’s not too text-heavy but has enough heft to keep kids turning the page. It can’t be too daunting, because the last thing you want is for them to decide that it’s too hard.”
Many editors say they also feel that the overwhelming attention given in recent years to acquiring the next big thing in YA has pushed talented writers in that direction. “I don’t edit YA, but there does seem to be 10 times the number of YA submissions for every book we get for younger readers,” Donovan at Candlewick says. “It seems like maybe the middle grade and chapter books have been overshadowed by all the excitement about YA.”
One consequence of all these factors is that many publishers find it easier—and more cost-efficient—to develop ideas in-house. Mara Anastas, v-p and publisher of Aladdin, relies on her “extremely creative editors, who thrive on brainstorming new ideas.” After one editor saw an ad in her local paper for a spa that catered to pets, Anastas commissioned The Animal Inn by Paul DuBois Jacobs and Jennifer Swender, a chapter book series about “what really goes on once the spa owners leave.”
“We do get submissions from agents, but if you can develop a series in-house, with the right look and feel, you can really have a winner,” Anastas says. “You’re typically paying less to a writer, and we own all the rights, so you can sell them yourself internationally.” To wit: Aladdin acquired a series of out-of-print books by Robert Quackenbush for its new Quix line aimed at readers just starting to master independent reading, then sold rights to the new editions to a Chinese publisher.
At Little Bee Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing USA, publisher Sonali Fry also practices DIY when it comes to chapter book creation. “All our books are homegrown,” she says. The company entered the chapter book market in 2017 with two series—Tales of Sasha and Ella and Owen—and launched two more series—Major Eights and The Alien Next Door—this year.
“We look for ideas that haven’t been done before, or for retro ideas that can be refreshed,” Fry adds. “We come up with the concept and the characters and create a series bible. From there, we solicit writers and illustrators to bring the books to life. It’s actually a lot of fun.”
Scholastic has also had success publishing early chapter books for readers of all interests. Popular series include Star Wars: Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown and Jarrett J. Krosoczka; The Bad Guys by Australian author-illustrator Aaron Blabey; and I Survived by Lauren Tarshis, which currently boasts 27 million copies in print. The Mac B., Kid Spy series by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Mike Lowery, a fictional memoir about a boy’s adventures in espionage, launches in September with Mac Undercover. But perhaps the publisher’s strongest seller in this category has been its Branches line, which targets readers ages five to eight, a slightly younger demographic than that of the typical chapter book. The books, which are all part of series, feature high-concept stories with illustrations on every page; questions and activities are included at the end of each book to support reading comprehension.
Katie Carella, senior editor at Scholastic who oversees Branches, and a former elementary school teacher, says, “Children need strong book choices available to them at every reading level. But as a teacher, I saw huge gaps in my classroom library. My teaching experiences are ultimately what drew me back to book publishing, because I wanted to address the needs of transitional readers.” With the launch of Branches, back in 2013, Carella explains, “Scholastic and I set out to fill the gap between easy-to-read books and traditional chapter books.” Just over five years later, the line has more than 14 million books in print.
Timeless Themes and Unforgettable Characters
No matter how they begin, most chapter books center on a handful of universal themes: making friends, fitting in, conquering fears. “It’s probably a sign of the times but a lot of our books right now are about otherness,” Abrams’s Finkel says. “Making friends with people who are different than you and acknowledging otherness? It makes sense for the age group: kids who are starting school and every year meeting new people.”
The second book in the Big Foot and Little Foot series, The Monster Detector (Sept.), about an unlikely pair of best friends, is told from the outsider’s perspective. “It’s brilliant because it’s written from the Sasquatch’s point of view,” Finkel says. “It makes humans the other, so kids get to realize that if they were a Sasquatch, they might think that it’s the humans who are really weird.”
Publishers also rely on spin-offs for fresh material—both from successful picture books whose audience has graduated to books with more text and from middle grade hits so popular that younger kids clamor to read books they’re not quite ready for yet. Feinberg, who edits the Bad Kitty series (which began life as a picture book), remembers reading the Baby-Sitters Little Sisters books when she was deemed not yet old enough to read Ann M. Martin’s middle grade series The Baby-Sitters Club.
Abrams is launching a chapter book series based on Andrea Beaty’s Rosie Revere picture books, illustrated by David Roberts. The first book, Rosie Revere and the Raucous Riveters (Oct.), will expand the world of Miss Leila Greer’s classroom already familiar to kids who know the STEAM-based picture books. Chapter books starring Iggy Peck and Ada Twist will follow.
The company is also investing in JoJo Siwa, the Dance Moms reality TV star who has already written a bestselling memoir, with a chapter book series that kicks off with JoJo and Bowbow Take the Stage (Nov.), starring the tween competition dancer and her pup.
Stories that involve animals are perennial favorites. Chronicle had a hit earlier this year with Fox + Chick: The Party by Sergio Ruzzier, a chapter book that combines animals with another element that has a lot of appeal to beginning readers: graphic novel–style art. The debut title received two starred reviews and a rave from the New York Times Book Review. The second book, The Quiet Boat Ride, will publish next spring.
Disney is also capitalizing on the popularity of the graphic novel format with the Gumazing Gum Girl series by Rhode Montijo, four books (so far) about a girl with a gum-chewing habit that results in giving her extreme “stretchability.” Little, Brown turned convention on its head with the Peter Powers series by Kent Clark, about a family where everyone has an awesome super-special talent—except Peter.
The chapter book series that have become pillars of the chapter book canon, however, typically share one important characteristic: an indelible main character—such as the language manglers Junie B. Jones and Amelia Bedelia; the well-meaning trouble magnets Hank Zipzer and Mercy Watson, that porcine wonder; or the misunderstood dreamers Dory Fantasmagory and her literary cousin, Clementine.
Rambunctious is not a criticism when it comes to chapter book heroes and heroines; just ask any kids what they think of Bad Kitty. In December, Charlesbridge hopes to add to the pantheon with Ellie May, a new series by Hillary Homzie, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler, about an energetic second grader who means well but always seem to do wrong.
Marketing Challenges, or the Importance of Sparkle
Given their outsize importance for literacy, it’s somewhat surprising that chapter books get less publicity attention than probably any other slice of the children’s books pie. “One of the greatest challenges is keeping people interested, keeping the excitement high, and getting new fans,” Donovan says. “Sometimes, even when you have a series that’s a success [there are 34 million Judy Moody books, including spin-offs, in print], you can take things for granted.”
This year, Candlewick invested in a redesign for the series. “Tastes and fashions change,” Donovan says. “We need to remind people Judy is still here. There are new stories.”
With diminished review space in most newspapers and magazines, subsequent books in a long-running series often get skipped, even if the series is still selling well. “Our books have done well so far,” Bonnier’s Fry says, noting that two of the company’s new chapter books were picked up by Scholastic Book Fairs. “But as they go on, it’s harder to sustain attention because there are so many publishers in this category.”
In the retail arena, shelving can be inconsistent, making it hard sometimes for consumers to discover something new. Some stores have a separate section for chapter books. Some shelve them with easy readers; some with middle grade novels. It’s not a cliché to suggest that, as a result, these are books that truly ask to be judged by their covers.
Fry says the decision to add “neon effects” to the covers of the Alien Next Door books is already paying off. “Those are a hit,” she says.
Aladdin’s Anastas says, in this market, a little bling goes a long way. “The ones that have been super popular are the ones that are sparkly,” she says. “Short chapter books about mythical magical creatures, mermaids, two girls who open a nail salon—add a lot of foil or a sparkle spot, and that’s a formula for success.”
The fact that a good series opener will almost automatically produce demand for subsequent books offsets some of the marketing challenges, including the lack of awards recognition. Although some chapter books could fit the criteria for either the Theodor S. Geisel Award, which recognizes “the most distinguished contribution to the body of American children’s literature that encourages and supports the beginning reader,” or the Newbery Medal, which considers books for readers from birth through age 14, chapter books have rarely been recognized by either committee.
The last (and perhaps only) chapter book to earn Newbery recognition was Tomie dePaola’s 26 Fairmount Avenue (Putnam), which won a 2000 Newbery Honor. This year’s winner of the Geisel Award was Charlie & Mouse by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes (Chronicle), written for the very youngest end of the chapter book spectrum. The only other chapter book winner in the history of the Geisel Award was The Infamous Ratsos by Kara LaReau, illustrated by Matt Myers (Candlewick), edited by Ketchersid and published in 2016.
“I was really happy, of course,” Ketchersid says. “But I was also surprised, because it’s definitely on the higher end of the criteria.” The third Ratso Brothers book, Project Fluffy, is scheduled for 2019. It marks another kind of departure: the subject, she says, is “toxic masculinity. Kara wanted to write about how it was okay for boys to express their feelings with love.”
Chapter book authors who tour are also a rarity, though one successful exception is Nick Bruel. Roaring Brook publishes a new Bad Kitty installment every January, followed by a tour to bookstores and schools. “He is so popular,” Feinberg says. “The kids love him, and we have a Bad Kitty costume that we bust out at various times. We’re 13 books in and people are still responding with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Bad Kitty has a Facebook page, but most chapter book creators keep a low profile on social media, because their core audience should not be looking for them on Twitter or Instagram. “Chapter book authors are never going to have a profile like YA authors, some of whom are almost celebrities,” says Anastas at Aladdin. “We don’t send chapter book authors to BookCon, and their books don’t get made into movies. We can’t compete with that.”
But the fact that it’s not as sexy as some other categories in publishing does not seem to bother the editors who work in this space one bit. “It may not be glamorous, but it’s a very good piece of the business,” Anastas says. “It’s also a really important part of the business because it’s an investment. These are the readers of the future.”
Adding Colors to the Canon
Two years ago during a #DVpit event on Twitter, author Saadia Faruqi tweeted about a picture book idea she had, starring a girl who, like her, was Pakistani-American. Capstone acquisitions editor Kristen Mohn responded with a tweet expressing her interest in seeing a manuscript.
“We were definitely looking for strong projects featuring characters of color written by Own Voices authors, to ensure that all our young readers could find relatable characters on our list,” Mohn says. She really liked Faruqi’s story, and suspected that the main character “had enough charisma and delightful foibles to launch a series.”
That’s how the picture book idea became a chapter book series that debuts in August with Meet Yasmin!, illustrated by Hatem Aly, who collaborated on Adam Gidwitz’s Newbery Honor–winning The Inquisitor’s Tale and Gidwitz’s newly released middle grade books about the Unicorn Rescue Society.
At Capstone, Yasmin’s stories will join the successful Katie Woo books, which have sold more than a million copies in the eight years since their launch, and spun off a series about Katie’s best friend, Pedro. And Yasmin joins a collection of diverse characters among the chapter book set that is suddenly growing by leaps and bounds. While for years Ann Cameron’s stories about Julian and Karen English’s series about Nikki and Deja were among the few chapter book offerings with nonwhite main characters, now publishers are seeking and finding stories to ensure all new readers, no matter their ethnicity, have characters they can identify with in their fiction.
At Candlewick, editorial director Mary Lee Donovan read Juana Medina’s Juana and Lucas on submission and “had to have it.” The book, set in Medina’s native Colombia, features a seamless interweaving of Spanish words in a mostly English text. “The voice, the details, it was just so wonderful,” Donovan says. “I loved that there was Spanish in the text, that Juana was owning her Colombian life.” The debut chapter book won the Pura Belpré Award for the most outstanding text by a Latino/Latina author. A second book, Juana y Lucas: Big Problemas, will publish in spring 2019.
Aladdin has acquired an as-yet-untitled series about a character named Mindy Kim. Author Lyla Lee says she wrote for her “third grade self, as the only person of color in an all-white school in Florida.” The first book will publish in spring 2020.
At Bonnier, publisher Sonali Fry is excited about a new series featuring an African-American girl named Meg, whose father lives in another country. On her eighth birthday, she gets a ring that her aunt, an archaeologist, found on a dig. When Meg slips it on, it gives her superpowers; she can fly or turn invisible. In series opener Mighty Meg and the Magical Ring, Fry says, the character “has to learn to use and control these powers and keep them a secret.” The series will include two-color illustrations on every page; four books are planned for 2019.
Coincidentally, Mia Mayhem is also an eight-year-old African-American, and she also has an extraordinary super-secret. Her series, written by Kara West and illustrated by Leeza Hernandez, will be published by Little Simon beginning March 2019.
Classroom 13, which Little, Brown is pitching to fans of Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School, features a diverse cast of students—and a final chapter encouraging readers to write their own conclusions. Six installments have been published so far, and the publisher partnered with Amazon to create a “Choose Your Own Adventure” skill on its Alexa Echo Dot Kids Edition.
Editors emphasize that though they are actively seeking books with diverse main characters, the stories themselves will work for every kid—no matter their ethnicity, religion, or race.“We like that Saadia’s stories feature a Muslim character whose religion, culture, and ethnicity serve as a rich supporting foundation for the main story lines,” Capstone’s Mohn says, “but the stories themselves explore universal experiences like getting lost, being unsure of your abilities, and getting into scrapes that require creative solutions.”