The difference between children’s and adult books

From Nathan Bransford:

Authors often get into trouble when they’re writing books for children or adults and end up blending the two in an awkward way. I’m here to clear up confusion around the differences between children’s books and adult books.

Particularly when authors write “coming of age” novels or fictionalized versions of their childhood, they sometimes end up writing novels that feel like they’re not quite for adults and not quite for children. Others set out to write crossover novels that appeal to both adults and children that wind up feeling like strange mishmashes.

While some children’s novels do indeed become popular with adults and become crossover successes like The Hunger Games and The Hate U Give, novels need to have a base readership. There aren’t really crossover publishers, just adult publishers and children’s publishers, with some “new adult” sprinkled in. And even if you’re self- or hybrid publishing, it’s very helpful to know your genre.

If you twist yourself into knots trying to make your novel appeal to everyone it might end up appealing to no one. If you’re writing for adults, write for adults. If you’re writing for children, write for children. If it crosses over, that’s great.

So what’s the difference between a children’s novel and an adult novel, and how do you avoid writing a novel that’s not quite for adults and not quite for children? How do you figure out what kind of a novel you’re really writing if you’re currently straddling these lines? What do you do if parts of your novel are from a child’s POV but it’s adult on the whole?

I’m here to help.

It’s not about the protagonist’s age

A common misconception about what makes a novel an adult or children’s book is that it’s ultimately about the age of the protagonist. Not the case!

There are plenty of novels featuring young protagonists that really feel more like adult novels, whether that’s Catcher in the Rye, Carrie, or the opening of Where the Crawdads Sing. Just because you have a child at the center of the events doesn’t necessarily mean you have written a children’s novel.

This can also happen in reverse, particularly in novels that start adult but then flash back to a character’s childhood. A novel that started off feeling like an adult novel can quickly start feeling like it veers into being a children’s book and might confuse a reader about what exactly they’re reading.

So set aside the age of the protagonist. Here’s what matters.

What’s the lens?

The first element to consider is the “lens.” Is the overall voice of the novel a child’s voice experiencing childhood in the moment or is it an adult looking back on childhood from a more mature distance?

Even authors who are explicitly setting out to write a children’s novel sometimes get tripped up on this. They end up inserting accidental adult viewpoints along the lines of “I would learn much later just how important this was.” Think of this as the “Wonder Years” effect, where it’s an adult narrating a child’s experiences.

Other authors might write their child characters the way they see children from their now-adult vantage point rather than writing for the way children see themselves.

So again, set aside the protagonist’s age and think about the lens. If it feels like an adult’s viewpoint it will feel like an adult novel, even/especially if it’s an adult looking back on childhood, and if it feels like a child’s vantage point it will feel more like a children’s novel.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

2 thoughts on “The difference between children’s and adult books”

  1. Yes, well… Not if the work has multiple viewpoints. Everyone’s viewpoint should reflect his own age. If no one is an adult, then it’s a children’s book. If some of them are, then if their viewpoints make more sense to adults than children, it’s not. It’s a fairly straightforward issue.

    I’m confronting this right now with a new (adult fantasy) series, where the protagonist is 15. His viewpoint reflects his age. The viewpoints of other characters reflect their ages. By book 2, the protagonist is an adult (book 1 is a prequel).

    Reply
  2. Some writers just write and let the publisher figure out what the audience is. Which worked better years ago than now, most likely. I don’t know what those particular writers are doing these days.

    Then there’s Diana Wynn Jones who said when she wrote for adults she needed to explain more.
    As an adult who still occasionally reads juveniles, and not only to revisit favorites that still hold up, I suspect adults want different things explained.

    I get the ‘lens’ idea, but I’m not wholly convinced by it.

    Reply

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