My two-year-old’s current favorite bedtime story is about a sick old man who spends the day lying in bed. There are no kids in this story. None. And yet, this book won the 2011 Caldecott Award, the highest honor a picture book can receive.
Wait—what? No kids? Isn’t it the cardinal rule of children’s books that they’re ABOUT children?
A Zookeeper with a Preschooler’s Heart
A Sick Day for Amos McGee is about an elderly zookeeper. It doesn’t detail the zookeeper’s battle with his employer for health insurance or sick days. This zookeeper doesn’t have to figure out how to cook dinner for his kids while nursing a migraine.
Of course not. This is a gentle story about the animal friends Amos McGee visits each day, the games they play together, and how his friends show up to help him when he needs a boost. Amos McGee may be an old man, but his story beats with a preschooler’s heart.
What Makes a Story Right For Kids
What makes a story right for kids isn’t necessarily the age of the protagonist. It’s whether the emotion and themes of the story resonate with the age of the audience you’re writing for. This is
why you can’t set out to write a kid’s book without understanding the standard formats and age ranges.
The major categories are:
Picture books: 0 to 8 years old
Middle-grade novels: 8 to 12 years old
Young adult/teen novels: 12 and up
And there are all sorts of subcategories within that. Within picture books alone, there are picture books for babies and toddlers—often repackaged into board books (ages 0 to 2), picture books for preschoolers (2 to 6), picture books for kindergarten and first grade (ages 5 to 7), and picture books for early readers (5 to 8). There are even picture books that hop out of the standard age bracket and share the stage with middle-grade. (These are generally nonfiction and have become more and more rare.)
Classic Kid’s Books with Adult Heroes
It’s not unusual at all to find a picture book with an adult protagonist. Off the top of my head, I can think of several best-selling and beloved titles:
Good Night, Gorilla (zookeeper again!)
Miss Rumphius (the “Lupine Lady”)
Mrs. Wishy-Washy (overzealous but jolly cleaner)
Grandfather’s Journey (Japanese immigrant)
Officer Buckle and Gloria (policeman)
Any number of fairy/folk tales!
[Incidentally: it would be odd for a middle-grade or YA novel to have an adult protagonist or narrator. But it’s not completely unheard of: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle or Skellig or The Book Thief (I’m assuming Death is an adult!) In all those cases, children appear as co-protagonists or narrators.]
Adult Stories with Kid Heroes
If you’re not quite sure how to make an adult protagonist appropriate for a children’s book—think about the flipside: adult stories that feature child narrators—stories that are decidedly not for children. In some cases, the narration takes on a nostalgic tone (“Stand By Me“). In other cases, the themes or subject matter are just too harsh or too mature for a kid audience (Lovely Bones). Or the kid hero is depicted as too tender, too innocent, too cleverly cute—an adult’s view of childhood (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). All of these books resonate on an emotional level with adults, even though their narrators are under 18. (If you find your children’s book story fits in better with one of these examples—time for a gut check: your audience is probably not kids.)
How to Get it Right
But if you’re pretty sure you’re writing for kids, and if you’ve got a story idea starring a grownup, don’t despair. And don’t (necessarily) listen to critique partners who auto-suggest you sub out your grownup for a child. It doesn’t have to be that way, as long as you ask yourself two simple questions:
- Who is my audience?
- Does my story idea resonate emotionally with that audience?
If you have honest answers to both, you’ll be off and running—perhaps on your way to another modern children’s classic. Good luck!