Picture Books vs. Chapter Books – understanding the difference

Like every other freelancer on the planet, I’m always looking for projects to keep me employed. If you know me, then you know that (like many Gemini’s) I work at many different professions, sometimes all at once!

So it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that critiquing and content editing are among my many professional services. It often pulls me away from my beloved illustrating because I find it fascinating to read what other creative’s come up with. It’s one of those things that feeds my creative soul and more often than not, it gives me a great sense of accomplishment to know that I’ve contributed to making something good – even better…, possibly GREAT.

However, in my search for entrepreneurial bliss, I sometimes run into things that I find a little unsettling. Lately, it’s the number of new authors who don’t do any homework prior to sending out manuscripts.

Often I receive lengthy text pages that authors believe should be a picture book, or short manuscripts that they insist are chapter books! In addition to the unusual word count, the language used is often inappropriate for the targeted age group. In fact, it happens so frequently that I felt the need to talk about it and maybe clear a few things up. At the very least, posting my thoughts on the subject will give me a place to send confused newbies, awarding me more illustrating time!

Warning….possible boredom approaching! This is basic stuff that is all over the internet. If you have been studying children’s book publishing for any length of time, then I’m sure you’ve already heard this stuff! If not, then you NEED to join the SCBWI, seriously folks. What I’m about to share is talked about in almost every children’s publishing conference and critique group across the globe. Here we go….

Simply stated, Picture Books and Chapter Books were created for different age groups, and for different reasons.

1.) Picture Books contain illustrations. In most cases, the illustrations are in color and they assist the words by visually conveying the story to readers, ages 4-6.  The text should (ideally) contain less than 500 words – due to the belief that today’s youngsters have a very short attention span, but up to 1000 words are acceptable for manuscript submission to most publishing editors.

Picture book text should not be descriptive in nature. This keeps the word count low and allows the illustrations to do their part in showing what the words do not communicate. Words should be used sparingly to evoke emotion, move the story forward at all times, and invite a clear understanding of the action. If a sentence does not add something important or at least move the story forward, it should be removed.

Picture Books come in a variety of sizes, most commonly 8.5″ x 11″ in size, as it fits squarely and snugly on library and bookstore shelves without toppling over or getting lost between other books.

Traditionally, Picture Books are 24 or 32 pages. This harkens back to days before digital publication, when printing companies only printed books in increments of 8 pages (i.e., 8, 16, 24, 32, 48.) The first 3-4 pages are used for the Library of Congress and printing information, dedications, and a half-title page. The manuscript text and illustrations share the remaining pages. Authors should consider this information especially when self-publishing.

First-time authors should consider the subject matter being exposed to 4-6 year-olds. If you don’t want your own youngster reading about a subject, then don’t write it and expect other parents to want it either!

In addition, don’t preach to your readers. Children quickly lose interest if your book sounds too much like a “lesson”, and is not much fun.  Conceal what you’re trying to teach in unique, comical, or relatable characters and plots. Your “students” will learn without knowing what you’re up to!

Finally, if you’re planning to submit your manuscript to publishing editors, for goodness sake, write something fresh and new that they have never heard before! Even if it’s a new perspective on an old subject, it’ll have a better chance for acceptance than a story that’s been done before. Enough cats, dogs and teddy bear stories People! If you do write about your cat, it had better be one VERY unique, wonderful and irresistible feline!!!

2.) Chapter Books also contain illustrations. In most cases, they are in black and white and are used sparingly. There are two types of Chapter Books. “Early” Chapter Books and Middle-Grade Novels. For the sake of keeping the discussion brief, we will only address Early Chapter Books at this time.

Early Chapter Books target ages 7-10, children who feel they are too grown up for “babyish” picture books. They still need (and secretly want) the aid of illustrations for clear comprehension, but the illustrations are simpler with less detail.

Early Chapter Books contain well over 1500 words, often in the thousands. The words used are more difficult than those used in Picture Books, but authors should avoid overly complicated words. Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to challenge your readers but don’t use words that require continual stopping to look them up! This can get tedious, causing readers to give up and walk away in search of a more enjoyable reading experience.

Again, don’t get too preachy! This age group will throw your book down and run for the hills if they think for one second that you are trying to sneak something by them. However, if you can think of a fun and clever way to get information across, they’ll be all in and teachers will love you and your book!

Chapter Books are usually 6″ x 9″ in size, fitting comfortably in hand and working well for traveling (backpacks). They are a great vehicle for authors who are looking to write a series, but that should NOT be your reason for choosing to write a Chapter Book. There are many terrific “stand alone” Early Chapter Books, and yours could be next.


In conclusion, no matter what you write, KNOW your audience! If you are writing a Picture Book, keep it short and simple, with ages 4-6 in mind. Most of them can’t read yet, but they want to badly. They are seeking independence and use the illustrations to assist themselves in reading books when parents aren’t available. Let your illustrations tell the story as well, by choosing your words wisely.

If you are writing an Early Chapter Book, remember that it’s for ages 7-10. It will be a small book, with sparse, small black and white illustrations that compliment the story.

Now that you know the clear distinctions between Picture Books and Chapter Books, what are you waiting for? An illustrator perhaps?




Thank you for participating, and I wish you every success!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s