Shorter Doesn’t Mean Easier – Four Things I Learned About Writing Chapter Books

I had already written several middle grade novels before I began writing the DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS chapter book series (Scholastic, July 2019). I will admit that my first thought was, “Oh, this should be easier.” After all, at 6,000-10,000 words, chapter books are a fraction of the size of middle grade novels, right?

Oh, how quickly I was humbled! Chapter books might be shorter in word count, but they still pack just as much story and character into their pages. And chapter book authors must build a compelling story not just once, but multiple times for a series.

Luckily, my daughters are now in prime chapter book-reading territory, and we have read many fantastic series together: JASMINE TOGUCHI (by Debbi Michiko Florence), JADA JONES (by Kelly Starling Lyons), IVY AND BEAN (by ANNIE BARROWS). I turned back to these favorite series and read many more with my “writer-eyes” activated. What made these beloved books so good? How did the authors work their magic?

I discovered 4 key essentials that made my work easier:

1. Your character should stand out from the crowd. Mercy Watson loves hot buttered toast. Alvin Ho is afraid of everything. The main character is the heart of a series, and the reason that kids keep returning for more books. Memorable chapter book characters have something that sets them apart. Whatever you choose, make it authentic to your character and relevant to the storyline. And make sure it’s something that you will enjoy writing about again and again and again. And if you use a device to break up the text – such as a diary format, text messages, fun facts, etc. limit it to just one device, otherwise things can get confusing for young readers.

Notebook entries and lists are sprinkled throughout the books, which are written in a diary format.

2. Give your character room to keep growing. We novelists know that our characters need to grow and change from the beginning of our books to the end. But a chapter book MC will have to grow and change in every book in the series. In other words, a chapter book MC needs to be like the kids who will read about them. Think about the kids you know: they are constantly learning and growing a little more every day.

The MC in DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS just wants to be a normal kid. Her problem is that she isn’t normal at all – she’s a magical ice princess whose family controls the wind and weather. This sets up countless possible storylines and numerous opportunities for chaos and silliness!

Lina’s magical royal family plays a big role in each book.

3. Keep things fairly simple. Chapter book readers are in the early stages of getting hooked on reading. You want your books to seal the deal. Some kids may be reading your books independently; others may be listening to an adult read them out loud. You aren’t limited to vocabulary lists the way “easy readers” are. But you do need to make sure that your text is encouraging, enticing, and supportive of emerging readers. Chapters and paragraphs should be on the shorter side. Sentences don’t necessarily need to be short, but they should be simple to read for kids who are just starting to learn the rules of grammar.

Your overall storyline should also be streamlined. In a novel, you may have B, C, and D subplots, and an entire cast of supporting characters who all have their own emotional journeys. In a chapter book, there just isn’t room to weave all that together. For my series, I decided that each book would have two storylines: a “school” problem and a “family” problem that get resolved by the end of each book.

4. Problems should be age-appropriate – and the MC needs to be the one to solve them! This was actually a tricky one for me to figure out! Because chapter books are aimed at the young elementary school set, the topics and tone tend to be light, funny, and accessible. The problems that your MC faces will be similar to problems that any 6-9 year old might face: losing a friend, having anxiety, finding their voice, etc. 

My main character, Lina, is descended from a long line of royal beings with magical weather powers. When I first started drafting the series, I found it tricky to find a balance between presenting her with a problem that wasn’t too dark and scary (ice monsters turned out to be too frightening!) but that would challenge her enough so she could grow. I finally decided that in the first book, SNOW PLACE LIKE HOME, Lina’s struggle would be that her powers are different from other members of her family. Her parents are loving and supportive of her, but it’s not until Lina realizes for herself that her uniqueness is her strength that she is able to control her magic. She solves the problem through inward reflection, which is something young readers can relate to and achieve (even if they don’t have winter magic!).

The happy thing I learned about writing this series is that once I settled on my character and the recurring story elements, each book flowed more easily than the last – though I will never say that writing chapter books is easy! The trick is to make it look easy, and it turns out that is actually a lot of hard work.

Photo by Sam Bond.

Christina Soontornvat grew up behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant in a small Texas town with her nose stuck in a book. She is very proud of both her Thai and her Texan roots, and makes regular trips to both Weatherford and Bangkok to see her beloved family members (and eat lots and lots of Thai food!). In addition to being an author, Christina holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Science Education. She spent a decade working in the science museum field, where she designed programs and exhibits to get kids excited about science. She is passionate about STEM (science, technology engineering, and math), and loves learning new things. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two young children, and one old cat.  

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