Esi Merleh has written a brilliant blog about bridging the gap between picture books and longer chapter books. Her series, Magic Faces is ideal for younger readers making the move into longer fiction.
When I was approached by inclusive fiction studio Storymix to write Magic Faces, I had previously experimented with writing middle grade and picture books but knew little about the tricky terrain in between. Magic Faces is a new adventure series for five to seven year olds with full colour illustrations. In each of the three books in the series, twins Alanna and Austin go on an exciting adventure created by a magic face painting kit. Not quite a picture book and not quite a middle grade novel, I quickly realised that books for early readers required a whole new approach!
To help navigate this new terrain, I leant heavily on my understanding of child development, gained from my experience of practising paediatric medicine. Between the ages of five and seven children are developing rapidly and making massive leaps physically and socially, which will be reflected in their reading journeys.
By the time they start school, children are becoming more physically dexterous, and are delighted by movements that require more and more skill and coordination. I made sure that all the books in the series had plenty of running, jumping, climbing, dancing and some cool moves worthy of superheroes!
Moving on from picture books, readers expect more detail and richness to really charge up their imagination. Very small children are quite concrete and some can find aspects of make believe challenging. Pretend play is limited to role-playing what they see in daily life, like feeding stuffed toys. As children get older, magic and monsters take on a textural quality and can be almost overwhelming before they learn that there is a difference between what is real and what is not. It’s exciting to be immersed in worlds of fantasy and adventure, but up to a limit. Home, security and familiarity shouldn’t be too far away. For all age groups, getting across the emotional state of the protagonist is essential. Every child wants to connect to the characters they find in stories. They are looking for new fictional friends, with whom they will always belong.
Children of this age are also starting to socialise more and more with peers. And whilst the relationship with their parents is primary, developing a social life with siblings and other young children becomes more and more important. They are learning new social skills such as taking turns, listening to another’s point of view, reacting to the emotions of others and sharing. Books for this age group often feature themes of fairness, justice and working together. Magic Faces features a strong sibling bond, and I loved showing how the twins were learning to relate to each other.
Picture books are most often read with adults, and middle grade are more often read by themselves. Books for early readers have to appeal to both independent readers and children being read to. Magic Faces is designed to helps bridge the gap in that transitional stage and help them progress in a meaningful and strategic way. I made the language clear and simple, but threw in enough challenging words to stretch those more able.
These early chapter books might also be the first books that exposes a child to the mechanics of the classic story structure. They are not wedded to set genres and styles and it’s all deliciously new. To me, this is one of the most exciting things about writing for very young children and the impact it can have. A simple but strong story structure works well, giving them stepping stones to move on but also allowing for opportunities for shared reading time so they still feel supported. Magic Faces is illustrated and in full colour, so it doesn’t feel like too much of a departure from their comfort zones.
I’m lucky in that my sister is a leader in primary education. She was a great sounding board for what the target age group would be likely to cope with and enjoy. I would definitely advise seeking out the opinions of children, teachers, and parents. Nothing beats real world experience!
Magic Faces is available to buy now.
Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation