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by Judy Bradbury

Thanks, Tara, for inviting me to your blog space to offer a few tips on writing chapter books! I’m honored to be here.

A bit of background: THE CAYUGA ISLAND KIDS is chapter books series is contemporary fiction featuring five diverse friends who embark on backyard adventures, solve mysteries, and grow as a result of their experiences. The kids are resourceful, kind-hearted “fact detectives” who use their varied interests, their smarts, kindness, and humor to overcome hurdles and solve problems. Above all, these are kids who value friendship and community. The stories feature history, community service, respect for the environment, brainstorming, teamwork, misinformation, disinformation, and the importance of gathering all the facts—from more than one source—when tackling a problem, seeking a solution, and before landing on an opinion or drawing a conclusion.

The first book in the series, THE MYSTERY OF THE BARKING BRANCHES AND THE SUNKEN SHIP, is based on real events involving a found cannonball believed to be from the Griffon, a treasure ship that sank somewhere in the Great Lakes in 1679 on the return from its maiden voyage. The ship has never been recovered, though over a million dollars has been spent trying. There’s even a Discovery Channel episode about it. When I first read a newspaper story about a cannonball found in a backyard on Cayuga Island, I was immediately intrigued. After all, the ship was built on the residential island a few miles upstream from Niagara Falls where I grew up. Heck, the street I lived on was Griffon Avenue. It was named after the ship!

I knew I wanted to write a children’s book centered on the found cannonball. But it took months to land on the genre and the format.

  • Nonfiction or fiction?
  • Historical or contemporary?
  • Which format: picture book, chapter book, or middle grade?

Eventually, I formed the idea for a contemporary fiction story based on the true events. I chose to write a chapter book because the topic and the level of detail I wanted to include seemed best suited for the age and interest level of the chapter book audience, and the characteristics of the chapter book format.

Chapter books are vital stepping stones for newly independent readers. Smaller in cover size than picture books, they look and feel more grown up. But they are slimmer than middle grade novels so as not to intimidate or overwhelm the young reader. Building confidence in growing readers is a critical aspect of a successful chapter book.

Targeting 6-10 year-olds, chapter books span from easy first readers that are generally 48-64 pages with a couple of words per page, to more involved stories (80-130 pages) that naturally lead growing readers to middle grade novels. THE CAYUGA ISLAND KIDS chapter books intended for 7-10 year-olds fall into this upper range. For the purposes of our discussion, those are the level of chapter books I’ll offer writing tips for here.

Key elements form the bedrock to writing a winning chapter book—one that will cement an interest in reading and lead to a lifelong love of books:

  • Short sentences and brief chapters—less text density than middle grade books. More white space keeps the reader turning pages, which reinforces a feeling of success in reading.
  • Limited cast of characters; introduce few sub-plots and minor characters
  • Fast-paced plots with minimal narration and plenty of action keep readers engaged
  • Appropriate grade level reading vocabulary
  • Age-level interests and experiences
  • Well-placed and well-spaced illustrations aid comprehension and keep interest high

If you are interested in trying your hand at writing a chapter book, begin by reading widely in the format, particularly in the genre of your intended book. Read new releases as well as classics. Become familiar with grade-level reading vocabulary for the age range your book targets. Check reading level using a readability measure, such as Lexile levels. Is it within range? Young readers’ listening, speaking, and reading vocabularies vary, with their reading vocabulary being the least developed, and thus the biggest challenge—to the reader and the writer. Introduce new vocabulary or tougher, multisyllabic words by using the word in context, or providing a definition within the text, either within the sentence, or immediately before or after. Repeat new and unfamiliar words to foster recognition. The more often a word is encountered in print, the more comfortable the reader becomes with it. Reinforce unfamiliar words with illustrations details.

Illustrations in the best of picture books expand and enrich the text—and often offer a parallel story line. However, this isn’t the goal of illustrations in chapter books. Here, pictures are meant to support comprehension. Usually chapter books feature partial page or spot illustrations with occasional full-page art; black-and-white pen and ink drawings are common.

Engaging, high-interest topics, accessible language, and visual appeal are essential. Chapter book plots center on experiential knowledge and curiosity about the world around us. Friendships, family, school, and growing independence are common themes for chapter books. Humor is always appreciated, from gentle wittiness to raucous roll-on-the-floor hijinks. Children in this age group are curious, accepting, eager, and willing to be engaged. As they explore and embark on adventures in their own corner of the world, they are eager to broaden understanding of the larger world and acquire knowledge, tools, and skills. Book 2 in the Cayuga Island Kids series, THE ADVENTURE OF THE BIG FISH BY THE SMALL CREEK, focuses on a community project for recycling. The kids come to realize that though we are each just one person, together we can make a big difference. It recently was awarded the Ben Franklin Silver Award for Young Reader Fiction, 8-12.

Don’t underestimate the 7-10 year-old reader. In Book 3 of the Cayuga Island Kids series, released just a couple of weeks ago, misinformation and disinformation are introduced through events that take place in the story. These are big words, big concepts. But they are also a big part of our world today. THE CASE OF THE MESSY MESSAGE AND THE MISSING FACTS centers on the importance of getting all the facts and not just a fraction of the truth before forming on an opinion or drawing a conclusion. Readers encounter flour bugs, missing glitter pens, wonky websites, a Little Free Library, chocolate chip cookies, and more.

Finding meaningful, accessible, and entertaining ways to approach important concepts and mindsets is both a challenge and a reward for the chapter book author hoping to provide a sturdy bridge for the young independent reader’s journey to becoming a lifelong reader.

Thank you for the tips, Judy! I know plenty of PB writers who would like to try the challenge of writing Chapter Books.

And blog readers, you can win a copy of Book 3 in the Cayuga Island Kids collection, THE CASE OF THE MESSY MESSAGE AND THE MISSING FACTS!

Just leave a comment below about what you’ve learned about writing CBs. A random winner will be selected later this month.

Good luck!


Photo by Peter Scumaci

Judy Bradbury is an award-winning author and literacy educator who has taught students from preschool through college. Judy’s children’s books include the Cayuga Island Kids chapter book series and the Christopher Counts! picture book series. Judy is also the author of a number of resources for educators and host of the popular Children’s Book Corner blog featuring interviews with authors and illustrators and suggestions for using their books to enhance curriculum while boosting social-emotional learning. For more information, visit Judy’s website. Connect with Judy on Instagram @judy_bradbury; Twitter @JudyBWrites; and LinkedIn.

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TIME FLIES
"7 ATE 9/PRIVATE I" BOOK #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
April 26, 2022

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