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I'm writing a children's novel, and after handing it to my younger sister for her feedback (my sister's seven, the targeted age range is 8-12), she said it was very easy for her, but she appeared to like the plot and characters.

I must have been trying too hard to make it fit into my target age group, but I probably overdid it (oops). What can I do to make my book level more difficult and challenging to readers?

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    What's the target age range?
    – hszmv
    Jan 28 at 16:17
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    I would also talk to your sister about what she liked/didn't liked in the story. What about it was "too easy" in her opinion.
    – hszmv
    Jan 28 at 18:44
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    I have to warn you about changing the book on feedback from just one beta reader. It could be your sis is a reading machine, and by pandering to her needs, you make a book too hard for your target market, but too simplistic for the kids who the new reading level matches up with. Easy to understand but good plot is usually considered enviable.
    – DWKraus
    Jan 28 at 22:33
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    You are not targeting an age range. You are targeting a proficiency range. "Age" is just used as a simplistic metric for proficiency. When you say that your sister is an avid reader beyond her grade level, what you are really saying is that your sister is not within your targeted range! Jan 29 at 10:24
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    What's the motivation for making it more difficult to read? Usually, we try to convey content as easily as possible; we resort to more complex communication when simpler modes are insufficient. So if you've managed to convey the material under-budget (in terms of complexity), that's like a win, right? Or if not, then what's the goal here?
    – Nat
    Jan 29 at 14:20

12 Answers 12

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Here are a couple of ways you can make the book harder without drastically changing the content (because it sounded like your sister loved the book story-wise).


Think deeper about your theme and plot

This does not necessarily mean to add plots or sub-plots. Instead, consider the origin of your plot, where you got inspiration, and how you based your storyline on it. Now, take that base of your story and stretch it.

Stretching your base would mean growing where your story comes from. Your base is similar to your original theme. Think deeper about your theme, what exactly is it and how do you display it? Try and incorporate that where you can in your story while still avoiding predictable tropes.

Thinking deeper about your theme and making it an underlying part of your story could make your reader also think deeper about the origin of the plot and the more subtle theme.

Now, when I say to bring out your theme a bit more, I don't mean making it like Goldilocks and the Three Bears; making the theme the entire story (don't break and enter, be nice, treat others property well, etc.)

I mean to go into greater detail when describing theme associated parts of your book to let your reader think deeper about the theme and possible hidden meanings.

So, to sum up this tip, thoughtfully bring out your theme without over exaggerating it.

Sentence structure

As writers, if we're not careful, sometimes we make our sentences very generic. Each sentence starts to sound the same except for different words. Try other formats of sentences! It makes it more fun and challenging to read.

If all the sentences have similar structures, I can see why your sister would be able to skim through the book.

It is important to try out different lengths of sentences too. Maybe break up some of the "ands" into individual sentences? Always vary conjunctions and stuff like that to create more engaging sentences.

You can practice this by writing a whole chapter speaking like Yoda. "Feels strange, it will."

So, to sum up this tip, vary sentence structure and length to create a more interesting and challenging read.

Throw in some unique vocab

One way not to do this is to just use a thesaurus on average words. Your goal is not to completely throw a word in to stumble your reader. Your goal is to put the perfect word in to smooth out your story. Sometimes, your readers will have to look up the word, but as long as the word is the perfect word, then it is fine.

Research your proposed word and make sure it fits perfectly. Ask for help from beta readers or friends if you are unsure if the word is truly perfect for the given scenario.

Give your characters depth

Strengthen your characters to make a more challenging read. Give them depth. Stronger emotions. Your reader will have to keep track of detailed, emotional, and real characters. I for one definitely think a book is more challenging when I have to figure out a character's complex emotions.

Not only will you succeed in making your book harder, but you will also secure a more memorable read. It is easier to remember something if there were strong emotions tied to it.

You can accomplish this by drawing out emotions in your characters over significant events. You can also give your characters flaws to do this as well. The more real a character seems, the larger the impact on the reader.

So, to sum up this tip, fill in your characters. Give them complex emotions to occupy your reader more.

Improve your dialogue

Don't just write dialogue to get a point across or to fill up an empty scene - write it because the characters need you to. Pour emotion, pour love, pour your skill into your dialogue.

It needs to sound real to be believable. If the dialogue is soulless, your reader will easily fly through it.

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In English, at least, there's a specific scoring procedure for determining "reading grade level". This is based on things like sentence length, total vocabulary (count of unique words), average word length, and so forth. The use of the word "grade", however, is a little misleading, because few adults not in scientific or engineering fields ever read at higher than "sixth grade level" and fewer still for recreational purposes (for reference, the Bible, in common translations, is at about fourth grade level -- it's very long, and the King James version uses the less familiar "thee/thou" convention, but it contains only about a thousand distinct words, not counting proper names, in a full word count of about a million).

That said, it's very common for the most skilled quarter of children of any given age to read one, two, or even three grades above their school grade, so before you change your book, you should have it test read by others than your sister (she might well be one of those high-level readers). If you get similar comments from other children close to her age, and few if any of the opposite side (saying it's too hard to read), only then should you consider rewriting to a higher grade level.

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I suggest not selling your audience short by assuming their intelligence. I think, maybe, you did this without knowing because it is a children’s book, but children are very intelligent if you do not yet know. I think selling the audience short is a common mistake writers make, and one must question how many “successful” writers have done this to both their chagrin and regret. Don’t be like them. Trust your audience, and yes an audience may fail as indicated by Aristotle in his Ars Rhetoricæ, but this should not deter you from challenging them. Remember that you set the standard. What I am proposing is that you go back and take a more mature approach to your characters, as in, make them not be so simple, but make them conundrums like people, and trust that kids may not necessarily understand it, but know that a lack of understanding has never stopped children from adoring things.

I am sure you have watched children’s movies as a child that you loved only to watch them as an adult and discover their intricacy and depth which certainly passed your intelligence as a child, however, even as a child you understood enough and however over your head it went it did not deter you from loving it. Now, my question to you is, why not go and do the same?

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Never, ever, try to make your text more difficult to read.

Try to write interesting, captivating, nuanced, many layered literature that contains as many meaningful cultural references, themes, allusions to philosophical questions as you can reasonably fit.

Then if a nine year old can still effortlessly enjoy it, you did a great job.


'easy' is sometimes used as a criticism with an intended meaning closer to 'shallow' or 'boring' or 'dumbed-down', but that's not the same thing at all and if in response you try to make your work more difficult it will automatically be worse.

And if writing with more depth doesn't come naturally to you, then even if you have a correct goal in principle, like adding some historical comparison for example or adding more emotional turmoil, then that can still backfire.

It reminds of an author I used to like who wrote great, entertaining, effortless, shallow page turners. Apparently someone tipped them off about the fact that their books are shallow and now they started randomly killing characters and drawing cheap and simplistic historical parallels. That didn't make their new books any less shallow, but now they aren't entertaining effortless page turners anymore.

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I don't know what your sister meant by the book being too easy. But unless you used simplified language (baby-speak?) or used explanations instead of nouns and verbs (I mean "he was very angry" compared to "he was furious"), I think perhaps she rather spoke about the content and subject matter than the language?

In most cases, a lower reader rating does not necessarily mean the text is bad. In fact, taking a very hard subject and write about it in simple terms is much harder than getting entangled in complex word choices and longwinded sentences.

So I'd start by making sure this was about language and not content.

And then, be cautious about complicating the language. Maybe also involve more beta readers.

Finally, I'd look at making the characters more complex, the problems larger, and maybe tackle some more complex feelings.

Even children can and often want to read about more complex matters. I think most people feel they have challenges and problems in life, and that they are sometimes too big to handle. It's just, as an adult you might think that kid's problems aren't so bad... but to them they are.

They may just need the words in the text to be a bit simpler. (Unless they are spelling bee champions, which of course not all of them are)...

Some examples are Astrid Lindgren's "The Brothers Lionheart" or "Mio's Kingdom" (I think, though I just realized this one is for 6-8 years... I remember it being very dark... but maybe with all that happens in schools today its child's play?). These are dark stories with death and abuse, but even as a kid, I remember them making my life seem nicer and better. And they gave me a kid's version of a horror story thrill. Everyone wants that from time to time.

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As a bit of a frame challenge, I don't think that making your writing "more difficult to read" is a useful thing to do in and of itself. Perhaps "too easy" was the best that your sister could do to articulate what was "wrong" with the writing, but I doubt that it is too easy to read was really the problem. Rather, there were probably other issues, such as feeling condescended to, or awkward phrasing.

If you have a conversation with your sister about whether she can be more explicit as to what she doesn't like about it, that might be educational for both of you. One thing that you likely were doing is splitting sentences up so that each sentence has only one clause, so the remedy is to look at your sentences and see whether you can combine two or more into one (but of course, don't go too far in the other direction). If you're having trouble editing your existing story to be a higher reading level, it may help to start over and write a new version rather than trying to create a version by altering the existing one. It might also help to have an "adult" audience at the forefront of your mind while doing this; your previous experience suggests that when you write a story with your sister in mind, you tend to "dumb down" the writing, so try to imagine an older reader. Maybe put pictures of older people such as friends your own age or your parents on your computer, or do your writing while your parents are in the room.

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    Feel free to edit out typos in the OP. But leave it out of your answer.
    – Nai45
    Jan 30 at 4:23
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I think it is a nice thing that you are doing. In order to make it a better novel, you need to introduce a bit of "challenge" to the reader.

There must be something that the reader can learn from it as well (apart from being a good read).

And to make it bit more complex, you can consider the following:

  1. Create a few twists even if the story is simple. This will make it interesting and indulging.

  2. Use an advanced vocabulary. Synonyms that can make the reader reach for a dictionary (though it should be optional as it can be "understood" from the context itself)

  3. Use abstraction - either in concepts or the story or in the narration.

Hope this helps.

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There are a few things you can do:

Just use bigger words. This will probably be the most obvious solution, but it'll work and probably be the easiest way.

Add subplots, details, and make you characters more complex. This will probably be a bit harder to do, but will bump up the level a bit. This will also lengthen it if you're a bit short, so maybe it can help hit two birds with one stone.

Use a lot of comparisons. This will make it a tad bit harder to understand, a slightly slower read, and more difficult.

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  • Thank you for your response, but I don't quite understand what you mean by "use a lot of comparisons." Jan 28 at 17:19
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    @Alexandrang, similes and metaphors are what I was referring too. Jan 28 at 17:32
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Questions. Ask the characters, see if they can solve them. Leave them for the reader, see if it piques their interest to hold them for a series. Ask them of society or the world. Give some an answer, leave some a mystery, solvable or a matter for speculation or time to solve. Possibly some have an answer that is wrong! Or possibly an Easter egg...find the answer and get another question.

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Pick at-least 2 readers from each age between 8-12 and let them read the book or a couple of chapters. And these could include the avid reader and non-regular-reader as well. Ask for their feedback. Draw an average rating from the feedbacks. That should help you learn how much you need to change if the changes are required.

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To summarize the good advice above: use bigger words and longer, more complex sentences.

To a lesser extent, make the novel longer. Adding subplots will not really accomplish your goal per the OP, but it could make the story more interesting.

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Specific advice above about a broader selection of test readers is good.

Generally, your test reader is saying how fast they could read it. Speed-reading is a good skill but so is contemplative reading. That is, going slow enough to think about the content and possibly re-read a section. Long words in themselves can be boring.

  • Watch out for common tropes. Talking animals, old witches, lost in the woods until discovered by fairies and so on. The more common and guessable the trope the more the reader will go 'yeah yeah yeah'.
  • Have 'stop points'. A simple case is an end of a chapter with a hanging 'how would you deal with this situation?'
  • Err towards showing rather than telling. Instead of 'The big bad wolf had fleas' try '...always scratching himself'. (You can tell us later he had fleas for the ones who never associated scratching with fleas.)
  • Negatives always slow down the reader in two ways. Cognitively:More complex parsing is required. Imaginatively: If not X then what?
    She is neither pink nor pale, And she never will be all mine; She learned her hands in a fairy-tale, And her mouth on a valentine. You can read that quickly but all you'll get is some mush. (That comes from a poem The Witch Wife by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It is possible for poetry to gallop along and reverberate but mostly, for children, I'd use it just as a change of pace for interest's sake.)
  • By all means use convoluted and fun names with unusual sounds. Janet, John and Spot the dog are out. Spot the zebra, Mister Wotsitsname and Mrs Quadlough are out of the ordinary.
  • I'd avoid convoluted sentences just for the sake of it... Unless you have a particular character who speaks in a roundabout way. The reader can enjoy making fun of the circumlocution. (And as a writer, it's good dialogue practice.)
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  • Thank you for your response. Just wanted to note that my sister isn't a fast reader; she likes to take her time in books, but she kept on rereading it, so I think I can say she enjoyed it. She said that certain events in my story were unpredictable, so I think I got your first point nailed... Jan 29 at 15:18

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