I am wondering how complex the story can be so that small children can understand it (younger than eight). Are there any rules of thumb of how many characters can be introduced before the child looses track of it? Is it alright to have more than one plot?

Finally, are there any significant changes (due age) in child's perception that have to be accounted for, so that it can enjoy the book? For example, is it possible that (due to some change at ~4.5 years) a book targeted for 4-5-olds would have to be a failure, while those targeted for 3-4 or 5-6 might be fine?

Of course, all things vary, but I'm asking about rough averages and estimates. Maybe someone knows appropriate literature?

Thanks in advance!

3 Answers 3


Your question relates to the developmental psychology of children more than their capacity to decode text. As such it has very little to do with chronological age because there is so much variation across individuals.

Even though publishers (or booksellers) may want to use labels such as 5-7 year-olds, these are essentially meaningless. The issue is not simply variation across the population because the accessibility for an individual of books written in similar styles will also vary with content.

A reader fascinated by dinosaurs will keep track of four plot lines in three time periods involving 10 Latin names with apparent ease, but then be completely stumped by what (to an editor) seems a simpler book about flowers or fish. The difference lies in background knowledge and intrinsic motivation.

The classic works most often cited are those of Jean Piaget (although he has tended to fall out of fashion). If you are interested in how children handle the progression in complexity of situations, I recommend the SOLO taxonomy of John Biggs as a starting point. Although it was developed for categorising assessment and curriculum tasks, the underlying understanding of number of elements and their inter-relationships applies well to plot construction.

One possible use is in suggesting mechanisms for reducing the demand of a text that you have written but find too complex for your target audience. SOLO gives you a basis for identifying the features that are creating the barriers.

  • Some good points, but I'd quibble that saying that age ranges are "essentially meaningless" is an exaggeration. Sure, a book targeted at 7-year-olds may in fact be read and understood by some number of 5- and 6-year-olds, and may prove too difficult for some 8- and 9-year-olds, indeed it may prove too difficult for some 30-year-olds. But still, we could say that book A is appropriate for a large number of 5-year-olds while book B is appropriate primarily for 10-year-olds and book C for 18-year-olds. ...
    – Jay
    Jul 8, 2013 at 13:03
  • ... The question is, if a book is appropriate for the average or median 7-year-old, what percentage of all 7-year-olds is it appropriate for? I wonder if anyone has done any studies on this -- though terms would be hard to define. I'd guess it would be on the order of 50-75% though.
    – Jay
    Jul 8, 2013 at 13:05
  • @Jay There is no dispute that we can readily distinguish books primarily directed to 7 year olds from those intended for 15 year old readers. That is not the same as agreeing that any given 7 year old will read and enjoy one but not the other. She might enjoy one, both or neither. Your reference to a median 7-year-old does not specify the attribute you are using to order the children -- height perhaps?
    – Fortiter
    Jul 8, 2013 at 13:18
  • Umm, I was thinking of median in reading comprehension. And yes, I'm well aware that "reading comprehension" is not something that can be completely and accurately described by a single scale, much less definitively measure for any given child. But my point is that even though a statement like, "Billie is at a reading level of 8.7 and Sally is at 4.3" does not tell us everything there is to know about their relative reading abilities, it can still be a useful statement. Just like, "Billie is 5 foot 2 inches tall" does not tell us everything there is to know about Billie's ...
    – Jay
    Jul 8, 2013 at 13:26
  • 1
    @Fortiter Thank you for your answer. What I am looking for are data from experiment such as those of Piaget, but more carefully constructed. Some literature (e.g. this) is available, but I was hoping for more context-related information, i.e. children might have some cognitive ability, but what are the stories they actually enjoy? As for age ranges, taking them literary is meaningless, but as @ Jay noted, this is just a sort of indicator expressed in weird units and it is up to parent to use that information wisely.
    – dtldarek
    Jul 9, 2013 at 7:18

In addition to academic knowledge about child development, there's nothing like experiencing real children and seeing how they respond to books. If you don't have young children in your life, I'd suggest "borrowing" some who are within your target age-range and willing to help. See if they understand your story (ask them to explain it-- they may have reached very different conclusions than you intended). See if they like it. Talk to them and find out what their interests are, and what other books they like. Possible ways to find these small workshoppers:

  1. Contact a local teacher or librarian and see if they would be interested in hosting a "meet an aspiring author" session. You could offer to talk about how to write a story as well as sharing your own.

  2. See if any neighbor families would be willing to read your story and give feedback. Kids usually like helping and might feel rather important in this role.

  3. Mail a copy to any young relations and see if they will tell you how they like it (especially if your story is for slighter older/more independent readers).

  • This is an excellent suggestion, the problem with it is that I would need many, many children to get any reliable feedback. Even if I could organize such an event, I wouldn't like to waste so many families time on some scratch of a story. It is best to gather as much data as possible before, and thus my question. (Of course, I don't expect my first children's story to be perfect.)
    – dtldarek
    Jul 9, 2013 at 7:30
  • Perhaps so-- but a lot of classic children's books were written for the author's own child/ren or a small group of children.
    – Anna M
    Jul 9, 2013 at 18:05

It's important to keep in mind that children learn to read at slightly different ages and that reading comprehension/ability can vary greatly even among kids the same age. There could be some who are ready to read Harry Potter by themselves starting in first grade (6-7 years old) while their classmates could just be starting to make the shift to easy chapter books.

I don't think that the best way to go about this is to target a specific age group. A better way would probably be to go about figuring where in the progression of learning to read you want your book to fit in - just learning/picture books, books with more words but still a large amount of pictures, easy easy chapter books, chapter books such that a child would find at a Scholastic book fair... up to young adult books (young teens) and older YA books.

Another way to go about this is to just write the story you're trying to write and see how complex it is when it's finished.

  • It's not that I would like to target specific age range, more like set of cognitive abilities. For example, I just found that for picture books it would be probably futile to mix simple story (early cognitive development) with point-of-view shots (later cognitive development).
    – dtldarek
    Jul 9, 2013 at 7:39

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