Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Behind the Books: Who’s My Audience?

Last week I got so carried away with the importance of focusing a topic that I didn’t finish my list. Let’s start with a recap:

1. Get an idea.

2. Do a little market research to see what’s already out there on the topic.
3. If the idea seems viable, do a ton of research.
4. Focus your topic.

So what’s next?

5. Consider your audience.

For me, “consider your audience” means knowing what gets kids excited at various ages as well as what the national education standards say they should be learning at each grade level.

I’m not the only one paying attention to curriculum standards. Pull out some catalogs and you’ll see that most books about dinosaurs are written for kids 8 and under. Books about life in colonial America are geared toward readers aged 7 to 9, while books about ancient cultures are usually written for ages 9 to 11. Natural disaster books are most common for readers aged 9 to 12.

It’s certainly true that 12 year olds may feel they’ve outgrown dinosaurs, but couldn’t a 7 year old be interested in volcanoes? Couldn’t some 12 year olds want to read about how the Pilgrims lived or the Boston Tea Party?

Of course they could. But publishing houses are businesses. They know their biggest customers are schools and libraries that cater to schools, so they publish books that complement national education standards.

And if I want a publishing house to publish the books I write, I need to find out when my topic-of-choice is studied in most schools, and then write with that age group in mind.

When I wrote A Place for Butterflies, I targeted early elementary readers because kids usually study butterflies in grades 1 or 2. While I knew most of my book would focus on ways people are protecting butterflies and preserving their habitats, I made sure I included a brief section on the butterfly life cycle. I also included information about their place in the food chain, their differing habitats, and their role in pollination. These are all topics covered in the early elementary curriculum.

And when I wrote Extreme Rocks and Minerals!, I knew students in grades 3 and 4 would make a great target audience. That’s when they’re very interested at really noticing their surroundings and also when they study basic earth science topics.

Young writers don’t have to worry about adhering to curriculum standards, but they should still consider their audience. Are they writing for their teacher or their classmates? Their parents or a younger sibling?

Just as I vary my sentence structure, word choices, and examples depending on the age of my readers, students should think carefully about how to best appeal to the people who will be reading their writing.

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