The most important component of a chapter book is a strong voice. Characters who sound like kids, or who speak to kids in their language, will undoubtedly be the best-received. Whether the character has a deadpan sense of humor like J.J. Tully in the Trouble with Chickens, a spirited and bouncy nature, like Grace from Just Grace and the Double Surprise, or a sweet and sassy temperament like Clementine, kids relate to characters who come alive on the page and begin to feel just like real people.
The plot of a chapter book should also come alive through a series of memorable events. The most wonderfully written chapter books are the ones that stick with the reader long after the book is finished. Images like Clementine wearing her father's tool belt, Vince the inside dog wearing his cone, and Eleanor's description of her beloved babysitter in Like Pickle Juice on A Cookie are all examples of moments that are so salient, they begin to feel like a part of the real world. Moments like these cause children to fall in love with books and also teach them, in a subtle way, the art of storytelling.
Though chapter book readers are getting more savvy and will soon move on to middle grade books, they still need some cues to help them understand story structure. Just Grace's illustrations and comics help bring her problems and questions to life. In mysteries like The Case of the Library Monster, it helps to have the characters occasionally recap the information uncovered so far. The Trouble with Chickens even goes so far as to cue the reader to changes in point of view by changing the way the chapter number is displayed. Kids who are still learning to navigate different types of stories really benefit from the subtle guideposts pointing them on their way.
Concise and powerful text is another major feature of great chapter books. Chapter books can include more vocabulary than easy readers, but they are still short books, with short chapters, so authors have to find ways to be economical with their language while still conveying all the information needed to tell a story. Toys Come Home does this very well, managing to paint these lovely pictures with words while maintaining a reading level low enough for kids who are not quite ready for novels.
Finally, as with easy readers, chapter books should speak to readers on their level. Kids reading independently want to read about kids like them, or people with concerns similar to their concerns. By keeping the language fresh and current, focusing on the child's mind instead of adult reasoning and being careful to insert lessons subtly instead of preaching, authors can really win kids over and get them excited about reading. Grace learns how to deal with disappointment, Clementine learns how to accept unexpected news, JJ learns never to trust a chicken, and Eleanor learns to let go and move forward, but they all do so on a child's terms, and it is only through immersion in these stories that the lessons even begin to come to light.
To learn more about the nominees and finalists in the Cybils Early Chapter Book category, visit Cybils.com.