Writing for children is such a unique challenge. In order to write children’s books that appeal to youngsters it’s so important to engage them at their level. There’s a high premium on craft, readability, and really nailing the voice.
I have tremendous admiration for children’s book authors, having experienced just how difficult it is firsthand while writing the Jacob Wonderbar novels.
Here are some tips!
Write for how children see themselves, not how they are
Adults who are surrounded by children, whether they’re parents or teachers, have a pretty solid grasp on what kids are like, including their inner lives. If you live with children you may feel like you know them backwards and forwards.
But be very, very careful with this confidence. Remember that you are seeing kids through an adult’s lens.
When children’s book writers anchor too close to this adult perspective on childhood, the characters can often seem overly excitable and/or petulant. Which, let’s be honest, kids really can be.
But the important thing to anchor to is not how children appear to you, but rather how kids see themselves. Your best toolkit here isn’t necessarily the children in your life. It’s your memory.
Think back to what it was like being a kid. Did you think of yourself as petulant? Did you think of yourself as overly excitable? Or did things just really matter to you?
Write for the child you used to be instead of the child in front of you.
Don’t teach lessons
Kids are constantly being told what to do. They go to school and there are rules. They come home and there are rules. They’re constantly being criticized and corralled and admonished and constrained.
Let their books be a respite from all of that.
Kids can sniff out a lesson in a book a mile away and chances are it will feel pretty patronizing. Don’t do it.
Now, that’s not to say that kids can’t learn from books or that you shouldn’t try to infuse values into a book. Just don’t be overt about it. Let kids learn from the choices the characters make rather than handing down lessons from up on high.
Get the age right
One of the absolute hardest things to get right in a children’s book is really nailing the right sensibility for the characters’ age. Heck, I wrote a trilogy for 8-12 year olds and I still struggle with it.
First, you have to actually know your character’s age, and it shouldn’t be something you arbitrarily choose out of a hat.
Then you need to make sure that all of their thoughts and actions are age appropriate. If their thoughts are too sophisticated they may seem too adult. If their thoughts feel too juvenile, they may also seem unconvincing.
Be particularly careful with crying, whining, pouting, and other child-like expressions of emotions. Use them exceedingly sparingly and make sure you’re not making your characters seem, in a child’s parlance, like a big baby.
Mind your pacing
One of the very hardest thing about writing for children is the demands you will feel writing with a child’s attention span in mind.
The pacing in children’s books is tight. There doesn’t tend to be a lot of fluff. The best children’s books get right into the heart of the story and don’t let up.
From a craft perspective, modern children’s books are absolutely incredible specimens. There’s not usually an ounce of fat and yet they don’t suffer for their parsimoniousness.
Pacing matters in children’s books.
Dial down the excitability and slang
Above all, tone down the excitability, chattiness, exhortations, and slang.
There are definitely novels that use a chatty, conversational tone to great effect, but a little bit of chattiness really goes a long way. You can quickly exhaust the reader if you overdo it.
Don’t try too hard. If you can’t completely nail modern slang (and you probably can’t), it’s okay to stick to a more “classic” tone or one that feels unique to your novel.
Do you have any great lessons about writing for children that you’ve learned along the way? Take to the comments!
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Art: Henriot Family by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
JOHN T. SHEA says
Interesting, Nathan. Though I don’t write for kids younger than teenagers I use a version of tip one which I might call “Consult my Inner Child” even for adult stories.
Tip two sounds generally wise to me too, though C. S. Lewis famously shattered it by openly lecturing and preaching to his young readers! He remains one of the great perennials, though he wrote before most of us were born and knew hardly any children.
When reading Publishers Weekly etc. recently I’ve noticed a plethora of announcements and reviews boasting of new kid’s fiction with all sorts of lessons and messages about the hot sociological and other issues of today. I wonder will our grandchildren read them and what they will make of them.
Even as an adult, I’ve learned much from kid’s books. For example, I learned how to destroy a whole solar system with just two missiles and a talking spaceship from your ‘Jacob Wondebar’ books. A lesson I’m sure will come in handy some day!
JOHN T. SHEA says
‘Wonderbar’ not ‘Wondebar’. Sorry, Jacob and Nathan.
You’ve totally nailed it here, Nathan, Writing tip gold. Every one geared to help craft a children’s novel that would be treasured.
I don’t think it occurred to me that children don’t see themselves as adults do – perhaps on a subconscious level – and adults certainly don’t see themselves as children do, either. Children think that adults rather enjoy cleaning and cooking – after all, it’s the adults role to look after their children, and have their house looking great for visitors..
So children love to escape from that mundane world of routine and work into one that’s unpredictable and filled with fun and adventure and whimsy. For adults, its finding romance and philosophies that are life-changing, but for children it’s turning into that mysterious lane, or exploring that colourful forest and happening upon wonderful surprises and magical characters who are happy to focus their time and energy upon them in an engaging and imaginative way.
Neil Larkins says
You and Nathan have indeed nailed the essence of what constitutes a children’s book. My ebook, “Mouse Hole” is a Middle Grade story told from the perspective of a “nine going on ten” year-old boy. I tried to live in my own nine/ten year-old self to offer this perspective. I don’t think I was always successful, but ever keeping that in mind, drawing on what I was like when that age, made writing the book easier.
Neil Larkins says
I’m revisiting the comments section today since I just received an email from “The Write Life” on this discussion. (I’ve been a member since… Actually can’t remember the year, but it’s been at least 10.)
The subject “4 Major Differences Between Young Adult and Middle Grade Fiction” is very informative and can be found here: https//thewritelife.com/young-adult-vs-middle-grade-fiction/