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.
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