Authors often get into trouble when they’re writing books for children or adults and end up blending the two in an awkward way. I’m here to clear up confusion around the differences between children’s books and adult books.
Particularly when authors write “coming of age” novels or fictionalized versions of their childhood, they sometimes end up writing novels that feel like they’re not quite for adults and not quite for children. Others set out to write crossover novels that appeal to both adults and children that wind up feeling like strange mishmashes.
While some children’s novels do indeed become popular with adults and become crossover successes like The Hunger Games and The Hate U Give, novels need to have a base readership. There aren’t really crossover publishers, just adult publishers and children’s publishers, with some “new adult” sprinkled in. And even if you’re self- or hybrid publishing, it’s very helpful to know your genre.
If you twist yourself into knots trying to make your novel appeal to everyone it might end up appealing to no one. If you’re writing for adults, write for adults. If you’re writing for children, write for children. If it crosses over, that’s great.
So what’s the difference between a children’s novel and an adult novel, and how do you avoid writing a novel that’s not quite for adults and not quite for children? How do you figure out what kind of a novel you’re really writing if you’re currently straddling these lines? What do you do if parts of your novel are from a child’s POV but it’s adult on the whole?
I’m here to help.
It’s not about the protagonist’s age
A common misconception about what makes a novel an adult or children’s book is that it’s ultimately about the age of the protagonist. Not the case!
There are plenty of novels featuring young protagonists that really feel more like adult novels, whether that’s Catcher in the Rye, Carrie, or the opening of Where the Crawdads Sing. Just because you have a child at the center of the events doesn’t necessarily mean you have written a children’s novel.
This can also happen in reverse, particularly in novels that start adult but then flash back to a character’s childhood. A novel that started off feeling like an adult novel can quickly start feeling like it veers into being a children’s book and might confuse a reader about what exactly they’re reading.
So set aside the age of the protagonist. Here’s what matters.
What’s the lens?
The first element to consider is the “lens.” Is the overall voice of the novel a child’s voice experiencing childhood in the moment or is it an adult looking back on childhood from a more mature distance?
Even authors who are explicitly setting out to write a children’s novel sometimes get tripped up on this. They end up inserting accidental adult viewpoints along the lines of “I would learn much later just how important this was.” Think of this as the “Wonder Years” effect, where it’s an adult narrating a child’s experiences.
Other authors might write their child characters the way they see children from their now-adult vantage point rather than writing for the way children see themselves.
So again, set aside the protagonist’s age and think about the lens. If it feels like an adult’s viewpoint it will feel like an adult novel, even/especially if it’s an adult looking back on childhood, and if it feels like a child’s vantage point it will feel more like a children’s novel.
What’s the sensibility?
Aside from the lens, another big factor is the sensibility of the novel. What are the issues the novel is concerned with and what is the level of sophistication in dealing with them? What’s the relative level of wisdom and experience in the voice?
Middle grade novels are often about a child discovering a sense of agency, young adult is often about children dealing with emotional complexity, and adult novels are often about more, well, adult concerns like more nuanced notions of love, life, and meaning.
This is partly why the opening of Where the Crawdads Sing still feels like an adult novel. Even though there’s a young character at the heart of it, the concerns Kya is dealing with feel pretty adult. (Same for The Lovely Bones).
What’s the voice?
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the novel’s overall voice will go a long way in determining whether a novel “feels” like an adult novel or a children’s novel.
Even children’s novels with an ostensible adult voice narrating, like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or A Series of Unfortunate Events, have a childlike adult voice. The overall feel of the voice is still in a child’s zone despite the adult recounting the events.
Conversely, an adult-like tone applied to what otherwise be a young adult novel will end up making it feel ultimately adult, which is partly why I’d contend Carrie is an adult novel (though some might disagree there).
Tips for staying consistent with children’s books and adult books
So how do you make sure you’re avoiding writing a novel that uncomfortably straddles being an adult novel and a children’s novel? Here are some tips.
- Focus on your base. Don’t try to write for everyone, write for yourself or a more specific reader or groups of readers. Don’t make story sacrifices to try to appeal to more people, focus on just being true to your story and your characters.
- Keep the voice consistent. Whether you’re writing for children or adults, the overall voice should be wholly consistent. Don’t make the reader suddenly wonder what kind of a novel they’re reading.
- If you’re writing for children, inhabit that age’s perspective. If you want to write a children’s novel, don’t write as an adult looking back. Channel the perspective of the child you were at that age.
- If writing for adults, maintain that lens even if you have flashbacks to childhood. Even if you’re writing a novel that combines timelines, keep the overall lens and voice of the novel feeling adult. Make sure the flashbacks roll up into the present-day adult storylines and that there are narrative triggers for why they appear where they appear.
- Calibrate the sensibility and sophistication. It’s okay to write a children’s novel where the characters are dealing with weighty issues or having very adult problems intrude into their lives. But make sure you’re not imbuing those characters with unearned wisdom beyond their years and that the overall voice still feels age appropriate.
This is a somewhat tricky subject, it’s tough to generalize across all books and genres, and opinions are going to vary. But I hope I’ve given some ways of thinking about how to calibrate your novel for the right base and decide what kind of a novel you’re really writing.
Any other tips or thoughts? Take to the comments!
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Art: Detail of Two Sisters by Pierre-Auguste Renoir