Writing for kids is easy. The words are short, the books are short—the readers are usually pretty short. They’ve got to be less discerning than adults, right?
If your book is about wizards, mean girls or vampires, you might have a shot at going viral with a mediocre tale. But don’t count on it. Children have a sensor inside of them that gravitates toward good writing. Well-written children’s books rise to the top. And although it might look like an author simply got lucky by thinking up a good story, if you were to deconstruct that story, you would find an intricate piece of work that took a lot of time, thought and false starts to write.
Children are people, too. Myths, archetypes and human struggles resonate with them as they do with us. Kids want to cry, laugh, side with the hero and imagine themselves in the situations they are reading about. If the language is trite or the plot is forced, nothing happens inside. Write for the heart and you’ve got something worth reading.
In some ways, writing for children can be more challenging than writing for adults. If you’ve ever seen sketches of Picasso’s bull, you will know what I mean. Picasso went through multiple iterations of a finely detailed sketch before stripping everything away. In the end, The Bull was a simple form—a suggestion of a bull—now on display at the MoMa.
Make sure your book has substance, especially between the lines. Your readers might not see it, but they’ll feel it.
Children's books have a singular theme.
Harry Potter aside, children usually prefer to follow one story at a time. Subplots bore them. If they’re headed down one path, they don’t want to be taken down another. Adults are a little more patient with this. We like to savor our books, make them last. If we have twenty minutes before bedtime to read, we feel lucky.
Children inhale books. They want to get to the end, even if they’re having a good time on the way. If the hero is on the verge of discovery (or death, or losing some kind of conflict), it’s best to stay on that track.
And if you are going to introduce a subplot, that’s okay if it advances the action. Just make sure that it supports the hero’s journey and the arc of your story. And please make sure your side trip doesn’t include parents or teachers. There’s no getting around that one. Adults should be background noise at best in a book for kids. (Remember the adults in the Charlie Brown TV shows? All they ever said was “Wah, wah, wah.”)
Writing for kids and the concept of time.
Pick up any work of middle-grade fiction—Harry Potter aside—and you will find that most of them take place within a few days. Maybe a few weeks, but seldom will they span a year. Kids have a limited view of the future. If something big is going to happen on Saturday, that’s about as far out as they can see.
Young readers are going to want to experience your hero’s day. A rock comes through the classroom window with a note attached to it. The new kid smells like a banana. A best friend’s desk is empty, and the teacher looks like she’s been crying. The math problem on the board is a string of mysterious—yet strangely familiar—numbers. A secret code, perhaps?
All of this needs to happen even before the bell rings for lunch.
Pacing your middle-grade novel.
It goes without saying that a kid’s book should move along at a pretty good clip, Harry Potter aside. (Sure, the Potter books move. But they also spend a lot of time meandering in the halls, the cafeteria and out on the school grounds.) Keeping the pace up is not always easy to do. There’s backstory that needs to be established, locales to describe, and characters to introduce.
Try doing it with dialog.
Kids love when the characters talk to each other. How to talk like a kid is a topic for another day, but dialog is a great way to fill in the gaps and keep the story moving at the same time.
Be careful with this. Using dialog to clue the reader in can backfire if it’s too obvious:
“My parents told me they’re getting divorce and I have to go live with my dad. He’s moving to Chicago, so I have to start at a new school. I’m really bummed.” Alexander kicked at a pebble with his toe. He didn’t look up, but he knew that Casey was staring at him.
Now take a look at a more natural unfolding:
Alexander kicked at a pebble with his toe. “I’m not coming back next year,” he said.
“Why not?” Casey asked.
“Because my mom and dad are stupid.” Alexander wondered if Casey had heard that his parents were splitting up.
You may have heard that good dialog sounds the way people really talk. Well, it doesn’t. In real life, people aren’t that clever. And articulate. And they’re not always telling a story, which is a role you can never break when you are writing one. Good dialog is a delicate balance between sounding natural and moving the story along.
Now about Harry Potter.
The Harry Potter series violates almost every rule for writing a good children’s book. Genius is like that sometimes. If you have a genius inside of you, throw the rulebook away and follow your muse.
By teaching your child to read, you are sharing wisdom that — until the last one hundred years or so — was imparted to only a chosen few. Not so long ago, reading was reserved for the elite, the revered and the powerful.
And if you’re using a phonics-based method, you’re going all the way back to the early Greek alphabet, adapted by the Greeks from the Phoenician alphabet. The Phoenicians were known to have used symbols to help native speakers recognize sounds of words they knew. In the beginning, the ability to read these symbols (consonants only—no vowels) was related to the culture, and a person needed contact with native speakers to understand them.
The Greeks changed all that. They added vowels and a system that made their alphabet more portable to other communities. The sounds were no longer attached to meanings. Rather, they were merely assigned to sounds in a word. A writer could actually mix them up to create new words, based only on the sounds.
Then the Romans ran with it and created the alphabet we still use today.
In other words, it all started with the Phoenicians. The genius of a phonetic alphabet stems from the innovative nature of this early civilization. And did you know that Phoenician means ‘Purple People’? The Greeks dubbed them that because the Phoenicians made the purple dyes for the robes of Mesopotamian royalty, and the dye-makers’ skin would often be stained a purple hue.
Think of yourself as a mentor or a guide, passing on a wisdom tradition that as the ‘elder,’ you are being called upon to do.
Kids don’t get enough lap time. If you have a preschooler or a kindergartner, is he or she getting at least some time each day on your lap? At the end of a long day—work, daycare, bills to pay, cars to fix, meals to make—is your child getting the one-on-one attention he or she needs from you?
Don’t blink. That soft, downy hair with the baby sweet smell will soon be a wistful memory. Much sooner than you know. And when your child is on your lap and turns to look up at you for reassurance with those bright, wide-open eyes, you will never feel so able to provide it as you do at that moment.
You are the elder. With your child on your lap, you are passing down knowledge to him or her that is endemic to a life well-lived. We text, email, post, blog—that’s our tradition. But sadly, many people aren’t very good at it. And just as in 1,000 BC, lacking that skill can separate people. Keep them shut out. Limit their choices.
You’ve been chosen. You’re the right person to teach your child to read, opening up a world of choices for him or her.
Phonics-based teaching methods.
It seems odd to discard a tradition that has stood the test of (a really long) time. If you are teaching your child to read, I would encourage you to start first with a phonics-based method. Phonics can never harm your child’s effort to learn how to read. That’s because English is a phonetic language. You’re teaching your child exactly what is on the page in front of him or her.
But you can cause problems if you skip phonics. Phonics is a code. Obvious to some, but to others, a mystery. If a child is not able to decipher that code, he will struggle. And it’s much harder to teach it after he has tried to learn another way but has failed. Because now you are dealing with much more than a missing skill. You will most likely spend years undoing the belief that has developed in your child’s heart that reading is hard and he isn’t very good at it.
Nobody wants that for their child. Which is why we take our children on our laps and start teaching them everything we know. Like all the families, tribes and societies that have gone before us.
Tell your kids you are teaching them the ancient Secrets of the Purple People. They’ll love that.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you write a novel? Make yourself sit down at your computer. Then, get up, go to the kitchen for a snack, eat it over the sink, sit back down again, look out the window and finally, go to Starbucks.
At least, that’s the way it was for me.
Getting started was the hardest part. After that, stopping was the hard part. I found that I had been thinking so long about my book, that when I actually sat down to write it, the first half or so seemed to write itself.
And the rest followed pretty quickly. But then it got hard again. Because once it’s done, you’ll most likely need to start over.
It took me about six months to write my 50,000 word middle-grade novel, and about two more years to do enough rewrites to get it in good enough shape to pitch to agents.
The main character in my book is named Skyler. When I completed my first draft, my oldest son read it. After he finished, he turned to his brother and said, “Skyler talks like mom.” Since Skyler is only twelve years old, that wasn’t a good thing. Twelve-year-olds don’t typically say things like “Why don’t we think this through?” Or “Darn it. I’ve got homework. I can’t go.”
My second draft was me writing the whole book over, starting with page one.
Editing your middle-grade or YA novel
Writing is a solitary pursuit, but editing is not. Here are some of the reasons I’ve heard that people won’t show their stuff to anyone else:
Let’s pretend that all of these are good reasons to skip the part where you let friends, family and strangers (if they’re willing) tear your stuff apart. Because it is pretending. It’s a bad, bad idea to not get feedback on your book.
Solicit as many warm bodies as you can to read it. Your neighbors, your boss, your kids. Join a writer’s group. Upload your book to www.lulu.com or www.amazon.com and self-publish it. Not to sell it, but to hand a paperback to each of your readers. It will be much easier for them to read on paper than online, and they will be more likely to do it. Tell them to read it with pen-in-hand and make notes in the margins.
If you do this, I promise you will get depressed. You’ll get so many put-downs about your book, you’ll be tempted to quit. (Or you’ll find yourself wondering how people can be so stupid and that maybe you need new friends.)
And the worst? When nobody can seem to get through it. I’ve been sooo busy. But I’ll get to it. I promise. After I finish watching the last seven seasons of House in the next few weeks or so.
That’s feedback, too.
Taking a fresh look at your middle-grade or YA novel
But after you’ve stuck your book in a drawer for awhile, the feedback you’ve been getting will start to percolate. You’ll notice patterns. What your (suddenly smarter) friends are saying will start to make sense. You’ll figure out how to fix it. And when you do, the next round of readers will reflect that. They’ll come back to you a few days later and say “I couldn’t wait to find out what happened.” And instead of telling you what’s wrong with your book, they’ll start musing about the characters and about what happened to them.
More like a book club than a billy club.
Here’s something I find interesting. I’ve seen writers defend the way they’ve written a phrase, a paragraph or even a plot-line, even though their readers are telling the author that he or she has missed the mark. Think about that one. Is the writer going to have the opportunity to explain his or her logic to everyone who buys the book?
If you’re not writing for the reader, you’re writing for yourself. Which is OK, as long as you’re not interested in getting published.
Leave a comment! We’d love to hear how you feel when people give you feedback on your writing.
ABOUT MARY FOLLIN
Mary is the author of TEACH YOUR CHILD TO READ and ETHYR, winner of the Moonbeam Children's Book Award and the Gertrude Warner Book Award. She is mom to two grown sons and enjoys sharing her more seasoned perspective with parents of younger children.
ABOUT Erika Guerrero
Erika Guerrero is a freelance hair and makeup artist, Erika K. Beauty, single-mama to one amazing boy, and author of She’s Not Shaken, a blog offering hope and encouragement to women in all walks of life.
ABOUT Suzanne Johnson
Suzanne Johnson, mother of five children and grandmother of six, is an illustrator, book cover designer, and author of the Realms of Edenocht series.
Gertrude Warner Book Award
Moonbeam Children's Book Award
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