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.
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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