Unless you remember what it’s like to be a child, you might have a hard time writing for one. Here’s what kids want hear about:
If your characters aren’t culled from the swirl of emotions you felt every time anything happened when you were a kid, your young readers might not stick with you.
Here’s some stuff they don’t want to read about:
When you’re writing for kids, write for yourself. The person you outgrew years ago, but who’s still hanging out somewhere inside.
Writing for Kids is Like Therapy
Funny thing, when you really get into writing for kids, it kind of wakes you up. It’s as if that child is snoozing in there, hibernating under a blanket of all of the ‘shoulds’ that we tend to weigh ourselves down with when we get jobs, houses and kids.
You’ll know you’ve nailed that cafeteria scene when something inside you stirs as you type the final word. If you once sat on your bed with your ten-year old best friend whose mother just died and you didn’t know what to say, you’ll know you’ve captured that awful day when your eyes blur as you watch the scene unfold on your screen.
It’s a remembering that reaches inside of you and cleans you out. You begin to see the world through your little girl eyes again—in small glimpses, sure—but it’s there. You laugh when people walk into things. You put quarters in a gum machine to get one of those big, stale gumballs. You might even pet the neighbor’s cat. (But think twice before telling your boss to pull your finger.)
And do make sure you have a real, modern-day kid read your stuff! Someone needs to check it for ‘language.’ You don’t want Beaver Cleaver narrating your story. But go too far on the edgy side, and you might be topping out of your age group. (Unless you’re writing YA, which pretty much has everything in it that adult books do.)
Or unless you're writing for yourself. If that’s the case, do whatever feels good and throw it in a drawer when you’re done!
Some children's book authors are so good they become a part of you—forever. Each generation has its beloved writer(s), but for me and my sisters, Laura Ingalls Wilder was who we wanted to be. And if we couldn't be her, at least we wanted to know her. But since she died before we were born, we had to make do with what she wrote and where she lived.
This fall, my sister had occasion to get close enough to the town of De Smet, South Dakota, to justify a trip to Laura's girlhood home. Now a shrine to Laura Ingalls Wilder, De Smet was backdrop to the The Long Winter, By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Little Town on the Prairie, which spanned my favorite years in Laura's growing-up life.
The long winter was too short for me. I wanted to get up every morning and bust the ice off my wash water, like Laura. I also wanted to teach in a one room schoolhouse. (Laura hated it, by the way.) My future husband would ride up in a sled—or cart, depending on the weather—and pick me up after I rang the cast iron bell. School's out! And of course, Nellie Oleson would just happen to be passing by, furious that she wasn't the one riding shotgun in whatever sweet ride Almanzo had chosen to bring.
I wanted to wear dresses made of organdy, which I pictured being the orange color of those marshmallow peanuts you have to hold your nose to eat. I wanted to make those dresses. Me, a wooden bench, a sewing needle and yards of fabric on my lap—cascading to the floor—is what I dreamed of.
I wasn't alone in this. If you've read this far, you're probably one of the thousands of children—now grown—who was smitten by a plucky pioneer girl named Laura.
Children's Book Author Laura Ingalls Wilder: De Smet, South Dakota, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
So my sister rides into town in a rented car. While De Smet is home to only 1,200 residents, it boasts a tennis court, a swimming pool, a nine-hole golf course and a nursing home. In other words, you'll need to squint if you want the little town on the prairie to actually look like one. That said, many of the old homes and buildings are still in use, and some people might describe modern day De Smet as a 'one horse town.'
But others might describe it as All Things Laura. Devotees are strategically situated throughout the town to reveal tidbits about Laura and her family that you might not have heard before. (We want them all. Every single one.) The First School of De Smet, where Laura was a student, is still standing, but the Brewster School, where she taught, is a replica. There are all kinds of staged scenes in each of Laura's dwellings with period furniture, clothing and toys like the ones Laura 'might' have used.
Laura Ingalls Wilder described her early years as being full of "sunshine and shadow." The books were about the sunshine—the shadow, not so much. My sister was surprised that Pa had to abscond with his family in the middle of the night from Burr Oak, Iowa, due to the landlord 'not being reasonable.' And apparently, while Almanzo Wilder saved the starving town by making a dangerous run in a blizzard to buy some harvested wheat, the Wilder home MIGHT have harbored a false wall, behind which the family was secretly hording its own stash.
But the biggest surprise was that the entire Ingalls family lived in South Dakota until they died—either together in one home or within spittin' distance of each other—except for Laura. Laura settled in Mansfield, MO, with her husband, Almanzo, and only saw her parents once before they passed away many years later.
What?! Only see Ma one time over a period of 35 years? Good, kind, gentle Ma (even if she was a bit stern)? And Pa, who played the fiddle that Laura so loved? What are we missing here? As kids, we wanted to live with the Ingalls, yet Laura appears to have left them behind in De Smet, no hurry to go back.
We may never understand this. But living was hard on the plains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Ingalls bore their share of tragedies, many of which were not included in the books. If the pioneering life wore them down, we can only imagine the toll it took on their family.
A Children's Book Author Pilgrimage: Letting Go of the Story
If you're thinking about visiting a favorite children's book author's home town, brace yourself. You may end up feeling sort of sad. Your journey through the books was yours alone, and adding facts to your memories might not play out the way you think it will.
But if you're OK with reframing your childhood fantasies, have at it! Just be aware that you might alter forever the part of you that was formed by a complete stranger who felt like a friend.
In other words, think long and hard before you buy those tickets to Edinburgh. I'm just sayin'.
If you are a fiction writer, chances are, you spend a lot of time in solitary confinement. When everybody else is at the mall on a lazy Saturday afternoon, you’re hunched over your computer, typing. When your spouse is running a “Mad Men” marathon on Netflix, you’re still on that dang computer. You miss kids’ soccer games (Can you cover this one, honey?), you don’t exercise and even when you’re not writing you’re scrolling plot lines through your head.
Sounds miserable, doesn’t it? That's because it is. Don’t do it if you don’t have to.
But if you can’t not write, it’s a good idea to develop strategies that help you maintain your social skills, take care of your health and emerge on occasion to spend time with the people who live in your house. (Besides, how else are you going to come up with new material?)
A Writer's Journey: It Ain't Pretty
There are plenty of people who talk about writing but have trouble sitting down to do it. But here, I'm talking about the ones who have a hard time tearing themselves away.
You know who you are. It looks something like this:
A Writer's Journey: Schedule It
First of all, get used to the idea that for some reason, your time on this planet has got to be about writing. Phrases, characters and stories are forever populating your head. Organizing them on a page is the only way to deal with this tsunami of thought that won’t leave you alone.
But it doesn’t have to ruin your relationships. Or your body. Or your life as a ‘normal’ person.
The single most valuable tool for managing a writer’s life is a calendar. Put blocks of time on your calendar for writing and make sure to leave the job at quittin’ time.
Ironically, scheduling your time on the computer will help you write better stuff. If we were all to be honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that our muses get tired after a few hours. And so do our bodies.
If there is anyone in your life that undermines the time you spend in front of the screen, your writer's calendar also sends the message that writing is important to you. There is nothing like a schedule to demonstrate that writing is your priority.
Figure out what time of day and days of the week are your most productive writing time and block out as many time slots as you need.
A Writer's Journey: Take Inventory of What's Bothering You
But beyond scheduling your time, it’s important to identify your personal triggers and plant safeguards to help you overcome them.
Let’s look at the list we spoke of earlier:
Exercise: The best way to make sure you get to that 1:30 yoga class is to put on your yoga clothes, get your mat ready and fill your water bottle before you sit down to write. Part of stopping your work to exercise is the unpalatable list of things you need to do before you even get out the door. Get them all done up front. At 1:15, grab your stuff and go.
Interruptions: You can seriously reduce interruptions by posting your writing calendar so that everybody who needs your services will know when they are allowed to start bugging you. (An added bonus is that some of those people might learn to become less needy.) And now that you're scheduling your writing, the mandatory stuff will get done (dinner, homework etc.), since your writing time no longer overlaps with the critical things you need to do.
Obsessing: How do you stop obsessing about your latest masterpiece? This may be the toughest one of all. But not unlike dealing with an addiction, changing this habit will take some discipline. Here are some ideas that can help you with this:
-Meditation can help you train your brain to respond better to the moment at hand.
-You can perform a ritual when you finish writing: Walk through an imaginary portal and leave your story behind to be picked up later.
-Practice presence. Notice the way the light is coming through the window, the sound of your children carrying on or the feel of grass on your feet.
If your writing is robbing you of your life, you (and the people who care about you) will begin to resent it. Whatever your triggers are, identify them. Put some sort of support network in place to help you change your automatic responses.
There is a prevalent myth that says artists must be tortured. Not true. Anyone can be tortured. And anyone can be free, too, it they put their minds to it.
Perhaps there was an element of ‘luck’ to the record-breaking popularity of the bespectacled, black-haired boy dreamed up by children’s book author J.K. Rowling. After all, a lot of events had to fall magically in place before one small publisher finally decided to gamble on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Legend has it that the publisher decided to move forward with the book when his eight-year-old daughter read the first chapter and asked for more.
What fabulous luck!
So what does ‘luck’ look like to you? (For example, what does it mean when you say ‘just my luck’? Has something devastating—or spectacular—happened?) Behind every stroke of luck there is typically an iron-willed belief and a lot of hard work. And when these two get together, luck happens.
Alchemy, if you will.
Children's Book Author J.K. Rowling: Dogged by an Idea
According to the well-known story, Rowling mapped out the plot for her first book on a train. The idea of this boy-who-was-a -wizard-but-didn’t-know-it came to her and she simply couldn’t ignore it. Her description of the experience almost sounds like she was receiving a ‘download.’ She could hardly write fast enough to keep up. Where was that stream of consciousness coming from?
We don’t know. But what we do know is that Rowling was an open vessel, ready to receive what was coming to her. She was enchanted by the story and held the belief that she was the one to write it.
Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience with your writing. Do ideas follow you around, begging you to write them down so other people can hear about them, too? If so, you might be surprised by what happens when you sit down to actually write. When an idea is stalking you, there is usually a lot more to follow. The act of getting it on paper may have a quality of ‘effortlessness’ to it.
Children's Book Author J.K. Rowling: Tapping In to Something Inside of Us
Rowling describes her books as touching on religious themes—but not overtly. She is a master at telling a story that has multiple layers, but all she does is tell it like it is. Discovering the universal truths in her mythology is up to each of us to do for ourselves.
And when we do, we feel something.
The Harry Potter series weaves a golden thread of longing, hope, magic and love, beginning with The Boy Who Lived and not stopping until the end. There’s a lot of darkness in the series, too. This epic tale appeals to the hero inside of us—child and adult alike.
I asked one (young) reader what he liked so much about Harry Potter. His answer was simple: “J.K. Rowling is so creative.” But these words didn’t come close to expressing what was on the boy's face—the way it lapsed into a dreamy, far-away look at the mere mention of his beloved Harry. Now a college student, this young man has read the entire series at least 20 times.
Children's Book Author J.K. Rowling: A Flash of Clairvoyance
I love what J.K. Rowling revealed in her interview with Oprah. At one point, Oprah asked Rowling if she ‘knew’ that ‘one day every child in the world will know his [Harry’s] name.’
This excerpt from the 10/3/2010 transcript of that interview is riveting:
Winfrey: But isn’t it interesting that in the first book, when Harry is being dropped-off at his uncle’s, it is predicted – ?
Rowling: One day every child in the world will know his name.
Winfrey: One day every child in the world will know his name.
Rowling: Well, the screenwriter –
Winfrey: So, didn’t you know?
Winfrey: Wasn’t there part of you –
Rowling: Part of me –
Winfrey: Subconsciously, that knew? Yes.
Rowling: I – I remember once and it was like – it was like – well, like – I’m going to call it clash – a flash of clairvoyance now. Obviously if it hadn’t come true it would just be some crazy thought I had. But I do remember one day, writing Philosopher’s Stone, I was walking away from the café where I’d been working on –
Winfrey: Philosopher’s Stone which became Sorcerer’s Stone.
Rowling: Which became Sorcerer’s Stone, exactly. So that’s the first novel. And I had this moment where I suddenly thought – It was like another voice speaking to me and the voice said “the difficult thing is going to get published. If it gets published it will be huge.”
Wow. Great insight. One that begs the question: If you are a writer, are you listening to the voice in your head? Is your heart telling you it’s a go? If so, now may be the time to follow Rowling’s lead and start creating your own luck.
Just make sure it’s the good kind.
Leave a comment! Share your thoughts about 'creating luck.'
Celebrities who make it big in one way (say, making movies) are often gifted writers, artists and athletes, too. Not fair, I know. But that’s just how it is. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that famous people have written some terrific books for kids.
Here are 7 books for kids written by celebrities that you and your children might enjoy:
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