This multi-part series investigates what it means and how to write for a particular audience. Part 2 of this series discusses various strategies for putting the philosophy Whitney articulates here into practice on the page. While the first few posts in this series will discuss children’s literature, we would love to hear from you about what types of audiences you are interested in writing for.
I spent the last several years of my life becoming an academic expert in children’s literature and young adult literature. I studied the coming-of-age genre and read every children’s book I could get my hands on and everything written about children’s books as well. It was a labor of love as well as just plain labor, but I am far from having all the answers.
After I defended my dissertation on coming-of-age narratives, I started writing a novel based on the ideas at the heart of my dissertation—childhood, growing up, art, and time. However, putting my dissertation into fictional form (as I called it) left me with more questions and problems than ever before. While I was well versed in the genre as an academic, I had never considered children’s literature from the perspective of its intended reader—the child!
Writing for the Child?
Here are some questions about child readers that plague me as I keep working on my novel. I’ve also included some possible answers I have considered along the way:
- What do kids like to read?
- Some kids like to read fun stuff with lots of action, like the Percy Jackson books!
- Other kids like reading quieter, more poetic works, such as The Secret Garden, like I did.
- Yet others like books that are both poetic AND action-packed, like the Inkheart series.
- What themes or topics are allowed?
- Any theme or topic!
- Except for sexuality probably? And violence? (And if these topics aren’t allowed is it because kids don’t want them or because we don’t want kids to think about them?)
- What language is allowed?
- Use simple language, of course.
- But, isn’t that talking down to children?
- Doesn’t that hinder their opportunities to learn?
- Doesn’t that tell them that I don’t take them seriously?
While these questions seemed so easy to answer at first, I have discovered they are not, and in fact explode into so many more complications and questions!
Reading like a Child
Maybe, in order to answer some of these questions, I need to approach them from a different perspective, a child’s perspective.
Child Whitney is easy to imagine. She loved reading complicated books and learning new words. There was no difference for her between children’s and adult literature—it was all simply stories that she either liked or didn’t like. And she read stories about EVERYTHING. From the strangeness of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw to true crime books, from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield to Anne of Green Gables.
But what about other child readers? After all, children, like adults, have vastly different tastes and desires. While complex language and mature themes may have appealed to me, they did not appeal to others my same age. While I would not have been disturbed by sexuality as a theme or put off by complex, winding sentences, other children may have been. While other kids could read horror books all day long, the Goosebumps series gave me nightmares. While I read an abundance of books written for adults, many of my peers preferred to remain loyal to books “appropriate” to their age.
Writing for Children, not The Child
The diversity of preferences within a child audience complicates my attempts to answer the important questions listed above. But as I consider these diverse readers and the plethora of answers to my growing number of questions, I realize that I should, as I’m writing for a younger audience, embrace EVERYTHING.
Ultimately, I want to speak to all types of readers from all walks of life, and that requires answering those questions in different ways. I could write fantasy, realism, mystery, gothic, or horror stories, and whatever child wants to read them can. I should write about both “safe” and “dangerous” themes if they are important to the story. And my language should be simple or complex, depending on the story I’m telling and the child I’m telling it for.
I strive, then, ultimately, to tell a story and while doing so, to appeal to as diverse a child audience as possible.
Perhaps, even, I strive to engage, as all good children’s authors do, an audience of childlike readers of all ages, those who seek to be swept away into a different time, a different place, into a damned good story.
What sort of “rules” do you think exist for children’s writing and how do you negotiate them in your own writing?
Be on the lookout for Part 2 coming soon!