In part I of this series of blog posts I discussed the many questions I have about writing for a child audience and decided, ultimately, that there is no monolithic “child audience,” only an audience of humans, shorter in stature, maybe, yet as diverse in its interests as any adult audience. I decided to focus on storytelling, on my purpose for writing, more than on defining my audience.And while I think this is mostly a good idea, I have to admit that refusing to acknowledge my audience would be disastrous. Aren’t I always telling my composition students that they HAVE to consider audience when writing? And shouldn’t I follow my own advice?
Yes and yes.
So it would seem that I have to negotiate my own writerly philosophy to tell my story with the very practical necessity of considering my audience (this is particularly important for marketing my work). And my audience happens to be children. As I try to stay true to my philosophy, I also try to write accessible prose for a child audience in three ways:
- Use simpler (not simple!) sentence structures
- Use both known and unknown words
- Use concrete instead of abstract language
Because I want to offer several examples of these three strategies I’ll talk only about the first one in this post (To read about strategy 2 click here ).
Use simpler (not simple!) sentence structures
I think that it is a mistake to think of writing for children as simple and uncomplicated writing. Even on a sentence level, children are capable of more than we give them credit for. Additionally, studies have shown that children who read (and are read to) exhibit more brain activity and have higher literacy levels than children who do not. Reading, even for fun, cultivates learning. Why not capitalize on these effects by helping your child audience become more familiar with increasingly more complex sentence patterns?
I’m not talking about Henry James or Samuel Beckett style writing with long lists of semicolons and clause after clause piling on top of one another until the actual subject of the sentence is lost to time as well as to memory.
I’m talking about maybe introducing the semicolon; I’m talking about using clauses wisely so that readers can understand the use of such a sentence construction and maybe even mirror it in their own writing. Full disclosure: reading all sorts of books is how I learned to write correctly; instruction in grammar during school hours taught me surprisingly little and confused me more than helped me. But because I had read SO MUCH, I could put together a complex sentence correctly (even if I couldn’t tell you why it was correct).
Here are some examples of simpler (but not simple!) sentences from children’s books I admire.
“The speech was much the same each year: recollection of the time of childhood and the period of preparation, the coming responsibilities of adult life, the profound importance of Assignment, the seriousness of training to come” (Lois Lowry, The Giver).
Notice that the list of items Lowry creates is not a simple one. It lists not just objects but abstract ideas-responsibilities, importance, seriousness-and descriptions of those concepts. This complex list mirrors the growing complexity of the children’s lives and, hopefully, the reader’s increasingly sophisticated literacy.
“The one niggling pain, the nighttime anxiety, was for the birds below–the birds who walked on the ground, and spoke English, and seemed so broken and wrong” (Katherine Catmull, Summer and Bird).
Notice that this sentence does not use the child protagonist as its subject. Instead, it is her anxiety that is central to the sentence. Also notice that Katmul uses a sort of broken sentence structure to describe the broken birds. Instead of writing “The English-speaking birds who walked on the ground seemed broken and wrong”-a very direct and active sentence structure-she separates the descriptive phrases with commas and conjunctions, mirroring in her broken sentence structure the broken nature of the birds. She has opted for a more complex (and lyrical!) sentence pattern in service to the ideas of her story.
“Many things happened during the hours in which she slept so heavily, but she was not disturbed by the wails and the sound of things being carried in and out of the bungalow” (Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden).
I really love this interesting sentence. It switches subjects after the comma to communicate cause and effect. Scary things happen, but do not disturb Burnett’s unlikeable little heroine. Instead of using the simple sentence “Mary was not disturbed by the wails and the sound of things…” Burnett structures the sentence to echo life. First the sounds happen and then Mary does not react. This structure also allows her to create suspense by first referring to the sounds mysteriously as “many things” and then revealing that they are “wails,” scary sounds we would imagine might disturb a young child.
What I particularly like about each one of these examples is that, even on a sentence level, these authors are negotiating story and audience. All three works are hauntingly beautiful in their themes and in their language and not only appeal to child readers as they are in the present, but also helps build them word by word, clause by clause, into their future selves.