I’ve heard it before and I’m bound to hear it again–writing kids books is easy. Because kid books aren’t a challenge for adults to READ, they must be a breeze to write… right?
To that I say, “Howsabout you and me take this outside?” Cuz them’s fightin’ words.
Y’all… Imma be blunt: writing for kids is just as difficult as writing for adults. Not only do you have to consider the story and how to craft it, but you have to consider an audience that is in the process of growing up, an audience that is protected, cosseted, and yet often doesn’t want to be, an audience whose reading material is purchased by parents.
That’s a lot to juggle. More, perhaps, than any other genre of writing, considering audience as a kidlit writer is crucial.
But just who is the child audience? And how do you appeal to them? And, perhaps a more pressing question, how do you write an authentic child voice? As a writer of kid lit and a former scholar of the genre, these questions haunt me, guys. I’m talking rattling chains and howls in the night.
So let’s dig into these questions and, hopefully, get rid of our ghosts!
Writing for the Child?
In order to set these ghosts to rest we need to ask some questions about our audience, read books written for them, and in general, get to know ’em a bit better! The questions below help us understand the basics about who the child audience is and what they like.
- 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?