Writing for Kids

by Sherwood Smith

Every so often discussions rise about writing for kids, sometimes after yet another celebrity who has never written anything, and doesn’t seem familiar with children’s literature, can’t resist trying their hand–and more often than not, bombing totally. We will skip past the observation that most of them get stunning advances just on their names, whereas the rest of us are lucky to get a thousandth of that, and past the many reasons why their effort has crash-landed. It’s obvious why their story bombed, kids didn’t want to read it. Accusations I’ve heard the most often: preachy, talking down, boring.

So then the discussion shifts to, well how do you write for kids?

Every year during my twenty years in the classroom, I asked kids what they liked. Here is a quick summary of the most common answers, purposed for the writer:

* Short chapters read faster

* Stakes can be high, but see them through the kid’s eye view

* Open with a  narrow-focus. Things can get as complicated as one wants later, but open linear, pref. with an emotional hook that kids can relate to, and widen the focus an item at a time.

* Remember how kid socializing works.

* When in doubt, read kid writing, NOT writing for kids. Talk to kids. Reread old diaries or school papers.

* Kid humor is as obvious as farts. But they also like weird contrasts, and surprise–and tumbledown justice.

* Remember what adults looked like and sounded like through kids’ eyes—resist the impulse to make the adults the center of attention.

When I say that I think those considering writing for kids should resist the temptation to bend their tale around a message, I’m not saying that one should avoid sharing hard-won experience with young readers through characters’ actions. One thing I remember as a kid reader, and noticed during my years as a teacher, is that kid reading patterns show that they are eager to get experience through book form: most kids (but not all!) do read about kids just a little older than they are, or even a lot older, some taking down adult novels for a test drive.

If you have to preach, then tell the kids up front. Kids do read Aesop’s Fables, for example–have for how many centuries? But fair’s fair, you know going in that there is going to be a moral. Starting a story off with an exciting premise and switching to earnest lecture can spark mutiny.

Too many people approach a project meant for the young reader in a way they wouldn’t for adults, wrapping the teeth-grittingly sugary or threadbarest of plots around some favorite aphorism—which from the kids’ view feels like they are being talked down to.

Writers who share their experience through stories will weave in hard-won truths and  painful discoveries. The most successful share those experiences through the sort of adventure we craved when we were small enough to believe that we could one day become pirates—“You know, the sort of pirates that only kill bad guys, who don’t go around killing like your gramma or baby brother”—or could fly if we found the right amulet. The sort of adventure that we read to pieces when we were young, and maybe even reread the harder as, slowly, we began to realize that no, we would never be good-guy pirates. We’re not going to grow wings.

Those who write for kids I believe are participating in the gradual creation of civilization, just as surely as our ancestors Grunt and Ogg did around the campfire back a few glacier ages ago. Story is a form of play, and play is one of the primary ways we learn. And in turn their readership, if they are successful, rewards their stories with a clear-burning passion that is rare in the sophisticated adult.

Sometimes I think it can be fruitful for writers to shift to the other side of the book, and remember themselves as readers. Most of us here have been passionate readers since we were young. What is the book that turned you into a hardcore reader?

I was always a reader, but when I look back, the hunger to escape into the book was balanced out by the message, or the grim setting. I had little access to books, so pretty much had to take what I could get. For my seventh birthday I was given Black Beauty which I did enjoy, though I was full of questions about aspects of Victorian life that no one could answer, and they got impatient with me for being a pest. I was also given an exquisitely illustrated copy of Hans Christian Andersen, which I dutifully read, but I remember deciding early on to read one story a day. Each day I’d brace myself for the next horrible or confusing story to come. No question but I had to read them all–the book was there, so it must be read, but my foremost emotion was obligation, undertoned by anxiety because I could sense yet another horrible ending for the little girl in that story.

Then my babysitter brought over Enid Blyton’s Castle of Adventure, when I was nine. It surprised me, as she was so dedicated a teen of her period–squealed over Fabian, begged her mother for lipstick and starched petticoats, talked about rock’n’roll and boys. Changed her name from Judy to Judi, writing the i with a big heart over it. I never once heard her talking about books, only boyfriends and teen stuff. Yet she brought this book! She said she had to take it back to the library the next day, so I had to read it that night.

As I look back, I strongly suspect she asked around in desperation for recommendations. We were awful brats, as are kids who have at least one parent into discipline through violence. Being the oldest, I was the most steeped in sin, because if I wasn’t acting like a monster, I was slyly getting the younger  sibs to act out, whenever we were away from dad’s eye.

Wow, did Judi’s ruse work! I smacked into that book, crouched on the very edge of my bed like an owl, toes hung over the mattress, chin grinding into my bony knees. (I suspect my rotten eyesight was kicking in around then, and I had to get the pages closer to my face.) Anyway I ripped through that book thinking at last here was my kind of story! No parents, no heavy-handed message, girls getting to adventure as well as boys, funny stuff as well as action and bad guys getting defeated–what joy! What bliss! After that there was no stopping me, and even if those books don’t read the same, I do remember the passion, which has given me a lifelong gratitude to Blyton.

How about you? What was your passion book, the one that made you a reader?

Sherwood Smith is a member of Book View Cafe

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Writing for Kids — 51 Comments

  1. Beth: so did I! (My stories were written and illustrated on paper towels. I still have one!)

    Filkferengi: that is awesome. Major credit to your mom.