A thing or nine about writing for kids
I just surprised myself by tallying my children’s books: 7 currently published and 7 forthcoming. These range from picture books to a teen novella, so I’ve pretty much covered every age group, yet I still feel like a neophyte. Partly, this is because I started out as, and continue to be, a writer of literary fiction; after a certain age it’s hard to budge your self-concept! But the main reason I feel like a neophyte is because I still have a lot to learn in this wonderful genre, even after 14 books. That being said, I have learned a thing or 9. Here they are:
1. Proceed toward joy.
Children’s books have happy endings. Things may start out bad, but they end up better. Or great. Or ludicrously wonderful. (Note that in literary fiction, the reverse is often the case.)
2. Drop the message.
If you want to teach children something, no matter how worthy, write a non-fiction book. The only “message” you should be deliberately imparting is that reading is a pleasurable activity. Everything else should rise organically from story, and will, if it’s well-written.
3. Know your gatekeepers.
There are plenty of adults standing between you and your perfect child reader: editors, parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians, entire school boards. It’s wise to keep these people in mind if you hope to have your book published. Don’t write for them, just know that they’re there and that they, not children, will be your first readers.
4. Understand that pictures tell half (or more) of the story.
Writing books that will be illustrated – either picture books or chapter books – is a collaborative process between the author and the illustrator. Oddly, though, unless you are a writer-illustrator, you will probably not meet or even communicate with your illustrator. Allow room for this amazing, unseen partner to interpret your words in pictures.
5. Write like a poet.
Every. Word. Counts.
6. Don’t kowtow to kids.
Like adult readers, children respond to honesty. There is no need for snot and poop and farts unless these things are integral to your story. Don’t put them in just to win readers. You’ll lose them instead.
7. Understand that it’s harder, not easier, to write for children.
A children’s writer has many more considerations than a writer for adults. You have to think about the child’s reading level and maturity and whether or not your subject matter will be acceptable to the adult gatekeepers (see #3), to name a few. Writing for children looks “easy” because the books are shorter and simpler than books for adults. From my experience, the shorter and simpler a story is, the more difficult it is to write.
8. Understand that writing for children is a genre.
There are rules that must not be broken just as in other genres (mystery, thriller, etc.) For example, the child or child substitute (ie. the squirrel) solves the problem him or herself; an adult must not solve the problem for the child. Read children’s books and see if you can figure out the rules.
9. Have fun!
This is the most important thing and probably the main reason I write for kids.
Caroline Adderson is the author of a bunch of books for kids. Very Serious Children (Scholastic 2007) is a very funny novel about two brothers, the sons of clowns, who run away from the circus. I, Bruno (Orca 2007) and its sequel, Bruno For Real (Orca 2009), are collections of stories for emerging readers featuring seven year-old Bruno and his true life adventures. From Kids Can Press comes the hilarious Jasper John Dooley series of chapter books: Jasper John Dooley, Star of the Week (2012), Jasper John Dooley, Left Behind (2013), Jasper John Dooley, NOT in Love (2014) and Jasper John Dooley, You're In Trouble (2014). Middle of Nowhere (Groundwood 2012) is a middle-grade novel about two inner city brothers who abscond to the north woods with an elderly neighbour in order to stay out of foster care.
Caroline’s children’s books have won the Diamond Willow Award, and been nominated for the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Award, the Hackmatack Children’s Choice Book Award, the Chocolate Lily Book Award, the Rocky Mountain Book Award, and the Shining Willow Award. Caroline lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her husband and the son who lied to her when he promised he’d always be seven.