Don’t Think It’s Easier than Writing for Adults.
On Writing for Children
In my last blog post, I talked about becoming a better writer by trusting your readers more.
In this post, I want to talk about how this is especially important when it comes to books written for children and young people.
But first, let’s hear from a woman who wrote fiction almost exclusively for children and young people …
Several years ago, when I was teaching a course on techniques of fiction, a young woman came up to me and said, “I do hope you’re going to teach us something about writing for children, because that’s why I’m taking this course.’’
“What have I been teaching you?” I asked her.
“Well – writing.”
“Don’t you write when you write for children?”
“Yes, but–isn’t it different?”
No, I assured her, it isn’t different. The techniques of fiction are the techniques for fiction, and they hold as true for Beatrix Potter as they do for Dostoevsky.
But the idea that writing for children isn’t the same as writing for adults is prevalent indeed, and usually goes along with the conviction that it isn’t quite as good.
If you’re a good enough writer for adults, the implication is, of course, you don’t write for children. You write for children only when you can’t make it in the real world, because writing for children is easier.
Wrong, wrong, wrong!Madeleine L’Engle
I wish more writers for children were familiar with L’Engle’s perspective.
An assumption that some authors have is that it would be easy to write a book for children because they don’t have to put as much effort into world-building, descriptive writing, character-building…
Or even the lyricality and voice of the words themselves.
Do you want to be a better writer?
Whether you are writing for children, adults, teenagers, or across age groups, read “children’s books” by authors who put every bit as much effort into the craft of writing in their children’s books as they would in books for adults.
One of the best writers I’ve read is N. D. Wilson, author of the 100 Cupboards series, the Ashtown Burials series, and the Outlaws of Time (Sam Miracle) books.
He also wrote a standalone book several years ago titled Boys of Blur.
This book is not as well-known as his 100 Cupboards series and not as deeply loved as his Ashtown Burials series … but listen to these first lines.
Seriously, don’t just read them. Read them aloud and listen to them.
When the sugar cane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.
Stare through the smoke and let your eyes burn.
While cane leaves crackle and harvesters whir, while blades shatter armies of sugar-sweet sticks, watch for ghosts in the smoke, for boys made of blur, fast as rabbits and faster.
Shall we run with them, you and I?– N. D. Wilson
It goes on for about half a page, but you get the idea.
Now in one of his podcast episodes, Stories are Soul Food, N. D. Wilson explains that at least one of his editors tried to get him to remove those first lines from Boys of Blur because they were too poetic and it was “just a book for kids.”
I don’t think it’s merely because I’m an adult and a poet that I absolutely love these lines.
My daughter, when she first read this book, was a tween, and I’m pretty sure she memorized those first lines they were so good.
It reminded me of the work of another great writer who I read when I was a tween. (N.D. Wilson wasn’t yet published at that time, unfortunately; I would have loved to have discovered him as a child.)
But I opened The Picture of Dorian Gray when I was 12 or 13 and found myself in awe of the picture that was being painted by the words.
The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn. …
Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains …Oscar Wilde
Now I know that the book is not a children’s book and maybe I shouldn’t have been reading that book at that age …
But it was one of the first books that established in me that longing for the beauty of words. That feeling that comes from reading some books that kind of evokes a longing for something beyond.
That is not going to happen to your reader, though, if you’re merely trying to write an easy book for children.
Another book that had the same effect on me at that age was To Kill a Mockingbird – the scene near the end that steps back from Scout’s point of view.
For me, those lines swirled with magic and otherworldliness.
I felt such a longing to experience that kind of magic for myself.
This is the kind of magic that I don’t see enough in books written for children or younger readers …
But it should be there.
There is no reason not to immerse your young reader in wonder and mystery.
Children need poetry and beauty and truth in the books they read.
We aren’t just supposed to write didactic, preachy, tame books for children.
If children’s imagination isn’t awoken in the books they’re reading, they’ll look for it in other places …
And some of those places can be pretty dark.
Some of the best books for children that I’ve read are by authors who weren’t afraid to deal with the darkness, but they also have a strong north star, a bearing of light, to balance that darkness.
I feel like some writers for children are afraid to portray the darkness because they’re afraid that the child will be introduced to something they are not yet ready for.
Believe me when I say this:
That child already knows there is darkness.
From as early as I can remember, even with the limited books and stories I was allowed as a child, darkness surrounded me because of some experiences I had, which I should not have experienced at that age, some things I was exposed to, dreams (aka nightmares) that haunted my sleep, thoughts that darkened my mind at a young age.
There is darkness in this world, and simply writing tame, good characters as a writer of books for children will not protect your young reader from that darkness.
Back in 2015, I attended a series of fiction workshops by Tim Shoemaker, author of the Code of Silence series, and he mentioned a very popular series of children’s books.
My daughter had a number of those books on her shelf because I had bought them for her from garage sales and used book sales; there were well over 100 books in that series and they were easy to find.
Side note, it’s hard to find enough good books when you have a young reader who can finish three books in a single afternoon, and that was the case with my daughter.
Anyway, Tim Shoemaker observed there was little, if any, inner tension in these young characters; there was only harmony and goodness. Not enough questions. Not enough conflict to make these kids believable.
While that series of books are fine and there’s nothing wrong with them (and they’re actually very popular), Tim Shoemaker was intentional in creating conflict and tension for his characters.
He was not afraid to let them make wrong decisions and go down the wrong roads, and this definitely made him a better writer and made his books for young people far more interesting.
If you want to write good books for children and young people, write with honesty.
Trust that your young reader already knows there’s darkness; don’t be afraid to honestly show a little bit of that darkness (keeping in mind the age of the child) but balance it with light.
Because light and shadow are all around us …
It would be dishonest to portray only light as if that is the world that we live in.
It’s not …
And if you portray a false world in your stories, your readers—be they old or young—are going to look for the truth somewhere else.
“The only standard to be used in judging a children’s book is:
Is it a good book? Is it good enough for me?
Because if a children’s book is not good enough for all of us, it is not good enough for children.” –Madeleine L’Engle