A Guest Post by Hayleigh Bird
Many people think that writing fiction for children must be much easier than trying to write a novel for adults. But the truth is that less words does not equal less complicated. Writing for children presents many challenges that don’t exist when writing for adults.
One of the main challenges in writing for children is that you are writing for an entirely different audience than the one you exist in. When writing for adults, you can constantly evaluate your work based on whether you would enjoy it, or the people you know would enjoy it. When you’re writing for children, you can’t base it off of what you would enjoy. Kids see the world differently. Even their fundamental value system is completely different than that of an adult. When writing for children, you can never lose sight of who your target audience really is. Even if you think something is funny, that doesn’t mean a kid will think it’s funny.
So how do you remedy this? Hang out with kids. The more time you spend with kids, the more you’ll come to understand what they find funny, what scares them, what interests them, etc. I am not suggesting you go to the playground and take notes (that might get you arrested). Do you have cousins? Nieces? Friends with kids? Do you like volunteering? There are lots of volunteer opportunities that involve hanging out with super cool kids AND giving back to the community (bonus).
Another challenge specific to writing for children is that in many cases, you are actually writing for two audiences; the parent and the child. While the child must be engaged and interested by the book, often it is the parent who is purchasing the book. This becomes especially relevant for picture books. Picture book authors are tasked with coming up with stories that interest both parent and child, a feat that is by no means easy.
That being said, writing something that engages parent and child alike is possible. And if you can master that, it will undoubtedly bring you success. Take your cues from books like Scaredy Squirrel, and movies like Shrek. They deal with concepts and ideas that are recognizable to parents as funny, but present them a way that make them accessible to kids. There is no sure-fire way to achieve this but always keep both audiences in mind. A good tactic is to do what I call “throwing the parent a bone”. This means that you can include sentences or bits that won’t be lost on a child (ie. they will still understand what it going on) but that are more directed at engaging the parent.
A final (and major) challenge in writing for children is knowing which age group you are writing for. Kids grow and learn at a rapid rate, and the vocabulary, sentence structure, and literary devices they are capable of understanding change as they develop. There is a big difference between writing something for a six year old kid and writing something for a ten year old kid. Your editor will undoubtedly help you with this, but you’ll find more success at getting your manuscript accepted if you have a clear idea of what age group you are writing for, and what they are capable of understanding before you begin.
In general, picture books can be made for ages 0-3 (board books and very simple/repetitive type books), and ages 3-6 (more complex picture books with more writing per page). When writing a picture book it is important to note that the parent is generally reading it out loud, so words can be somewhat complex in terms of spelling, but should still be a part of that age-group’s vocabulary.
At about age seven or eight, kids become capable of reading simple chapter books. These books contain simple and short sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Generally these books are a child’s first attempt at reading on their own, and as such they are almost even simpler than a picture book. The child needs to be able to get through it without constantly asking a parent or teacher to explain. When writing for this age group, keep in mind that things like flashbacks or disjointed scenes will confuse readers. Literary techniques like foreshadowing and allusion will be lost on readers this young, so it is much more useful to spend your time being direct and to the point. You will need to do a lot of repeating, especially when it comes to who is speaking or thinking. Too many pronouns will confuse young readers.
Around age 11 or 12, a child becomes capable of reading more complex stories and longer chapter books. Sentences can become longer as kids this age are capable of putting together the thoughts in a compound sentence without going back and rereading the first part. Many readers in this age group are already reading ahead to YA/teen fiction, so the majority of books produced specifically for 11-13 year olds is geared at getting reluctant readers interested in books. That means that a lot of these books are not too complex in terms of reading level and vocabulary, but are “high concept”, meaning more complex terms of content and plot.
There are a few other things to keep in mind when writing for children:
Don’t include a “lesson” or “moral”. Tales of morality or stories that are written specifically to teach a lesson are awful. They are uninteresting, preachy, and nobody will want to read them, let alone buy them. Publishers will throw your manuscript out the second they sense that you are trying to teach a lesson. In fact, most children’s publishers explicitly state this on the submissions portion of their website. It is an un-breakable rule. Note: it is perfectly okay if in the end, your already interesting/stand alone story *happens* to convey some sort of message. It just should not be the underlying premise of your story. Kids are smarter than you think, and pick up on it quite easily when the “moral” of the story is presiding over the actual plot.
Speaking of submission guidelines, as with any publisher, children’s publishers are very strict about their submission guidelines. There are many children’s publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts, so it’s not necessary to find an agent for your manuscript, so long as you submit it to the right publishers and follow all the guidelines, usually listed on their website. For example, many people are tempted to writing rhyming picture books, but the fact of the matter is that most major publishers don’t publish rhyming picture books due to being unable to sell foreign rights (rhymes don’t translate). As such, many children’s publishers explicitly state not to send them rhyming poetry. These submission guidelines are not flexible and if your manuscript doesn’t follow them, it will get tossed in the garbage.
My last piece of advice to you is to tell your story to a kid. Kids are honest critics and you’ll know right away whether you have a winner or a stinker. Best of luck on your writing endeavours; and if you have questions about writing for children, or publishing for children, please comment!
Hayleigh Bird is a children’s book fanatic and enthusiast. She works in the children’s publishing arena as a sales assistant at Kids Can Press, and is currently working on several manuscripts for children and young adults. You can find her on twitter and on her comedic blog, Peculiar Amusement.