The Toughest Crowd in Town: Writing for Children

They say writing for children is harder than writing your typical adult novel, and that never became more evident for me than when I worked on my middle-reader novel The Little Blue Knight vs. The End of the World. As adults, we’ve developed an innate understanding about how to communicate with each other — how our work day went, what happened over the weekend, giving a speech at work, etc. But few of us continually communicate with children on their own level — not just telling them what to do, but actual storytelling for and from their perspective. It’s a skill that slowly goes away as we grow up, so when you decide to take up the challenge of writing a children’s book, there are many things we adults need to understand and re-learn. Here are three things to keep in mind.

Children are smarter than you. Especially when it comes to smelling a fake. If your prose and dialogue smacks of being dumbed down, they’ll know it. If a child is going to make the effort to read a book, they want to be convinced that these characters are real, even if those characters are talking caterpillars or fierce giants. Anything less and they’ll drop the book in a heartbeat. Make sure your characters are sincere, fun and well-thought out. Reading other successful and classic children’s literature will help with this, such as the works of C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl.

Children have more fun than you. And their sense of what is possible is expansive. Cars can fly. Trees can talk. Witches and lions do battle. Anything goes inside children’s imaginations, and they’re willing to go along on any adventure you can conceive, so long as it’s presented well. But a willingness to take leaps of faith does not mean you can leave massive plot holes or contradictions for them to step around. Think about what they’d want to know of the characters and their journey. One way to regain a perspective on a child’s imagination is to sit down with a few of your nieces, nephews or friends’ children, and color with them. Ask them to draw a scene of a fantasy land full of wild creatures — or even of the last dream they had — and watch as they invent new realms that you, as an adult, could never imagine.

Talk the talk. Getting children’s dialogue right is tough because you haven’t spoken like a child in decades (this statement excludes the way you text and talk to your dog…yes, you.). Take notes on the way different children speak to get a sense of what kind of dialogue is realistic, but don’t let your characters sound too “kiddie.” Make sure your child protagonists are realistic but also advanced enough thinkers and speakers to move the plot forward. Using children with wild imaginations or special talents often helps with this. Make your younger readers believe that kids can do more than just homework and play kickball, and they’ll jump at the chance to follow you down the rabbit hole, into space, or through the magic wardrobe to a fantastic new world.

(Reprinted from a blog I was asked to write for Abbott Press in 2012.)