What distinguishes writing for children from other kinds of writing?
Many people think it involves writing about children or childhood, and most good children’s writing does feature both in some way. And of course, there’s a clue in the phrase itself – writing for children – in one sense it’s any piece of writing in which an author decides to address a child audience or readership. But there’s rather more to it than that.
It’s probably easiest to understand what constitutes real writing for children with a concrete example. Here’s a description of a familiar scene from school life, children arriving in the playground in the morning:
Miss Jones stood watching the children as they came through the school gates. Some ran in and found their friends quickly, with barely a look behind them at their mothers. But one or two slipped in and stood in the corners uncertainly. Miss Jones was particularly worried about Scarlett. She had a feeling the poor girl was having real trouble settling into the school. The last thing she wanted was a serious bullying problem…
This might seem the beginning of an ideal children’s story. It’s set in a school, after all, and we can see that a child character (Scarlett), might be suffering, so already there’s conflict, and an adult character (Miss Jones) keen to do something to help her. But compare that passage to this:
Scarlett took a deep breath and walked through the school gates, her skin prickling with the fear she felt. Mum said goodbye, but Scarlett barely heard her. She had left the safe world of home behind, and now the only thing that mattered was getting through another day. Scarlett saw Miss Jones smiling at her, but she didn’t smile back. The last thing she wanted was the other kids to think she might have told a teacher something…
The second paragraph describes exactly the same scene as the first one, but there’s one vital difference. It’s told from the child’s point of view. And that’s what matters. Most true writing for children has children or young people as its central characters, ie the characters the story is about, the protagonists, and the story is told from their standpoint, with adults as secondary characters, however important they might be to the plot.
You can substitute animals for children as your characters, or fairies, or mythical creatures. But even in ancient myths or fairy tales most of the great stories thought of as being for children have young or vulnerable or powerless central characters. Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel… In ancient Greek mythology, Jason, Theseus and Perseus are seen as young people striving to fight against older men who have stolen their birthright, or threaten them in some way.
Writing from a child’s point of view implies that you should have some understanding of how children see the world. We have all been children, but it’s easy to forget what it feels like to be powerless and vulnerable in a world controlled by capricious giants. Or what it feels like to be an adolescent grappling with physical changes and the emotions they bring.
The best children’s writers seem to be able to tap into those feelings at will, and tell stories in which children do manage to survive and flourish. Think of Roald Dahl’s stories, Jacqueline Wilson’s J.K. Rowling’s – all of them about young characters dealing with the mayhem of adults in one guise or another. In that sense all true children’s writing is subversive of the adult world. In our examples, see the differences between an adult who wants to stop someone being bullied, and a child who can’t talk to her teacher about it because it goes against the playground code. That’s writing for children, and tackling a major issue of childhood as well.
Many people who want to write for children worry about this. But it is possible to think yourself back into childhood, and access your own memories and feelings, all of which will help you and may even give you ideas for stories. You could also learn through observation of children in your own family, or by reading about children and child development. The most important thing is not to write down to children, ie patronise them, or preach to them about ‘issues’, whatever they might be. Children recognise that kind of thing immediately in a story and it turns them off.
People who want to write for children also worry that they have to write in a certain way, ie with specific vocabulary for certain age levels. It’s obvious that young children might not understand dense, sophisticated language or complex ideas. The general rule of thumb is a very simple one – the younger the child, the more simply and directly you should write for them. But there’s no need to write simplistically like an old-fashioned Janet and John reader. Children love language and language play, and even very young children enjoy writing that stretches them. It’s certainly not something that should stop you writing for children.
Childhood is a fairly well defined period of life, from birth to some time in the teenage years. Publishers have tended to arrange it into specific categories by age, and divide their output up accordingly:
Books for babies: board books, very young picture books and novelty books, mostly with no text or very simple texts. Often based in nursery rhymes, games, simple recognition and fun.
Picture books: In the UK, generally considered to be for toddlers and pre-schoolers, almost always 32 pages with short texts. Some as little as 50 or 100 words, the average around 400-500, top end up to 750-800 words. Themes of young family life, common fears, first experiences.
Books for beginner readers: traditionally dominated by educational publishers and ‘reading schemes’, now covered very well by mainstream publishers, often with series of books ‘graded’ at various levels: 1000 word for children just taking their first steps in unassisted reading, 2000 words for more fluent readers, 2500-5000 words for children moving from infant to primary. These books are always illustrated, and authors usually work closely with editors and reading consultants. School stories, simple fantasies, early intimations of a bigger world and deeper feelings.
Fiction 8-12: from simple ‘novels’ of 8-10,000 words to trilogies of enormous size, this is the age for the classic children’s story book – Tom Sawyer, The Hobbit, early Harry Potter, Jacqueline Wilson’s novels. All the great themes of fiction and then some, with particular emphasis on themes of growing up, finding out who you are, dealing with problems imposed on children by the adult world. There’s a sense that there’s less of this kind of material – certainly of good quality – coming through than publishers would like and could sell – a definite gap in the market!
Young adult/crossover: the category that seems to be attracting a lot of the talent and most of the marketing money. The success of fantasy in particular – Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc. – and the proliferation of Hollywood movies based on children’s books has focused a lot of attention on this area. Editors and agents are always saying that the fantasy bubble has burst, but it seems as big and bright as ever. The success of teen stories like Louis Sachar’s Holes and others show that there’s still market for realism, especially if done in an original way. Themes of growing up, identity, striving to find a place in the world.
There are other opportunities in children’s writing – a thriving poetry scene for children, animation scripts, some TV writing – and on the whole writing for children is a very vibrant part of the creative world. Anyone who wants to write for children would be well advised to spend as much time as they can in libraries and bookshops familiarising themselves with current and past output.
Tony Bradman has been involved in the world of children’s books for nearly 40 years. He has written for children of all ages, edited many anthologies of stories and poetry, and taught creative writing to both adults and children. He regularly visits schools and appears at the major literary festivals. He also reviews children’s and YA fiction for The Guardian. You can visit Tony's website or follow him on Twitter here.