Yvonne Coppard, author and creative writing teacher, shares her advice on writing for children and discusses the importance of knowing your audience.
You have reached the final draft of your children’s book when someone asks what age you are writing for. What do you answer?
If you answered a, b, or c, chuck it away and start again. If you said, ‘None of the above; I am writing for children aged 8 – 12 ‘(or ‘a picture book for Under Fives’, or ‘a Young Adult novel’, or…) award yourself a smug smile and a chocolate treat.
I am sometimes disappointed, when I teach on creative writing courses, by a student who has launched into writing for children with no idea of who the audience actually is. The answer to the question, ‘Who are you writing for?’ is as essential to successful writing as yeast is to bread. If you want your story to rise, gather the right ingredients together at the start of the recipe.
Adults come in different shapes and sizes, with a huge variety of interests, desires and life histories. Presenting an audience of fanatical romantics with a Sci-Fi trilogy portraying the rise and fall of a complex alien race would not be a good idea – common sense tells you that (hopefully). Children also come in different shapes and sizes etc., but they are a much more complex audience to get right because they are, well, children. They remain children for 18 years, technically, and in that time they go through several metamorphoses. In terms of books, they start with a preference for chewing, rather than reading. They move on to being able to hook and net the odd word as it floats by the pictures. Phrases, then sentences, begin to emerge and make sense. Finally, comes the dawn of a joyful realisation that they can read, all by themselves.
What you have is a potential life-long reader in embryo, and the responsibility is huge. You do not want to be one of the writers who puts a child off. Now is the time to grab the attention with a story that draws the reader in, excites the imagination and builds on a growing understanding of life and the other creatures who share it, in all their weird and wonderful incarnations. Younger readers often need to be helped along a bit by shorter length stories, direct and vivid language, plots that they can identify with and make sense of. For an older child, this sort of story might be discarded as ‘babyish’, embarrassing to be seen with, unworthy of their growing maturity and understanding. So, the Infant gives way to the Junior, then the Pre-teen, Teen, and finally the Young Adult, where almost no holds are barred. But what children universally demand from their fiction at each stage of this amazing journey is that it provides a companion, someone like them, who can entertain and occasionally help them interpret the world as it enlarges.
The demands of writing for children are heavy, but the rewards are great. The enthusiasm with which child audiences respond to their favourite stories and writers; the loyalty and engagement; the unexpected insights; the QUESTIONS they ask, and their scorchingly honest appraisals of your work will be unmatched anywhere in the adult fiction world. They deserve respect, and they deserve authors who are prepared to put in the groundwork and don’t see children’s books as the easy option, or a stepping to stone to something else. Here a few tips to get you thinking.
Once you have your story idea, AND you know what age range you want to write for, spend some time reading. Look at book reviews for that age group, including those written by children themselves. Haunt the library, have a look at the books in your age range that are checked out the most often. Take every chance you can to read with or to young children, or discuss with older children what they are reading and what they think of it, and why. Read successful, best selling books AND books which have not done well; read books you love and keep going with books you hate: both can teach you about what kind of writer you are, what age-group best suits what you want to write; what works, and what doesn’t.
Be careful with language. Match your vocabulary to the age and experience of the child – but don’t patronise. Children and teenagers have antennae for that sort of thing, and will drop your story like a stone. Avoid up to the minute slang and ‘in’ expressions; they will be ‘out’ before your book reaches the final edit.
Spark the imagination with a plot that draws a reader in from the start. Pose a mystery that needs to be solved or show a character in a tricky situation. I was once given a draft novel for children whose central character was a keen, elderly gardener. It was full of information drawn from the author’s own extensive horticultural expertise. It didn’t appeal. That might seem blindingly obvious – but you can easily be carried away by your own special enthusiasms and completely forget your audience.
Finally, although you are writing for children, they are unlikely to be the ones shelling out the cash. If a parent, relative, teacher or librarian thinks your book is unfit for children, s/he won’t buy it and children won’t read it. There may be a bit of a clandestine market among older children for ‘forbidden’ books, and but it’s not usually enough for an author to count on. Once you are established - famous, even - you can try pushing out the boundaries with an outrageous or controversial book, if you want to. Until then, you can still write cracking good stories that engross and entertain your audience without freaking out the gatekeepers.
So, time to make a start….
Yvonne Coppard worked as a secondary school teacher, child protection adviser and foster parent before establishing her career as a writer. She writes both fiction and non-fiction and has been a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at Anglia Ruskin and Essex universities.Yvonne was a contributing writer to the BBC children’s series, The Wild House and also wrote a spin-off novel for Channel 4’s cult teen drama series, As if. Her latest book is Writing Children’s Fiction: a Writer’s and Artists’ Companion, co-written with Linda Newbery.