Oh yes, I’ve been writing many years and it’s true: just as being a child is different from being an adult, writing for children is not the same as writing for adults. The literary tradition is different (Charlotte’s Web vs. Moby Dick) and thus, so is my writing style. The audience is different (8-year old vs. 40), and requires something different.
I call it The Halo.
Creative writers are benevolent beings. After all, they record the most important stories of our times, portray a diversity of life experiences, and add beauty to the world. Children’s writers also have the satisfaction of writing for these wonderful creatures–children. Trust me, when you’re telling stories for the most exuberant members of our society, you are awash in the golden glow of the Children’s Writer Halo. It is a warm caramel feeling.
But, the work is hard. If you’re writing your first book for children, buckle your seat belts and get ready for a fantastic ride.
Lanesha’s Tips for Writing Children’s Books
1. Be honest. Life isn’t always coming up roses, for them or for you. Kids aren’t afraid of the hard stories. They’re not afraid of sadness, fright, or death in their books. Don’t pretend the hard truths aren’t out there.
2. Look for beauty. Despite the hard truths, the world is a beautiful place, and kids are very aware of it. After all, everything is bright and everything is new when you’re young. E.B. White said: “All that I ever hope to say in books is that I love the world.” And of course, if the Shakespeare of children’s books did it, then you know it’s a good idea.
3. Read children’s Books. And I mean LOTS. You probably did take a children’s literature class to get that degree in English. Sadly, Children’s books are not a priority of the liberal arts curriculum. And anyway, you grew up. So many new books to explore! Close Wuthering Heights for now and pick up Peter Pan. You have some questions about how to get back to Neverland.
4. Spend time with children. Skype your six-year old nephew. Volunteer at the local library. Smile at babies. Recall the days when your children were young or stop to appreciate the days while they still are.
5. Eat chocolate. It’s okay, you’re a kid again! Writing sometimes calls for a little method acting. So spend a day sprawled on the couch with a book, oblivious to the world. Cannonball into the pool. Eat your ice cream with lots of whipped cream and sprinkles.
6. Know your character. If your character is a child, as in most children’s books, you must work extra hard to tell that child’s story. This is not the time to worry about your voice as a writer. Find the voice of your character, for only she can transport you to the world of childhood. She, not you, sleeps with a nightlight and worries about monsters in the closet. She, not you, wants more than anything to be the very best in Double Dutch! She, not you, worries about that bully at school. Whatever her hopes and dreams, they are the hopes and dreams of a child.
7. Follow the action and excitement! Camu’s L’Etranger doesn’t go over well with the under-sixteen set. Kafka’s Metamorphosis might be okay, if you trim some of that language down! Those sentences are like briar patches! For kids, cut through the winding clauses of existence. Childhood is a time for dinosaurs and space ships and action, action, action! This doesn’t mean what you’re writing isn’t profound. Let’s just say, in the world of children’s books, the most profound thoughts are often inscribed by a spider, or drawn with a purple crayon.
8. Don’t forget the dog! Is it a cliché, or an honored trope? Who cares, it works! Animals have a special place in children’s books since Aesop’s Fables. Check out my posts on the role of animals here.
9. Add humor. Humor is a weak point for me, but children’s books benefit from humor in a special way. Humor brings levity to dark events, and laughter is a huge part of childhood! Do you remember how you used to laugh until your sides split at sleepover parties? Do you remember how stairs were once meant for sliding down the rails? I’m not a naturally funny writer, but I think TaShon and his dog Spot (“why Spot?” asked the Lanesha, “he doesn’t even have any spots!”) brought a sense of the lightheartedness that marks the best of childhood, even when childhood is hard.
10. Delight in language. Turkish delight, anyone? Children’s books are full of beautiful description and language. Don’t ignore the details. Do make your words delicious. Some beautiful sentences:
“All worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.” –CS Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia.
“So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky.” –Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass.
“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” –Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting.
Well, that’s all for now, folks. There are no hard and fast rules for writing in any genre, but these are some of the useful tips I picked up while writing and preparing to write my first book for kids. Now I have a few questions for you:
1. What tip might you add to the list about writing for children? It may be something you’ve learned from reading or from writing. In any case, I’m eager to hear about it!
2. How many readers out there are currently writing for children, or interested in doing so? I ask because I’d like to know what content will be most useful to you on this blog! I can talk about writing till the cows come home. I’m also happy to talk about more amazing children’s books! In any case, thanks for reading Lanesha Says.