Writing for Children: The Basics

Every genre brings its own unique set of writing challenges, as does every age bracket; whether adult, new adult, young adult, or children.  How does writing for children differ from writing for teens or adults?

[For the purposes of this article, I’m defining children as under 13.]

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Obviously there are many differences between writing for children and writing for older people but the biggest is style.  You can tell many of the same stories to a child that you would to an adult, but you’re going to tell it two different ways, so that not only is it age appropriate, but so it will make sense to the two different audiences and connect with each on its own level.

So what are some basic guidelines to writing books for children?

Define your motivation.
Write a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art form for the story you have to tell. ~ C. S. Lewis

Motivation is key to any kind of writing and as with any other story, the very first question you should ask yourself is: ‘Why am I writing this story?’  Follow it up with: ‘What is it about this story that makes it better for children as opposed to teens or adults?’  Is it the plot?  The characters?  The theme?

I don’t believe that you need a flashy or complicated answer.  ‘Because I want to write a children’s story’ is a perfectly valid reason but having a definite answer makes your writing process easier because it gives you a solid goal.  (And yes, ‘because I want to’ qualifies as a solid goal.  After all, why else do we keep writing?)

Perspective in children’s stories.
Our own childhood, as lived was immeasurably different from what our elders saw.  ~ C. S. Lewis

Think back to when you were a child.  You saw the world very differently from what you do now.  When children pick up a book, they don’t want to read an adult’s perspective of their world, they want to empathize with the characters, to read a book they completely understand because it shows them the world the way they see it, the way they think of it.  At the same time, it has to be tailored to what they like and can reasonably handle based on their mental and emotional state.  You wouldn’t hand a child a Stephen King novel or Dracula.  But neither are children stupid.  They understand more than some adults realize or remember from their own childhood.  Regarding elaborate plots, multiple main characters and a dozen subplots, pre-teens can often keep track of them better than adults, because they have less to occupy their memories.

As you write the story, keep a child’s perspective in mind.  Periodically take a step back and look at it through their eyes.  Put yourself into their mind and think they way they think.  Ask yourself: ‘Would I have liked reading this when I was younger?  Would my siblings have enjoyed this?  My friends?  Would children I know now like this?’  Use the understanding and knowledge that you’ve gained since leaving childhood to enhance that perspective, not change it.

A healthy imagination is vital.
Logic will get you from A to B.  Imagination will take you everywhere. ~ Albert Einstein

It is pretty much a given that if you write fiction, you have a working imagination.  (If there are any exceptions to the rule, I want to hear about them immediately that I can bombard you with scholarly questions.)  If you write for children, that imagination is even more important because you need it to see the world through their eyes.  When putting yourself into the mind of a child, give your imagination a fuller and freer rein than even writing for young adults.  Let it go out to the edges of the known universe and beyond.  Drift back to the days of your own childhood and try to remember your imaginary friends and worlds, your daydreams, the stories you told yourself to go to sleep at night or to get through hard times.

Your imagination is in its purest and most vivid state as a child, before it is tempered by the maturity that growing up brings.  So think back to that and give a child something to fire their imagination, not make them roll their eyes and dismiss a story as a fraud.  (Something I never did as a child, I can assure you.  Ahem.)

Focus most of all on telling a good story, no matter what your genre or target audience.
A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story. ~ C. S. Lewis

If you tell a good story, children and adults alike should enjoy it, no matter what your target audience is.  A children’s story is simpler than one written for adults and uses a different vocabulary but it should still have sound prose, characters, and themes.  Obviously children will enjoy it better, but adults should also be able to think it’s a good story and not stupid, inane, or propaganda.

I’ll be back on Monday to talk more about writing in general, and next Friday, I’ll discuss some don’ts in writing children’s fiction.  Until then, Merry Writing!

Have you written any stories for children or do you have any in progress?  I’d like to hear about them!

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