Writing for Children: What NOT to Do

post-7-children-donts

There are pitfalls to avoid in every kind of writing, but for adults writing children’s fiction, there can seem to be more than in other types of writing.  Here are three major ones to avoid:

Moralizing
It’s a commonly held belief by some persons that ‘every good story should have a moral!’  I disagree, in part.  You don’t need to spend a lot of time and effort to make sure that your story has a moral.  If you tell a good story that clearly delineates between right and wrong, the morals will naturally exist.

[This was the fastest way to turn me off a book as a child.  I loathed stories that were nothing more than a cloak for a moral.  The more tattered and threadbare the cloak covering it, the more I detested it.]

Patronizing
Children hate it when adults are condescending to them.  Remember when you were a child and said or did something you thought was cool or smart, only to have an adult use that kind-but-superior tone of voice in response?  It’s annoying, angering, and sometimes even hurtful to a child.  Don’t talk down to kids.

[That was the second fastest way to make me put down a book as an 8-12-year-old.]

Gross Unrealism
Obviously, in a story geared for child readers or where a child is the main character, there will naturally be a greater emphasis on children as heroes.  But don’t go overboard.  My siblings’ least favorite type of book is what they call the ‘dime novel kid hero’ kind; where young people save the day by being smart while everyone else around them is extremely slow, dumb, or obstinate.

“Oh, no one in this castle believes me that there is this horrific enemy attack coming.  They all think I’m just babbling off the top of my head.  Why is it so unbelievable that I was hanging upside down practicing standing on my head and those two traitors just stood there and talked about their evil plans in front of me and didn’t notice me at all, even when I crashed to the ground in shock at what they said?  Well, since no one believes me, I’ll have to go to the capital and tell the king himself.  I just have to sneak out of this castle that is teeming with guards and people everywhere, travel fifty miles on my own, riding the fastest horse from the stables even though I’ve only ridden ponies before this, arrive at the king’s castle, demand to see him, his multitude of guards will take me to him at once because they will see at a glance how important this is, he’ll listen to me, give orders to prevent the attack and then cover me with riches, glory and honor, and the hand of his cute daughter- once we are grown-up, of course.  Oh, and did I mention I’m only TEN YEARS OLD?”

Write child heroes but don’t do so by sacrificing the intelligence of the adult characters.

Yes, children can be heroic and WILL be, when the occasion arises.  But write it realistically.  Kids aren’t stupid.  They want someone to idolize, to look up to, someone they can hero-worship.  Give them good heroes over gross exaggeration and ridiculously improbable scenarios (obviously this doesn’t apply to nonsense stories) and they will thank you for it; if not now, then someday down the road when they realize how those stories impacted them.

In conclusion, if you want to write stories that appeal to kids, try to steer clear of these.  If you don’t care that kids will be offended and/or irritated and decide you’re going to write your story any old way you want to, go ahead.  You’re a writer, you can do that.  But, you miiiiight want to reconsider actually selling any books.  Just a suggestion.

Next Friday: some tips on writing heroes and villains in childrens’ stories.  Until then, Merry Writing!

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4 thoughts on “Writing for Children: What NOT to Do

  1. noliealcarturiel says:

    Patronizing grown-ups annoy me to no end, not only in writing but in person. Even now that I’m well on the legal-adult side of age, they annoy me, especially when I see grown-ups talking down to children, and remember how it felt. I’ve long said I will never do that. Lewis didn’t talk down to his audience in the Chronicles of Narnia, and his example is worth following (though not copying, of course).
    But moralizing tales are probably the most aggravating of the three flaws you listed. When I was quite small we had a rule that whatever we read on Sunday afternoons had to be a certain kind of book, which usually fell into the moralizing side of things. That rule, I found out, wasn’t very strictly enforced, and it was only officially in place for a few years. But most “Sunday books” didn’t seem to realize that children can see such things, and they don’t like being preached at. If I’m going to read a story ,give me a story! Don’t falsely advertise a sermon as a story in hopes that it will draw me in. We’re more observant than the writers tend to give us credit for, I think.
    One of the worst things about gross unrealism is that, in order to compensate for the hero’s age, the villains are usually no serious threat at all. This doesn’t make the hero look good; the way to do that is give them a foe who’s formidable in his own right.

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    1. intuitivewritingguide says:

      They annoy me, too, and being patronizing is one thing I’ve also tried hard to avoid in my dealings with children in my adult years.
      Precisely! Moralization set my teeth on edge then and continues to do so now. (Elsie Dinsmore, anyone?)
      I agree with you about villains often being no real threath and it’s frustrating. I’m planning to tackle that subject next Friday.

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