Writing for children can be incredibly hard; they are an unpredictable audience, unsure of their preferred genre, and extremely harsh critics. Stories have to be exciting, with colourful characters (and perhaps even more colourful illustrations!) with a pace that can keep hold of a little one’s ever-distracted attention. In my time spent writing children’s literature – in particular, children’s chapter books aimed at readers aged around six and above, I have learnt a lot about children’s likes and dislikes, what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to plot and pace, and so on, and whilst I am most certainly not now an expert, I would love to share my experiences. So here are my top tips when writing for children.
Before I started writing anything, I read a lot of children’s chapter books that I thought might be similar in style to how I would write my own children’s stories. This research was invaluable and gave me insight into the tone, pace, structure and style of chapter books aimed at the same age group I was aiming at.
DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE CHILDREN
Just because you are writing for a younger audience does not mean that you should underestimate their intelligence or ability to understand certain terminology or concepts. Using overly simple, silly language is not necessarily the way to grab a child’s attention (particularly those who are at the stage of reading chapter books), and neither is making the text too complicated or difficult to read! It is important to strike a balance and ensure that you use clear, sharp, precise language whilst not undermining a child’s ability to understand a colourful description. Keep it simple but do not be afraid to explore adjectives and descriptive language.
Following on from the above, children are incredibly visual and it’s imperative that they are able to visualise the story you are creating for them in their minds – or else they will become bored very quickly. A child’s imagination knows no bounds and you can really go to town when it comes to writing for children without restricting yourself in any way. Something that might make absolutely no sense in an adult book will most definitely appeal to a child. Don’t be afraid to liken the blue of the sea/sky to the blue residue left on your tongue after demolishing a bubblegum flavoured ice-lolly.
Even if your story revolves around a more realistic situation like a child whose parents are divorcing, (for example Jacqueline Wilson’s books depict a girl in a foster home) rather than fantasy (think ‘The Faraway Tree’), you can still inject humour, subtle comedy and light-hearted elements. You don’t have to set an incredibly serious tone in a child’s book even if the subject matter reflects life’s hardships.
USE SCARY ELEMENTS
In my experience, children love stories about ghosts, ghouls and zombies – depictions that in an adult book might be really quite graphic. Children can be shockingly fearless and whilst they may run and hide at the sight of an adult dressed as a monster, written in a book they will lap it up. You can use amazing descriptive language to depict scary characters and this can be reflected in any supporting illustrations. Even if your book is about ponies and princesses, you can always inject a bit of shock factor (perhaps the princess falls off the pony into a muddy ditch surrounded by quick-sand!), which is sure to keep the young reader on tenterhooks!
AVOID SILLY LANGUAGE
As we discussed earlier, children may be young but their intellectual ability should not be underestimated, and the best way to expand their vocabulary is by reading and learning new words. There are many popular kids’ books out there that do use silly language (like ‘The Dinosaur that Pooped the Bed’), most of which are picture books and aimed at very young children. However, when you are writing a chapter book, any comedy value from the continual use of the words ‘poo’ and ‘bum’ will diminish very quickly, and you may find that parents find it incredibly annoying and demeaning for their young readers!
KEEP THE STRUCTURE SIMPLE
A beginning, a middle, an end, and a climax somewhere is the most simple formula for a children’s chapter book. In my opinion, you really don’t need lots of subplots – you might have the odd twist, but you don’t want the structure to be so complicated, that the child loses where they are. With picture books the structure would be very basic, in a chapter book the characters might be on a quest, and on their journey they might pick up little extra twists to the tale on the way, resulting in various consequences when they reach their destination. As for different timelines (like in adult books where they start in the present and go back and forth between a narrative from someone in the past) – I would generally avoid.
THINK AHEAD FOR A POTENTIAL SERIES
If a child loves a book they will inevitably want to read more from the same author, so it’s worth thinking about whether your story could continue into a series. If we use the Harry Potter books as an example, the first book was fairly simple – Harry Potter goes to wizarding school, makes lots of friends and learns some spells, defeats one of his tutors who is being leeched on by Voldemort, and saves the day. It was only in the later books that the story grew ever more complicated and far more graphic, appealing to older children who were growing up as Harry Potter did in each book. It’s best to start off your series with a simple plot to reel readers in, and you can always make things more complicated later on.
THINK OF THE PARENTS
Bear in mind that a lot of parents might be reading either to or with their children – even if the child can read by themselves, they may well read parts of it with a parent or in school. If the book is sooooo slow and dull, the parent will no doubt make their feelings known to the child, perhaps by their tone of voice or expressions when reading the book, or simply by saying it loud! Children’s books can often be read several times over (especially if a child is very young!) and we should bear in mind that it may well drive a parent crazy. So keep things family friendly but interesting too if possible!
LET YOUR IMAGINATION RUN WILD
Let’s face it, a children’s book DOES NOT need to make sense. Did walking through a wardrobe into the land of Narnia make any sense? No! But C.S. Lewis still inspired millions of children and adults alike with his tales of the Chronicles of Narnia. There does not need to be a reason and rhyme for everything (or anything!) in a child’s book. The wonderful thing about writing a children’s book is that you are targeting an audience who have an innocent mind and a completely blank canvas for you to paint on with your words. A child will not question why a character is walking through a wardrobe, whereas an adult might definitely be criticising such actions! Just run with your crazy ideas and don’t look back.
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So there you go! If you are a children’s writer please do add any of your tips in the comments below but always remember there is never a one-size-fits-all when it comes to writing for children, so just enjoy the ride!
You can check out my children’s book series by clicking on the image below!