Writing Books for Children Is Not Easy
Seems like a crazy title from a writer whose fictional output to date has mostly been marketed as “for children” or been published in children’s magazines. I’d I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to write children’s books. My debut novel, “Beyond the Starline,” is categorized as Middle Grade adventure or sometimes early YA science-fiction, depending on which bookstore you find it in. And last year, I released the second book in that series, “The Island of Birds.” So yes, people will tell you that I have largely written for children.
Actually, I deny that. I roundly and vehemently rebuff the notion. And I’m not just trying to get rid of the competition! I’m serious. I mean I’m deadly serious. The worst thing any writer can ever do is to write for children, even if the best thing that can ever happen to a writer is for her to discover her work is read and enjoyed by children.
Let me explain.
I’m still astonished when I hear would-be writers telling me they think they’ll write a children’s book first because it will be easier than writing something for adults. They have know idea about how to write children’s books. I’m not going to claim it’s more difficult, because it needn’t be, but it sure as heck ain’t easier. Writing is writing and good writing is hard. It doesn’t matter what your genre, who your protagonist is, or who you imagine your readership to be, good writing is never easy.
I think anyone who imagines writing a book intended to be read primarily by children will be easier than writing one intended to be read primarily by adults isn’t fit for purpose and should have her pen, typewriter, word processor, or dictation software, confiscated with immediate effect. The only reason a person could think such a thing is because she has no understanding of storytelling or children. Do you think that’s harsh? Perhaps. But it’s about time the chips were down on this. Writers owe it to themselves, and we all owe it to our children, to clear up this dumb misunderstanding once and for all.
A True and Tragic Tale
Several years ago now, before I’d started to take my own writing seriously and was still working in theater and television, I was staying at a friend’s house in London where we were rehearsing. That evening we were all invited to dine with her and her family. We enjoyed an excellent dinner accompanied by some very fine wines, as I recall.
After the meal my friend’s younger sister, who at that time would have been in her early 20s, heard that I had been involved in script editing. She wanted to know if I would look at a book she was writing. “It’s nothing too serious,” she said, bashful. “It’s just for children.” I was too naive at the time to read the warning signs in those words and agreed to look over the manuscript for her. I didn’t expect her to produce it there and then. But she produced it seemingly from nowhere, as an old-time stage magician might produce a white rabbit from a hat. “I’d love to know what you think,” she said.
I was still a bachelor at that point, but I’d been working in children’s theater for several years by then and also managed innumerable storytelling workshops in schools and at children’s festivals. So I wasn’t wholly ignorant of what it means to engage children’s interest, to capture a child’s imagination and to enter into a creative dialogue with children. The rule was as simple then as it is now: remember that they are people first and foremost, and engage them directly, honestly and responsively as they are, as individuals and as a group. In short, treat them no differently than you would anyone else.
I attempted to politely refuse to look over the manuscript immediately, but for all that she claimed to be shy, the lady in question was quite insistent. So I took the sheets of lined refill paper which she had filled with tightly written prose in green ink, and began to read the first page. I can still remember the cold horror that closed over me as powerfully as any supernatural dread, when I realized everyone was now turned toward us and awaiting my professional pronouncement.
It was the most dreadful thing I’d ever read in my life. The sentences were well constructed; the grammar, the syntax, and the spelling all but perfect. There was even a discernible sense of the beginning of a reasonably developed story. But the writing expressed the horrible epitome of the sort of lazy, condescending tone used by people so detached from the reality of what they are doing, so completely insensible to the audience, and so thoroughly locked in to a caricatured, symbolic view of “the child” that the very best they can produce is an utter travesty.
Never, Ever, Write for Children
And that is what happens when people try to “write for children.”
No “special voice” is required, no dumbing down of vocabulary, no singsong condescension. That is not how to write children’s books. All that is required is to tell a story truthfully to the best of your ability. The style, the vocabulary, the structure, and the voice you use will be determined by the story you tell. If that story is one of interest to children, they will read it. If it is of interest adults, they will read it, too. You need only concern yourself with telling a good story well.
Rebel With a Cause
When I was at school we had a new art teacher who came to replace the one who had recently retired. This new teacher was extraordinary. He was big and scruffy, with a mop of tousled blonde locks and piercing grey eyes. He was unshaven, smelt slightly of alcohol and cigarettes, and had large, rough hands like those of a builder. He didn’t only teach art, but was a working artist who exhibited widely. The first day he came into our class he commanded our attention simply by the power of his presence in the room. “Who in this room,” he said in his booming voice before he had so much as introduced himself, “gives a flying fuck about art? I mean it. I don’t want any lies and I don’t want to waste my time. If you don’t care about art, get out now and don’t bother coming back.”
After the shocked silence there was an exodus. Three of us remained. Before he was expelled for malpractice we enjoyed three or four of the most productive, intensive, enjoyable, creative, and enlightening art lessons that it could be possible to have. I think I may have learnt more in that brief and magical period than I have ever learned before or since. And one thing I learned there in relation to visual arts I have found, extracting the core principle, useful in every aspect of my life and in writing no less. And it is this:
“The artist must know and show the truth. Nothing about art can be automatic. Nothing can be assumed. There can be no symbolic shorthand. The eyes must see what is truly there; pure, unfiltered by prejudice or expectation. It is not the paper, the canvas, or the application of the pencil, the pigment or the brush which matter; that is all technique, not art. The mind must be cleansed, disconnected almost, leaving the eyes free to see. Art is seeing. If I teach nothing else in these lessons, let me teach you to see.” – Don Christopher.
Don was the real thing. Little wonder they got rid of him. Apparently he was not the sort of teacher they wanted in that school. But for those three of us who stayed – I lost touch with the other two a long time ago – I think he will always be the teacher.
Tell the Truth and Don’t Talk Down
But wait a minute, what’s this got to do with not writing for children? Well you may have guessed it by now. It’s about truthfulness, it’s about honesty, it’s about unlearning the assumptions, the automated responses, the symbolic shorthand, going straight to what’s real. The same fundamental principle applies to writing as much as it applies to visual arts. And if it applies to writing then it most certainly applies to writing which might be read by children. As Leonard Cohen has said, “You don’t want to lie to the young.”
Famous Authors on How to Write Children’s Books
This has turned into quite a long post. I guess I’m pretty passionate about it. And I’ve waited until the end here to share a few quotations with you. I didn’t want to simply appeal to authority. I didn’t want you just to nod unconsciously in favor of these ideas because they had famous names attached to them. I wanted to make my case. I wanted to state my cause. I wanted to make my stand on behalf of good writing, on behalf of children who deserve good writing, and on behalf of writers who write works which may be read by children. But as we’ve got this far, let me show you I’m not alone in the way I think. Here are some quotations which might interest you. As you’ll see, I’m in quite good company.
“If the story I write turns out to be the sort of thing that children enjoy reading, then well and good. But I don’t write for children: I write books that children read. Some clever adults read them too.” – Philip Pullman
“I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’ I didn’t set out to make children happy or make life better for them, or easier for them.” – Maurice Sendak
Tolkien has pointed out that the idea of writing for children…
“…is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.”
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. … Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like – the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature – you’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.” – Neil Gaiman
“Where the children’s story is simply the right form for what the author has to say, then of course readers who want to hear that, will read the story or re-read it, at any age… I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” – C. S. Lewis
So, I think I’ll leave it there. In short, if you want to know how to write children’s books that children will want to read and enjoy reading, the rules and approach are no different, and no easier to master, than the rules of writing stories for anyone. Just write a good book and let the story demand the way you tell it, and anyone and everyone decide for herself if that’s the story she wants to read. It really doesn’t matter a squat how long it is since she was born.
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