By Megan Burkhart a professional writing major at Taylor University
Writing for kids should be easy,
oh no it is not that breezy;
in fact you might just sound cheesy.
Writing is not lemon squeezy.
Cute little poem, right? Just throw some words together and make sure the ends rhyme. Create some cute characters and have them go on an adventure or solve a problem. 500-1,000 words. I can do that in my sleep.
If it were that simple, everyone could write a children’s book.
I think many writers develop this misconception that writing for kids is easy, when it’s really just as hard as writing a novel. How can this be so? Well, I have a few ideas, and having just written a children’s picture book manuscript, I can attest to the difficulty of not only writing for kids, but also finding a publisher/agent who will take it on.
1. Developing Characters
In writing a novel, we make every effort to know our characters inside and out. We know everything from their birthday to why they hate seafood (and we might even have an entire flashback dedicated to why they hate seafood). For children’s books, whether they rhyme or not, we need to develop authentic characters. And the characters must be kids. What do kids like to do? How do they think? How do they solve problems? We were all kids once, but it’s hard to remember what we were like as kids. It’s hard to put ourselves back into those shoes now that we have outgrown them. Just as in creating characters for novels, children’s books require in-depth character development too. The characters need to think, act, and sound like kids. They need to be believable, which is the goal for any fictional character. Can kids see a bit of themselves in the character, or is the character too mature and knowledgeable for the situation at hand?
2. Bringing Setting to Life
Setting should be a character in and of itself. The setting of a story should be dynamic; it should interact with the characters and not be a stagnant backdrop. Novel writers know this and take great care to know every corner of their make-believe world, sometimes drawing extensive maps. With a children’s book, we need to understand how kids see the world. Everything is new, exciting, and needs exploring. If the story takes place in the real world, it should, of course, stay true to the real world and how it works. But still be creative! In a fictional world, think of what would fascinate kids about it. Is there magic or special powers at work? Does the story take place on another planet, in space, or in another time? All of these elements are key in developing a setting that will invite the reader in and engage him or her throughout the entire story.
3. Establishing Voice
The tone we set in our story is critical in both novel and children’s writing. In a children’s book, we should not come off as patronizing or arrogant to kids. Just because we are wiser and more mature, doesn’t mean we should sound that way. Kids are more perceptive than we think. We need to put ourselves at a child’s level and tell our story in an animated and conversational way. Kids like to be treated with respect and feel that they are important. This is a hard balance to find, harder than it is in novel writing. Most people write novels to their own age group and establish a tone that is similar to their speaking voice, which their readers can easily understand and identify with. Writing for a different age group than our own is tricky. It requires seeing the story from a different perspective, and it requires us to tell it in a voice that is much different than our own. This is a challenge, but I guarantee it will grow your writing in ways you never expected.
The Crux of the Matter
I’m not saying one way of writing is better than another, nor am I saying one genre is better than another. There are challenges present in all kinds of writing. We should recognize and appreciate these challenges because they can only help us grow and mature as writers.
As I mentioned earlier, I recently finished a children’s picture book manuscript. However, I’m also working on a novel. For a period of time, I was feeling stuck in my novel, unsure of where I was going with it. So, I took a break and tried something new. When I finished the picture book manuscript, I realized it needed a lot of editing. In fact, I had to re-learn the rules of poetry. The rhymes in my manuscript did not follow the proper cadence or meter that makes the poetry flow like a song. This is a problem I never would have encountered in my fantasy novel. After writing and editing the picture book manuscript, I was able to come back to my novel with fresh eyes. I had revived my joy for the writing process.
Dr. Seuss once said, “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so … get on your way!”
Whatever mountain you are facing today in your writing, meet it head on with joy because your stories can only benefit from new challenges and perspectives.