The Children’s Writer’s Biggest Challenge — How to Write a Child-Centred Story
Why you won’t get your children’s story published until you can achieve this
“I’d love to write a children’s book.” I hear people say this a lot, and I see many different kinds of manuscripts as an editor and critique. A majority are picture books, but I also critique novels for different ages. The one issue I see with most of them is that the perspective or tone of the story is too “adult”.
This is a fault (I use the word “fault” to mean that it’s a barrier to publication) that can be hard to pin down or explain. We were all children once, but not everyone remembers their childhood in a way that can be recreated in children’s books. Most adults tend to write children’s stories in one of two ways. They either try to write the kinds of books they loved as children, or they try to write a story based on their idea of what a child is like. Neither approach gets inside a child’s perspective or world view in a way that will engage a child reader.
Kids are clever. They can sense being talked down to, or lectured to, and they can sense an adult “faking it” on paper within a couple of pages. They might not be able to say why they don’t like a story, but it’s usually the tone or voice. On the other hand, one of Australia’s most popular writers, Andy Griffiths, is revered by kids because his stories are ridiculous and silly and hilarious. He gets it.
You want contemporary, not nostalgia
It’s great to keep the books you loved as a child — and indeed, publishers are reprinting old classics all the time. But they are classics, and they have their own market (often adults feeling nostalgic and astonished that their own kids or grandkids don’t feel the same love). But if you try to write now like C.S. Lewis or Frances Hodgson Burnett or L. Frank Baum, you won’t get far at all. There are certainly writers publishing children’s novels that look old-fashioned, but you will find the voice and the point of view has changed.
Point of view? Most of those classics were written in third person omniscient, which means we hear and see everything and are told every character’s thoughts and emotions. It’s a distancing point of view, sometimes called “Eye of God”. More and more now, kids want to read stories that are in first person and, if not, a very close third person. They want to engage closely with the main character and feel part of the story.
You’d be right if you were wondering about the influence of role-playing video games, but it’s not just that. It’s about living in a more connected/disconnected world, and wanting to escape into a fictional world. Hence all those children who longed with such a passion to be at Hogwarts, and be friends with Harry, Hermione and Ron. Intimate point of view in a story works.
Voice is all-important
But with that intimate point of view from the main character comes voice and world view. The voice you don’t want in your story is twee or cutesy, or overbearing and know-it-all. I’ve read them all, and I understand the writers have no idea that’s what they’re doing. They’re writing from their heart, for goodness sake! But it’s the heart of an adult, one with best intentions, yet adult nevertheless. Unfortunately, agents and editors can also spot this voice a mile away.
So how do you work on voice?
Firstly, by spending a LOT of time with the kids of today, in the age group you are writing for. If you want to write picture books, you have to spend time with groups of little kids, under five years old. In my classes, I often get most of the students to sit on the floor, and then the rest of us walk around with our purses and backpacks swinging. The people on the floor suddenly understand what the world looks like when you’re three or four years old and mostly what you see is people’s knees and bags.
If you don’t know kids this age, you can hang out at your library at Storytime (probably explain to the librarian you’re a writer!), or even volunteer to read. Volunteer at a kindergarten. Spend a little time at the park or in the toy department. Listen and observe.
With older kids, you can volunteer at your local school to help with reading in the classroom, or maybe a group like scouts or girl guides. My local shopping mall or fast food outlet is perfect. There are lots of ways to simply “be” with kids — try to avoid interviewing them though. It’s not as natural as observing and listening.
By the way, if you’re a teacher or you have kids, you no doubt already know this stuff! But getting it on the page with the voice working is still your challenge.
How do you improve and strengthen voice?
By reading. Read as widely as you can. When my students started my picture book writing course, their first requirement was to read at least 50 picture books, and then read more. Good contemporary ones, mainly, not TV or movie tie-ins. The same with novels. If you want to write for middle grade, you need to read everything from Wimpy Kid and Rick Riordan’s myth-based series to all the winning and honor Newbery books from the past ten years.
As you read, think about voice and character, how they work on the page. Do some analysis of language, word choice, dialogue and direct thoughts. What do they all show you? Go back and read the first few pages of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, for example, and compare it with what’s being published now. More importantly, compare with the most popular books, not just the award winners. Andy Griffiths has never won the big children’s literary award in Australia, but he wins the children’s choice awards year after year. And sells millions.
If you want to write for young adults? It’s exactly the same, only more so.
You have to transport yourself to inside the head of a child of the age you want to write for, and write through their thoughts and emotions. But more importantly, through their understanding of the world. For example, a 12-year-old knows when their parents are fighting that divorce is possibly on the horizon. We can imagine their fear, their distress and how they feel about what they are experiencing.
What a child won’t feel or analyse — because they’re a child
What we won’t see is them reasoning like adults about the outcome, apportioning blame like adults do, and probably not asking their best friends what they think. The child is actually more likely to feel as though they are somehow to blame. When you can imagine yourself inside that child, experiencing in that way, with their world-experience limitations, you’re on the right track. Here’s where personal experience can play a genuine part, too, if you can really take yourself back to what happened. Free writing about it can pull out powerful memories to use in your story.
There’s no magic wand you can wave to get perspective, voice and tone more child-centered. But observing, listening, engaging, and deep reading will take you a long way towards it.