Four Insights into Writing Children’s Literature

Contributing writer Savanah Burns wrote this post offering advice on writing children’s literature.

When it comes to writing “good” children’s literature, there are a few things authors have done well. First of all, the author needs to know their reader. Second of all, the author needs to successfully engross their reader in the narrative.

Why?

Today, children have consent to put books down. If the story, plot, or characters do not offer the reader an enjoyable experience, then they may set the book down. The chances of having that reader pick the book back up plummet.

Knowing one’s audience, incorporating hooks, establishing a voice, and handling big issues are all factors that writers come across while writing children’s literature. To do them well makes a difference.

#1 Know Your Audience: Middle Grade Fiction and Young Adult Fiction

Middle Grade Fiction

Middle grade fiction has an age range, length range, and trend in which point of view is used. The age range for middle school students is roughly 8 to 12-year-olds. These kids are smart, and they typically read two years above their own grade level, so try not to dumb things down.

By not over explaining an element, concept, or idea to one’s young audience, the author has more space to devote to their story. The typical space, or word count. of contemporary fiction is roughly 50,000 to 75,000. Whereas, fantasy typically runs 45,000 to 75,000 words.

Lastly, when it comes to point of view, there appears to be a trend where authors use third person omniscient for middle grade literature.

Young Adult Fiction

Respectively, young adult fiction also has an age range, length range and trending point of view. The age range is roughly 12 to 18 years old. However, the main character is normally 15 to 18 years old. These stories are normally told through first person, and the narrative emphasizes emotions.

The typical length of this contemporary genre is approximately 50,000 to 75,000 words, while fantasy is a little longer; 60,000 to 95,000 words.

No matter what genre you’re writing for, remember that length matters. If it’s too long it costs the publisher money.

#2 The Hook

The first ten pages of your manuscript matters. Within these pages, a reader will determine if they click with the narrative and characters. Try to use a hook at the beginning and end of your first chapters. An example of how to achieve this is the widely acclaimed trilogy, The Hunger Games.

A hook can be from someone’s backstory. However, an author may have more success engaging their reader if they bypass using the backstory for the first chapter. Instead, incorporate the backstory throughout the narrative, you know, where it seems necessary. Alternatively, let your backstory be an epilogue. This way a reader can choose to read it or not.

If the first chapter includes someone going through something dramatic or traumatic, perhaps consider adding a chapter or two before this one. The goal is to hook the reader in, and it is likely that if the stakes are too high before the reader has invested in the story and the characters, then the chances of losing the reader in the first chapter increases exponentially. Get the readers to invest in the narrative and characters before asking them to care.

Lastly, avoid cliché hooks. Some cliché language and scenes. Some cliché language includes common sayings or images. A few cliché hooks include checking the mail, a knock at the door, a ride in a car, getting out of a car, being startled awake, waking up in the middle of night, starting a story in a dream, etc. There are others, but these are the ones that come to mind.

#3 Voice

When a reader starts reading your story, the first page is critical. The first page should clue your reader in on who your character is. The exposition, narrative, and dialogue need to be accurate in reflecting the age and personality of your child protagonist.

In crafting an authentic voice, consider incorporating relevant, popular urban terms, or slang. When creating a description, avoid flowery language and lengthy durations. Children may not have the patience to read exposition. So, the reader might skim those portions.

Lastly, a child’s voice will not be overly simplistic. The risk of such an assumption is that the audience is insulted. Adult vocabulary does not need to be necessarily avoided. The trick is to use those words sparingly or to incorporate the meaning. So, if an author comes across a word they think the audience may not know, they incorporate the meaning in the next sentence, in the description, or through dialogue.

Overall, the point to take away is this: don’t assume the young audience won’t know how to interpret a word, a line, a moment, or the story. Let them figure it out. An author should be writing as though they know their audience can figure things out. Don’t speak down to kids!

#4 Handling big issues

Middle grade fiction and young adult fiction can offer children insight on how and how not to handle situations and big issues, such as injustice, inequality, abuse, death, loss, drugs, sexuality, identity, etc. without taking on an overly moral tone. Don’t talk down to kids. They know how complex this world is. They don’t just stress about school, friendships, family, who they like, who they are, they also stress about what is happening in this world. They see it on their phones, hear it from their parents, etc. But, those more mundane issues are topics they think about most of the time. My point is, you can incorporate a bigger issue and open a discussion about it with your readers.

Kids don’t necessarily need to be told what is right or wrong. However, they do need a place to explore the complicated morals and ethics that are related to “good” and “bad” situations. They need a place to think and feel.

While these aren’t end-all-be-all rules, these insights do offer information on the market for children’s literature, options on handling craft, and the experience offered to an audience. The author may want to consider who their audience is, what genre they fall in, what trends are present in said genre, as well as carefully craft their character’s voice and their hooks. Additionally, the author may need to contemplate what larger issues they’re story focuses on, as well as how they handle that issue. All of these aspects play into the audience’s experience, which is a vital key most writing. The success, however, is weighed on how well one handles their narrative and if a young reader keeps reading.

Texas Review Press hopes these insights help you as you continue your writing journey.

SAVANAH BURNS is a young poet from Huntsville. She studied English and History at Sam Houston State University, where she completed a short novella for her honors thesis. Her writing has been featured in Beacon, an undergraduate magazine, and HistoricalMX, an online historical journal. Her poem, “Starry Night,” won first prize in 2016 for a college and university contest held by The Academy of American Poets, which included an online publication. She is currently pursuing an M. F. A. in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry at SHSU. She is a new addition to the Texas Review Press as a graduate assistant, as well as a new addition to the Gordian Review as its poetry editor. She is excited for what lies ahead.

IMAGE by Daniel Cheung. Art available on Unsplash.

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