Young Adult & Children
Issue # 2: 03/01/01
and Using Language in Fiction
have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book
will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for
- Madeleine L'Engle
a rumor going around that writing for kids is somehow easier than writing
for adults. Well, Im here to tell you, it just aint so!
is writing, no matter what age the audience. Period. And if you think you
might like to write for younger readers because its simpler, or less
demanding, or easier to break into print, you really need to stop for a
moment and consider your motives. Writing for kids is a genre like any
other, with its own conventions and styles. In fact, it is more than one
genre. Its dozens, from First Readers up through Young Adult and all
points in between. And, like writing for adults, (as opposed to Adult
Writing, he says with a leer) for every age group there are sub-genres:
mysteries, adventure, science fiction, fantasy or romance. The
possibilities are endless, and they are just as hard to do well as their
adult counterpoints. Dont step into childrens writing because you
think its an easy way out.
on the other hand, you want to write for children because you have a story
that desperately needs telling, then by all means read on.
much difference is there between adult writing and
writing for children? In truth, very little. Of course, Im not
talking about restrictions or taboos. There are, and will always be,
certain things that arent permissible in a kids story. Yet, having
said that, if you are writing for Young Adults, the age group between 12
and 18, then all bets are off. Most subjects have, at one time or another,
been broached. In fact, one of the most popular genres in YA publishing
was, up until a few years ago, the problem novel, a book that
revolves around a specific issue, often sexual or drug related, and how it
takes over the protagonists life. These have fallen somewhat out of
favor, but it does illustrate how the thin the walls between Childrens
Lit and Mainstream Literature have become.
aside, as far as the actual nuts and bolts of childrens writing is
concerned, the stylistic differences between material for children or
adults are considerably smaller than most people would imagine.
Personally, I dont adjust my style at all when switching between
kids stories and adult ones. Sure, I might not swear in it, and there
probably wont be any steamy sex scenes, but the way I string my words
together doesnt change one whit. After all, its still the same 26
letters, still the same noun-verb/ subject-object relationship we all
learned in grade school. Writing is writing. Letters make words, words
make sentences. String enough of them together and you have a story.
Writing is a direct line from your imagination to the world, and it
doesnt matter whom you are writing to; in the end the basic tools
remain the same. Everything that lets someone in their twenties or
thirties or nineties enjoy a good yarn goes double for kids.
thing to keep in mind is that most kids read at a higher level than they
express themselves verbally. This is natural, and a big part of the
learning process. Just as adults like to be challenged by what we read, so
do kids. Young readers will work through a complicated sentence or
unfamiliar word as long as they are engrossed in the story. Ah, but how do
you keep their interest? The same way you keep any reader turning the
pages. Lots of action, plenty of good dialogue and strong description.
Avoid passive verbs like the plague. Dont waste time on meaningless
explanation. Jump into the story and keep it moving. Or slow it down and
paint something so wonderfully moody that it follows them not only home,
but for the rest of their lives. I remember reading Ray Bradbury when I
was in the sixth and seventh grades, utterly absorbed in the images he
painted. And I remember those same scenes to this day. The point is,
whatever story youre telling, make it count!
will find, as you read through material intended for different age levels,
subtle differences in style. A First Reader picture book is obviously
simpler in narrative than a middle grade adventure. The plot in the
picture book is short, straight forward and without adornment.
Characterization is accomplished as much by the illustrations as by the
writing. By the time a child is reading on his own, however, he wants
sub-plots and strong characters, protagonists he can identify with, and
problems that drag him into a story and never let go. Red herrings,
flashbacks, in fact, anything in your writers bag of tricks is fair
game in a middle grade or young adult novel. Dont hold back. Give your
descriptions life. Close your eyes when you start a scene and put yourself
inside your characters point of view. What do your surroundings look
like, really look like? Is it hot or cold? Is it raining, or is an August
sun beating down on your unprotected head? Use all the senses. Involve
thing I have discovered since I first started wasting ink: No matter what
age I was targeting, I try to write to an audience at least a few years
above that level. I found early on that I like writing middle grade
adventures. (Please, no jokes about my twelve year-old mentality -
theyre all true.) But since Im writing for a twelve year old
audience, I write about characters who are fifteen or sixteen. And I
write in a style appropriate for my teen-age protagonists, not my
adolescent audience. Why? Because no self-respecting sixth-grader will
read a story intended for fourth-graders, any more than someone in junior
high will read a novel written for kids in grade school. I didnt
realize this at first. In fact, it wasnt until I began selling stories
I had intended for teen-age consumption to magazines catering to much
younger children that it dawned on me. Its not enough to simply say
your protagonist is fifteen. You have to match his or her actions with the
storys tone and your own narrative voice.
you will use a word or phrase that is not, as one fine editor once pointed
out to me, kid-friendly. Normally you will pick these up during re-write,
especially if you are reading your stories out loud, a practice I highly
recommend. Sometimes, however, a word just seems to fit even though you
know in your heart its far above the reading level of your audience. My
advice, for what its worth, is leave it in, but be prepared to change
it if the editor asks you to revise. After all, she knows her readers
better than you can. Ive made a lot of revisions in the stories Ive
had published, and can honestly say, only once did I feel my choice was
better than the editors. And even then it was a judgment call, and as
he needed to make the change to suit the magazines format, I had no
is a huge part of childrens writing, as much as if not more so than in
material for older readers. But, especially in stories or novels intended
for younger grades, you may have to use more dialogue tags than sounds
natural, sometimes even including a he said/she said at the end of
each exchange. Of course you can still use a bit of action to set the
speakers apart, as long as your readers can keep clear in their minds who
is saying what to whom.
thing I have noticed in a lot of Childrens material is a heavier
reliance on adjectives than would be usual in mainstream fiction. This, in
my opinion, is a mistake. If something is bad writing for adults, its
bad writing for kids. Show action or description with strong words, not
adjectives and adverbs. Let your characters saunter across the room
instead of walk slowly. And be wary of stringing too many modifiers
together, the big red fuzzy dog with a big red empty bowl syndrome.
last point: although this may sound crass and commercial, keep in mind
that while you are targeting young
readers, the editor who will read your material first is very much an
adult. If she doesnt enjoy your style, she wont buy your story.
Sure, we want kids to read what weve written, but before that happens,
your precious manuscript must pass through the filter of at least one more
set of adult eyes. Try to make your writing work on different levels.
Challenge your readers. Challenge yourself. Throw yourself heart and soul
into your stories no matter what age group you want to reach.
all, isnt that what writing is all about?