Ten Myths About Writing for Kids
by Eugie Foster

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There are a lot of misconceptions about writing for children, some amusing and some surprising. In order to create appealing works for both young readers and editors, writers need to be able to separate truth from fiction. Here's a top ten list of some of the most prevalent myths:

1. Children's literature must be cutesy, and you shouldn't use hard words.

This is the most widespread misconception and also the worst one. Stop and think about the child -- you -- that urbane and discriminating young reader who thrilled your school librarian, exasperated your parents, or most likely did both simultaneously and interchangeably. That's who you're writing for. Children today are just as clever, discerning, and shrewd as we were, and with the addition of computers and the Internet, they're also worldly and sophisticated to an unprecedented degree.

Steer clear from twee language and baby talk, and never write down to children. Kids won't tolerate being patronized or condescended to any more than any self-respecting adult.

Moreover, writers should never underestimate the amazing and marvelous ability kids have to learn new words. Children are developmentally primed to acquire words with greater speed and efficiency than our poor, mature brains could ever hope to match. By age six, children have a vocabulary of around 14,000 words [1], having acquired an average of nine words a day during their preschool years [2]. During those formative years up through young adulthood, school-aged children will double that number [3].

So don't "dumb down" your writing. The best way for kids to expand their vocabularies is by encountering new words in an engaging context. It does a disservice to young readers, and to yourself as a writer, if you balk at challenging them.

2. All stories for children should have a moral or teach a lesson.

No one likes a soap box preacher; no one enjoys being lectured to -- and kids get subjected to it all the time from well-meaning parents and teachers. They're not going to enjoy reading a preachy story, much less seek one out.

As a writer, your first duty is to craft a good tale, one that's exciting and entertaining. If you must incorporate a moral, deliver it subtly, with a magician's slight-of-hand, not a sledgehammer. As with adult fiction, theme should arise via story progression and character conflict.

3. A kid's story can't have serious, weighty, or controversial subject matter; children have delicate sensibilities and must be protected from the scary world.

Unless they've been raised hooded and blinkered in a television-, computer-, and peer-free bubble, by the time they reach high school, children will have been inundated by sensationalized tragedy in the television shows they watch, extremes of violence in the video games they play, and blatant sexuality in the websites they surf. This wondrous age of fast-as-light communication and instant information has also banished the pastoral childhood of yore (if it ever truly existed) when children were brought up in ignorant bliss, shielded from the world's harsh realities.

Savvy publishers know this. Kids' books addressing once-taboo topics -- death and dying, physical illness and dementia, alternative lifestyles, divorce, drug use, and assorted -isms -- are popping up in bookstores, libraries, and schoolrooms. Contemporary editors are looking for manuscripts that handle difficult subject matter in realistic, sensitive, and affirming ways, stories that will help children cope with and understand the realities of the world they live in.

4. When things get too hairy, it's okay for my main character to get rescued by their parents/teachers/other adult.

While it's fine to have grown-up characters in your children's stories, don't be tempted to commit a parentis ex machina. Young protagonists, just like their older counterparts, must protag. They must succeed or fail as a result of their own efforts, without the interference or safety net of a godlike adult.

The best children's literature empowers young readers. By empathizing with heroes and heroines in conflict -- young people like themselves who confront and conquer obstacles -- kids come to understand that they too are capable individuals who can resolve real-life problems of their own.

5. Kids, editors, and the publishing industry love cute, talking animals.

Actually, they're pretty sick of them. Talking animals are the oldest hat in the old hat bin.

In general, writers should avoid chatty, anthropomorphized beasties. The notable exception is with folktales, which traditionally have speaking critters as protagonists. But even in this established talking-animal trope, the characters still need to be vividly three-dimensional.

Novice writers often don't realize that fuzzy and cute is not an excuse for flat and cliched. For readers (and editors) to empathize with animal characters, they must be as fully-realized as human ones, incorporating quirks, foibles, and genuine motivations.

6. A kid's story must always have a little kid in it.

While young protagonists are now mainstays in children's literature, kids won't read a story with a main character younger than they are. Write older. If your target audience is seven, make your hero nine, if your audience is fourteen, make your heroine seventeen. When in doubt, err on the side of older, more mature, and more sophisticated.

7. I should make my children's story rhyme.

Rhyming, alliteration, and rhythmic sentence structures are indeed appealing to young children, but it's a bad idea for beginning authors to try it.

Telling a story using verse is harder than telling one with prose. In addition to incorporating all the other elements of good writing, you must be able to maintain a consistent rhyming scheme without compromising the story and/or making awkward slips in tone and meter. This results in a disproportionate number of really bad compositions, and most editors will pointblank refuse to consider rhyming submissions.

If that doesn't deter you and you're convinced you have a Seussian knack for fresh, inventive rhyme and a sixth sense for meter, editors seeking verse (i.e. mass market publishers) don't normally get their material from submissions; they commission them.

8. I must illustrate/get an illustrator for my picture book manuscript.

Publishers usually assign illustrations either from their own in-house stable of artists or from a pool of freelancers that they've established a partnership with.

Unless you're also a professional artist with a stack of credentials, including artwork with a story submission is considered the brand of a rank amateur. And even if you are a pro illustrator, your technique may not be a suitable fit with a publisher's house style.

It's hard enough to write a good children's story, if you provide yet another element to be weighed and evaluated, you're essentially giving an editor another excuse to reject you.

9. I'm a parent, so I know how to write for kids.

Uh huh. Just like I've got a spinal cord, so that qualifies me to be a neurosurgeon. See #10.

10. Writing for kids is easy and a good way to get rich quick.

We've all heard it, the guy at the convention/party/PTA meeting who comments in an offhand way that sure, they could've written that best-selling picture book. Or the earnest young mother who plans to do a J.K. Rowling because, well, how hard can it be?

If anything, writing for kids is harder than writing for adults. It requires a confident and evocative style, expert pacing instincts, and a ruthless willingness to cut out any superfluous verbiage. Stringent length requirements -- typically 1500 words or less -- mandate that prose be tight tight tight, yet the story must still have a rich setting, appealing characters, legitimate conflict, exciting action, and a plot arc that results in a rewarding climax and resolution. In short, all the storytelling elements essential for compelling adult fiction at a fraction the length.

What's worse, competition is fiercer because of the prevalent belief that writing for kids is easy; everyone and their brother thinks they can do it. Consequently, more publishing houses, overcome by a groundswell of slush, are closing their doors to unsolicited submissions. This not only makes it that much harder for new writers, but it also puts greater pressure on the few publishers left who still accept manuscripts over the transom.

For the fortunate writers who have the talent, luck, or sheer cussedness to break into print, they will discover that publishing is an industry characterized by slow progress, mercurial tastes, and minimal pay. Magazines pay a few hundred dollars per story, sometimes with a several year lead-time between sale and payment. Picture books advances average between $2000-$5000, and advances for novels from first-time authors are not much more.

This is not the profession to get into if you're looking for am easy, lucrative, reliable income. Most writers have day jobs that pay the bills whether they write for kids or adults.

After debunking all those myths, it seems appropriate to offer up a bona fide truth in closing.

Fact: All writers are insane. If we didn't start out that way, the biz turns us into twitching, neurotic wrecks.

You might want to tell that to the next joker who insists writing for kids is easy.


[1] Whitehurst, G. J. (1982). Language development. In B. B. Wolman (Ed.), Handbook of developmental psychology (pp. 367-386). New York: Wiley.

[2] Clark, E. V. (1983). Meanings and concepts. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 3. Cognitive development (pp. 787-840). New York: Wiley.

[3] Berk, L. E. (1994). Child Development (3rd ed., pp. 363-368). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Copyright © 2006 Eugie Foster
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Eugie Foster is a short-fiction writer specializing in genre and children's literature. She has sold more than a dozen stories to the Cricket Magazine Group, including Spider, Cricket and Cicada, as well as to an assortment of other children's magazines including Dragonfly Spirit and Story Station. She holds an M.A. in developmental psychology, has co-authored a textbook on child development, and is a frequent speaker at Dragon*Con's Young Adult Literature Track. She is a member of the SFWA and managing editor of Tangent (http://www.tangentonline.com). Foster maintains a list of children's SF/F magazine markets at her website, http://www.eugiefoster.com.

 

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