Writing for children presents a different set of challenges for the author struggling to reach a target audience. Not only must you create an engaging storyline and interesting characters, you have to take the comprehension and literacy abilities of young readers into account: Is this word too hard? Is this sentence too complicated? Will they be able to understand what I mean if I use a metaphor?
Submissions guidelines provide an age range, but for most children's writers, eight or four or eleven was a long time ago. Although you may have no trouble recalling what your favorite authors and storybooks were at that age, remembering what vocabulary words you knew, or how complex the prose was in those cherished stories is another matter.
To familiarize themselves with what's appropriate for youngsters, writers can reread classics, study newly-popular children's works, and hang out with kids--all good ideas for anyone who wants to write for young readers--but it also helps to have a basic understanding of a few developmental milestones.
The youngest audience--infants through preschoolers--is known as pre-readers. Publications that target this age group (e.g. Babybug, Ladybug, Turtle, baby books, and toddler books) are composed of material meant to be read aloud to a child by a parent, teacher, or older sibling.
Text for pre-readers must be short, concrete, and sensory, and often has rhymes, alliteration, and other rhythmic compositions. However, just because how you write needs to be short and simple, it doesn't necessarily mean what you write should be. Children as young as three have displayed a grasp of metaphor, both applying and understanding it. They use it to bridge the gap between words they know and ones they don't (e.g. "fire engine in my tummy" to describe a stomachache ). Nevertheless, if writers use metaphors for pre-readers, they must be tangible and salient, referring to sensory objects (e.g. clouds are pillows, leaves are dancers) . Pre-readers are not yet able to understand that words can have multiple meanings in a context, as in the case of riddles and puns. It isn't until around third grade (ages 8-10) that they have the lexical flexibility to appreciate that variety of humor.
At this stage of development, children are acquiring vocabulary words at a phenomenal rate. By the time they enter school, they will have amassed about 14,000 words . During the pre-reader years, children learn an average of nine new words a day . Most of these are object words ("mommy," "book," "kitty") and action words ("up", "bye-bye"). State ("big," "mine"), personal-social ("no," "want," "thank you"), and function words ("where," "is") make up a much smaller percentage of their repertoire . Word acquisition slows when children reach elementary school, but it is still a marvelously efficient process. During the school years, from elementary school to young adult, the number of words in children's vocabularies doubles, exceeding 30,000 .
As such, writers shouldn't shy away from introducing less-frequently encountered words no matter what age they're writing for. Children are primed to acquire new words, often only needing a single exposure to learn them, a process called fast mapping . It is far better to challenge young readers and pre-readers than to sell them short.
When a child begins school--kindergarten or first grade (ages 5-6)--they are typically emergent readers, on the cusp of becoming readers. Publications for emergent readers (e.g. Humpty Dumpty, Wee Ones, early picture books) are also intended to be read aloud, but with children being a part of the process and not just passive listeners--pointing to words and reading along with a teacher or parent.
At this age, children know the letters of the alphabet and understand the basic elements of written narration: beginning, middle, and end; main plot events, and cause and effect. They enjoy hearing stories, can often recite their favorites from memory, and use pictures to both interpret story elements and predict what will happen .
Vivid settings, dynamic characters, and interesting topics are essential components of stories for emergent readers. Writers should focus on a familiar or appealing subject, and use short, primarily high-frequency, concrete words in short sentences--one idea per sentence . And of course, do it all with a tone that isn't artificial or contrived. Again, rhyming and repetitive compositions are popular with this age group, but writers need to avoid stale, flat reiteration structures and do their best to come up with fresh, lively rhymes and alliteration.
Children in first and second grades (ages 6-7) are usually early readers. They can read and sound out simple words as well as understand what they read. Publications for early readers (e.g. Children's Playmate, Know, Spider, early chapter/transition books) are characterized by an "easy-to-read" style, but can have less predictable language patterns with longer sentences, some simple dialogue, and more complicated elements of plot, central theme, and setting .
By the end of second grade and into third (ages 7-8), children usually become fluent readers. A fluent reader is able to read stories on their own, and is adept at using strategies to figure out pronunciation and meaning.
This stage heralds the start of the "sweet spot" of children's literature with the majority targeting 7- to 12-year-olds (e.g. American Girl, Boys' Life, Cricket). This is the realm of the chapter book (ages 7-10) and the middle-grade novel (ages 8-12). Topics and subject matter can extend beyond a child's range of knowledge, sentences can be longer and more complex, composite story elements--sub-plots and secondary characters--can be introduced, and themes can be more sophisticated.
Beginning at around fourth grade through sixth grade (ages 9-11), children can appreciate more subtle character elements such as quirks and motivation. At this time, they are going through many profound physical, cognitive, emotional, and social changes. They have a heightened awareness of gender--theirs and their peers--with the corresponding social expectations regarding gender roles and identities. As their reasoning and critical analysis abilities mature, they start developing an interest in social and cultural issues.
From sixth grade through the beginning of high school (ages 11-14), youngsters acquire the ability to reason abstractly and can appreciate such complex literary devices as irony, analogy, idiom, sarcasm, and allegory [2,9]. More convoluted plot elements such as subplots and red herrings become appropriate.
The end of this period ushers in the beginning of the young adult literary classification--publications appropriate for 12-year-olds and older (e.g. Breakaway, Cicada, Odyssey). YA stories and novels are effectively on the same technically mature level as works for adults, with the differences being primarily in length (shorter) and theme--maintaining a focus on the issues and concerns relevant to teenagers.
As with all generalizations, individual developmental differences can vary widely. Some children's publications target a specific developmental range within a given age span. Markets like Aquila gear their content towards more gifted readers, others, like Our Little Friend and Primary Treasure (which state in their guidelines the editorial philosophy that "children are not growing into better readers . . . Stories that today's adults read as children are too difficult for many children today," ) are undoubtedly seeking easier material. Writers need to study submission guidelines and read the publications they want to write for.
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Copyright © 2006 Eugie Foster
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.