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The message of a kid’s story may often be simple, but the process of writing a children’s book is anything but, as children can be demanding readers.
To write for kids, you’ll need a mix of imagination, discipline, and an ability to step into younger shoes.
Up for the challenge? Watch our free online masterclass, where Dr Barbara Henderson, tutor of our creative writing courses, covers the ins and outs of writing for children.
What Does this Masterclass Cover?
Why Write for Children?
The Importance of a Target Age Group
Difference in Length and Word Count
Creating Compelling Characters
Worlds that Young Readers Like
Adjusting Style and Tone
Ask yourself why you want to write for children?
There are lots of bad reasons to want to write for children.
A very bad reason is because you think it will be easy.
Because of the many considerations you have to make in terms of age groups, language and content and because of the competitive nature of the market, it’s much more difficult to do well and successfully than it is to write for adults.
Another very bad reason is to make lots of money! J.K. Rowling is sadly an exception – most authors for children have to have day jobs to support their writing and the Harry Potter phenomenon is rare.
A third very bad reason is if you think children today should be reading the same sort of stories that you read as a child – because the world has moved on and so too has the publishing world and you need to be aware of the market and of current trends in order to understand what is going to appeal to publishers and young readers.
And a fourth very bad reason is to teach a lesson of some kind. Children and teenage readers can sniff out moralising from a long way off and they do not like it. You can of course teach a lesson, but it needs to be done very subtly indeed as part of a story that would be compelling on its own.
There’s really only one good reason to write for children and that is if you have a fantastic, original story in mind that is perfect for young readers.
The Importance of Age Groups
“One of the greatest mistakes people can make is to start writing a book for children with absolutely no idea of what age group they are targeting.”
– Alexander Gordon Smith, writer of The Inventors series.
Simple picture books (2 to 5 years)
These may have as few as 10 words, but more sophisticated ones could be between 300 and 1,500; (24-pgs for 0 -2, 32-pgs for 3-4 yr olds, 40-pgs for 5 -6 year olds).
These correspond to J.A. Appleyard’s (1990) category of ‘the Reader as Player’:
“not yet a reader, usually, but a listener to stories who eventually becomes a confident player in a fantasy world that offers realities, fears and desires in forms that the child slowly learns to sort out and control.”
Beginner readers (5 to 7 years)
Between 500 to 3,500 words
Young fiction (6 to 8 years – short chapter books and series reads) – could go as far as 10,000 words.
Young fiction (6 to 8 years)
Short chapter books and series reads. Average length up to 10,000 words.
Core or middle grade fiction (8 to 12 years)
Average length is 30,000 words (but Harry Potter went to more than 100,000!)
The above 3 categories correspond to Appleyard’s ‘Reader as Hero or Heroine’, in which:
“the school-age child is the central figure of a romance that is constantly being rewritten as the child’s picture of the world and of how people behave in it is filled in and clarified.”
Teen or Young Adult (12 +)
Average 50,000 to 80,000 words but goes on longer with established writers who tend to be given freer rein.
This corresponds with Appleyard’s ‘Reader as Thinker’: the adolescent reader
“looks to stories to discover insights into the meaning of life, values and beliefs worthy of commitment, ideal images and authentic role models for imitation. The truth of these ideas and ways of living is a severe criterion for judging them.”
Teenager characters should be much more independent – and teenage readers don’t need as much protecting from the harsh realities of life.
If you have a teenager you will know they can be quite impatient and unforgiving – and they hate being told what to do and they hate moralising. Teenage readers are no different.
The author Nicola Morgan talks of something called a “safety net”. In other words, how scary is this story going to get? You need no safety net when writing for adults, because you can go as dark as you like in content and there’s no need for a happy ending.
But with child readers, the reader should expect that although the story may be scary, nothing too terrible will happen.
Teenage readers should feel that something terrible could well happen, even though you, the writer, will build in a safety net in the end.
Nicola Morgan’s website is a great source of information for any aspiring writer for young people.
Characters in Children’s and Teen Fiction
Remember that characters drive your plot. In children’s fiction, readers will have to like and empathise with main characters – whether they’re school pupils or trainee wizards or clumsy puppies. So think hard about your characters – make them rounded and certainly don’t make them too nice or perfect. Pollyanna probably would never sell today – but Horrid Henry and Dirty Bertie are huge favourites!
Give them a consistent personality. Think about what they would never do. What they are afraid of. What faults they need to overcome. Make them real, by using traits from people you know and mixing them up.
Too many characters in children’s books are confusing – so keep the numbers low. Every character needs a reason to feature in your book.
Use descriptions to show character in children’s fiction – think of Pippi Longstocking and her unruly pigtails. And something to remember: if it’s a picture book for young children, then you don’t need to describe the characters, as the pictures will do that for you!
First time writers often create characters who are too similar to one another. One way to avoid this is to put unlikely personalities together – a bit like Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter stories.
This lets you explore conflicts like fear, irritation, jealousy and lack of trust.
It’s often said that in order for a children’s story to work, you have to get rid of adults – think of the Famous Five stories, or all the stories where a child is orphaned or sent away from home. It’s not quite so essential these days – and also, adults in modern children’s fiction are more rounded characters, who can also be helpers or advisors.
But adults should rarely be characters whose point of view is used in the story. The main focus should always be on the young characters and it should be the young characters who solve any problems, not a parent, teacher or police officer!
Animals can also be characters – whether they’re friends and helpers to a human, or whether they are the main character, in which case they’re basically children in disguise! Spot the dog, for instance, is just a curious toddler.
Your character: Write a twitter or FB profile. What do they like to tell people? What do they not like to tell people?
For example, Harry Potter might write:
Hogwarts student, Griffyndor House, Quidditch mad. Friends: Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.
Something new children’s writers often forget, at first, is how important setting is. In fact, it is absolutely crucial to most children’s stories. Think about Harry Potter at Hogwarts or Winnie the Pooh in the 100-Acre Wood, or Anne of Green Gables… the list could go on and on.
Your setting may be fantastic in that it doesn’t actually exist – but it still needs to be realistic in the sense that the reader needs to be convinced. It may be that you think that, because, as a children’s writer, you are less likely to spend a long time on describing a setting than you may if you were targeting an adult audience, so your setting is less important than the people and the events; but that’s not true. Often that setting is what helps your character to come alive.
A good analogy which I’ve read somewhere is to think of your setting as like a stage set; if it’s badly painted, poorly made scenery then it will not help your characters to come alive.
Paul Magrs in The Creative Writing Coursebook (2001): “Setting is one of the most useful means of getting your characters to give themselves away. Rather than having some ghastly self-revelation in the form of an interior monologue, or in an exchange of dialogue, it’s always more effective to slip in some telling detail about the place in which the characters find themselves. Much better to show them interacting with their environment.”
In the Harry Potter books, the Dursleys’ home in Privet Drive is exceptionally neat and clean and conventional and the reader is meant to compare this with Harry’s friend Ron’s home, The Burrow, which is impossibly shaped and maze like and untidy but very welcoming. See how this helps young readers know what to expect of the characters who live there?
You may remember the term ‘pathetic fallacy’ from your English literature lessons – a phrase which seems to have fallen out of usage but refers to the use of setting in ways so that everything which surrounded a character was a clue to or an expression of what was inside them (Cathy riding frantically across the moors in Wuthering Heights was a clue to her inner wildness). It can be subtler than that, of course.
But the importance of creating an authentic setting is stressed by most writers.
Robert Louis Stevenson: “The author must know his countryside, whether real or imagined, like his hand.”
It’s a fine line, though – it’s important not to overload a young reader with too much detail.
You want to have enough details that your reader gets a clear picture of the surroundings. However, if you get too detailed, your reader will get bored.
It may be important to talk about the thick trees in the dark forest – but if you go on and on about the types of trees and the thickness of the trunks and the shape of the leaves, your reader just may forget why the character is there. Don’t go on too long!
Setting is very important for three reasons. First of all, your characters need an environment that will help deliver their story. It has to be a place that is in keeping with your plot and theme. If there is not a setting for the story to take place, often there is no story.
Think again about Narnia or Hogwarts, or Pippi Longstocking’s house, or the dystopian societies of novels like The Hunger Games.
Second, your setting will help you develop your plot. A plot that takes place in a sea side harbour is going to be a lot better developed for your story if your protagonist’s father is suffering because of the decline of the salmon fishing industry.
Setting is a great way to allow your reader to become part of your story. If it’s done correctly it will pull your reader into your writing. But, if overdone it will make your reader put your story down and forget it even exists.
Holes Louis Sachar
Here the setting of Camp Greenlake almost has its own personality – and there are examples in children’s literature where the setting is so strong you could almost argue that IT is a character in its own right (Perhaps it’s the same with Hogwarts).
What I suggest you do here is really tap into the things that scare you. When I was writing my children’s book, The Serpent House, I created a setting that was full of snake symbols and motifs and then sent my character to a place that actually had these creatures in it. They are one of my character’s worst fears.
Now I know how this feels because I have an absolutely mortal fear of snakes, to the extent that I can’t look at a picture of one, and I can’t stay in a building where I know there is one (even in a cage) – it’s a genuine phobia. It caused me some problems with the research, but that’s another story – but when I mentioned this at a talk, someone quite sensibly asked me why I had chosen to write a book full of snakes when I was so ophidiophobic.
And I wasn’t entirely sure, but it seemed the most frightening thing I could come up with. My tutor at Newcastle University said writing about things that you fear can create some very powerful writing indeed. I think she was right.
So, what scares you? Clowns, dark cellars, rats, old buildings…. and I want you to use these to start a horror setting. I’m going to do a bit of guiding with this, so let’s go through it step by step.
Close your eyes and call to mind your setting.
It only needs to contain the potential for props and people. Now begin writing, when you have that image in your head. Remember to use sensory details too – smells and sounds and textures and tastes. Children love reading about food!
“What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?”
– Alice (From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll)
So I want to move on to dialogue in children’s books – why we use it, how to use it; common problems, from using contemporary language and dialect, to using language intended to portray the past; what language is acceptable for children/YA adult literature and how that has changed (or not). And of course, some writing exercises related to using dialogue.
Dialogue is one of the more challenging aspects of writing. It can also be one of the most appealing elements of your story. Skilful dialogue isn’t easy to write, but when done properly it lightens the narrative and keeps the story moving along. Children, like everyone else, love to listen in on other people’s conversations. The American author Ellen Jackson says that when a child is trying to choose a book, s/he often scans the pages looking for dialogue.
To young children, a set of quotation marks represents a fun, lively tale that proceeds at a nice pace – a story that won’t get bogged down in too much description.
But writing good dialogue is fraught with pitfalls and it certainly needs practice. Before you can write effective dialogue, consider why you may want to. The following are the six main reasons you want to include dialogue in your story.
Obviously, dialogue can serve more than one of these functions at any one time:
Functions of Dialogue
1. Dialogue shows character.
By showing your character’s reaction to his situation, you give details to the reader about who this character is.
When Anne (of Green Gables) first meets Matthew, who she’s going to live with, this is what she says:
“I was beginning to be afraid you weren’t coming for me and I was imagining all the things that might have happened to prevent you. I had made up my mind that if you didn’t come for me tonight I’d go down the track to that big wild cherry tree at the bend and climb up into it to stay all night. I wouldn’t be a bit afraid and it would be lovely to sleep in a wild cherry tree, all white with bloom in the moonshine, don’t you think?”
We know straight away that she’s a fanciful, imaginative, talkative girl!
You can also provide information about other characters in your story through the main character’s speech. When Anne travels home with Matthew, she talks almost non-stop. But whenever she asks him a question, he responds with “Well, now, I dunno.”
Also think realistically about how your character would react in a given situation and what they would say. Does your character have a sense of humour or a temper? Show this through dialogue.
2. You can use dialogue to give information.
In Jamila Gavin’s Coram Boy, a character called Otis explains what the foundling hospital is.
“…Captain Coram. He’s in London now. Given up seafaring and turned to good works. He’s something of a benefactor!” There was derision in his tone as Otis said, “Wants to save the poor children of England. He’s set up a hospital, an institution for foundlings. But I tell you something, it’s not just the poor children he’s saving, but the brats of the rich.”
– Coram Boy Jamila Gavin
‘You were very good,’ he said. ‘Very good. What’s your name?’
‘Nathan Field,’ I said. ‘Nat.’
And he laughed. It wasn’t as if he thought my name was funny; it was a weird laugh, sort of triumphant.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, of course.” The blue eyes were blazing at me; it gave me the chills. I could see a muscle twitching under his left eye. “Come to my auditions, Nat Field,” he said. “Come, or I’ll be back to fetch you.”
– King of Shadows Susan Cooper
4. Dialogue can show conflict and build tension.
This is from Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. See how much a few words can tell us about the situation and the relationship of Conor and his mother.
“You’ve had breakfast?” his mum asked, leaning against the kitchen doorframe.
“Yes, Mum,” Conor said, rucksack in his hand.
She looked at him doubtfully. Conor rolled his eyes. “Toast and cereal and juice,” he said. “I put the dishes in the dishwasher.”
“And took the rubbish out,” his mum said quietly, looking at how neat he’d left the kitchen.
“There’s washing going too,” Conor said.
“You’re a good boy,” she said and though she was smiling, he could hear sadness in it too. “I’m sorry I wasn’t up.”
“It’s just this new round of-”
“It’s okay,” Conor said.
“She hadn’t tied her scarf around her head yet this morning and her bare scalp looked too soft, too fragile in the morning light, like a baby’s. It made Conor’s stomach hurt to see it.”
– A Monster Calls Patrick Ness
Intersperse your dialogue with body language and action and the odd line of description, to avoid it sounding “ping pong”.
Using the Right Vocabulary
Young children use short sentences and simple language when they speak. To be convincing, the children in your stories need to speak this way too. Another reason to write basic, straightforward dialogue is that children, particularly younger children, are learning to read and if your writing is difficult, they will see reading it as a bore. Aim your writing at the lower ability end of your target age group – not your very clever and precocious niece or family friend.
Again – remember not to moralise, particularly in speech – unless you want to show that a character is being preachy and pompous.
Listen to how children and teenagers speak, to note the rhythms of their speech and to write plausible dialogue. You’ll need to tidy it up a little, of course.
If two young characters are talking, try to give them different speech patterns or favourite expressions. You may want to include a few gestures that punctuate the dialogue and reflect the character’s emotions. Is she afraid? Is he angry? Show it through dialogue and gestures.
Go eavesdropping! Go to a restaurant or coffee shop and sit some place where you can hear the conversation of two or more young people. Write down snippets of conversation – be careful not to be noticed doing this as people will think you are very odd! You’ll probably notice that the people you’re recording repeat themselves and say “er…” or “you know.”
Use these snippets to write a few lines of dialogue. Add to the words, cut some out and reorder the snippets from the real conversation to get some convincing dialogue that is interesting to read.
Working with Dialect and Slang
Teachers report that young children don’t like to read stories in dialect. Children are still learning the rules and conventions of standard language. So non-standard use can confuse readers and make reading harder for them. Just use the odd word or expression to give a feel for an accent or dialect.
David Almond’s The Fire Eaters (2003):
Dad winked at me.
‘When tomorrow comes,’ he said, and he changed the subject to McNulty. ‘Mebbe he’s there every Sunday morning,’ he said. ‘I should try to get to talk to him, eh?’
‘Aye,’ I said.
Less is more, as they say. But if you’re not very familiar with a dialect, don’t use it at all as it will just sound like a caricature.
Most editors accept slang in children’s books as long as the phrase used isn’t too current or quirky. The reason for this is that slang changes quickly and may be out of date before your book is even published.
I thought of an author who I rate very highly but who I feel suffers from this problem and that is Robert Swindells. So for example, Charlie, the main female protagonist in In the Nick of Time, uses expressions like: “Mum’ll be cool,” and also refers to her CDs and her iPod and Sainsbury’s, which still exists – but you could easily imagine that the reference could have been, say, Woolworths, and then that would also date the writing.
And on that issue of what can date – Swindells’ book Timesnatch was written in 1994 but its cultural references do date it; for example, at a moment of high tension one of the characters has to use what he calls “a telephone kiosk” and I’m not even sure a lot of younger readers would know what that is anymore! And the characters also do most of their research using newspapers, which again is now highly unlikely.
Now someone who is very dialogue-driven is Enid Blyton, of course, and in 2010 the Famous Five books underwent a revision to bring the book to modern young readers by removing the dated language, especially in the dialogue.
The plots are the same but many of the old-fashioned expressions, such as “golly”, “rather” and “awfully” have been cut, and other words have been brought up to date: “Mother” and “Daddy” with “Mum” and “Dad”, “bathing” with “swimming”, “jersey” with “jumper” and so on.
We know that historical fiction for children often has a didactic or educative aim behind it, even if that is largely unintentional on the part of the author. Period vocabulary becomes something of a stage prop to indicate such details as costume, food, trades, etc. The historian Trevor John praises writers like Barbara Willard and Henry Reece for their use of archaic words such as ‘pattens, snood, mantle, palfrey, troubadour…’ (John 1989, cited in Gillian Lathey chapter – Historical Fiction for Children: Capturing the Past). So you may get away with a few old-fashioned terms and reordering your syntax to make it sound authentic, without being too difficult for young readers to follow.
So, when writing dialogue in historical fiction, be aware of what you’re trying to do: evoke period? How does it still evoke character?
Linda Buckley Archer, when she was writing her Time Quake trilogy, in which present-day characters are sent back to the 18th century, said she reads Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer to help with the rhythm of the old speech patterns. She does it very well and has a bit of fun with it too.
Now onto something that you may think is a 21st century issue: swearing in children’s books.
Swearing in children’s books, and even in books for teenagers, used to be pure anathema.
Robert Westall’s 1975 Carnegie-Medal winner The Machine-Gunners generated a sustained fuss over the inclusion of “bloody”, as letters to and from his publishers.
Even though it was set in Second World War England, the use of even a mild swearword was a step too far into realism for many parents and teachers at the time of its publication.
But things are slowly changing. Publishers are in general more likely now to leave the odd swear word in, providing it feels appropriate and not gratuitous.
Think about your own views on swearing in books for younger readers.
So let’s get on to the nuts and bolts of writing dialogue, Always keep in mind the major functions of dialogue, which are:
1. To illustrate character
2. To convey information
3. To move the story onwards
4. To break up narrative
5. To show conflict
More Tips for Writing Dialogue
Good dialogue reflects a character’s age, background, and personality. A ten-year-old boy doesn’t have the same speech patterns as a forty-year-old woman.
Most people use contractions when they speak. When children speak they’ll almost always say “you aren’t” instead of “you are not” and “it’s” instead of “it is.” This makes your speech sound more natural.
Stick with simple tags, such as “he said” or “she asked” almost all of the time. Elaborate tags (questioned, bellowed, stated, responded, etc) are too distracting.
The rhythm of good dialogue reflects the scene – for instance, characters who are anxious or afraid speak in short, clipped sentences.
When writing for young children, it’s especially important that the dialogue be very active, constantly moving the story forward. For example –The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss.
“I know some good games we could play,” Said the cat. “I know some new tricks,” said the Cat in the Hat. “A lot of good tricks. I will show them to you. Your mother will not mind at all if I do. “
In this brief passage we learn a bit about the cat’s personality, what is about to happen and how he feels about parents and rules – all from that bit of speech.
Don’t forget to set dialogue out properly.
Tell the same story to two different people – bear in mind how you tell things differently to different kinds of people (eg, friend/teacher/parent/diary) –
this will help give your character a more rounded and authentic voice.
To sum up – as I said at the beginning – writing for children and teens can be just as hard and often harder than writing for adult readers.
Think hard about why you want to do it – and be sure to know what age group you’re writing for, before you start.