Writing for Children: A Bunny Eat Bunny World

Writing for children has sometimes been called a “bunny eat bunny world.”  It is a gentler, kinder world than the adult writing world.  I think there is more help and collaboration among writers. Seasoned writers are often more willing to help new writers. Editors tend to respond a bit better. The shorter texts allow for more beginnings, middles, and endings and help hone a writer’s skills faster.  Children’s writing is full of competition and publication is still tough, and the trend is becoming more commercial.   But for now, more houses are open to over the transom submissions than in adult publishing.

Make no mistake.  Writing for children is not a junior version of writing for adults.  It is not easier, nor does it take less skill.  Perhaps it takes more.

Sometimes authors who write for children are asked when they will write for adults.  It’s as if writing for children is a stage or phase or a training ground and when you mature, you write for “real” people.  This is wrong on several fronts.

First, writing for children has more limits and parameters. It takes a great deal of skill to write effectively within those structures. Second, it takes writers who can feel and remember what it was like to be six or sixteen or any place in between.  That is, they must remember the feelings and emotions of their childhood, and then marry them with the situations, context, and lives of children today. Third, since writers for children cherish the innocence, creativity, spontaneity, and intensity of feelings and beliefs of their readers, and they frequently have no desire to write for an adult audience.  They value their skills and their craft and equate it to other professions.  When would someone ask a pediatrician when they will “grow up” and become a “real” doctor?

Would writing for children be a good niche for you?  Here are some things to consider:

  •     Do you like children?  Do you like to be around them?  Do you value them as “real” people with thoughts and ideas worth learning about?
  •      Can you remember what it was like to be a certain age—the things you worried about, the friends and relationships you had, what worried you, what made you happy.  Often a children’s writer will say, “Mentally, I’m 12.” And they will be most comfortable writing for middle graders.  Some will really key into the thoughts and feelings of a 4 year old and feel most comfortable writing picture books.  So you need not feel you must understand every age.  It’s most important to understand one age well.
  •      Can you “speak” with a voice of a child?  If your character is 8 years old, you must have the world view of an 8 year old, the vocabulary of an 8 year old, the sentence structure of an 8 year old, the thoughts of an 8 year old, and the understanding of the reality of an 8 year old’s world.  This is what creates believability when the 8 year old reader begins your text.  You can’t fool a kid.  They’ll spot a phony.
  •    Are you willing to write on a “canvas’ of sometimes rigid parameters?  A picture book is typically 32 pages and a few hundred words long.  If you think YOUR picture book demands 50 pages and a thousand words, chances are, picture books are not your strong suite.  There are valid reasons for the rules of children’s writing.  They work.   They fit the interests and attention spans of the readership.  Occasionally…very occasionally…they can be broken.  But you’d best know the rules first.  Know why they work.  And then determine that breaking the rule in THIS case, will be effective.

I love writing for children.  I love it!  I get to have wild adventures and escape the bonds of reality in a way that’s impossible in adult fiction.  I love reading children’s fantasy and adventure.  There’s a cleanliness of plot line that appeals. I can revisit my childhood and finally get even with the bully or find a better resolution to that terrible awkwardness.  I love it that the good guy almost always wins in the end.  I love to recapture the delight of learning and exploring and discovering new things.  I love explaining the world in a way that is meaningful to kids. I find joy when they “get” the jokes or their eyes light up as they understand something new.

In teen literature there’s room for in depth handling of most difficult issues—some really edgy and tough stuff.  But I like middle grade where there is a sensitivity and an oblique way of addressing hard things.  And for the most part, editors cherish the innocence of children and limit topics and kinds of conflicts.  For me, it’s challenging and rewarding to write under those parameters.

If you choose writing for children because you think it will be an easier path to publication, evaluate yourself against the list above.  If you can’t find your child’s voice, it definitely WON’T be easier and you’re better off in another field.   There are many to choose from.  We’ll discuss more options in future posts.

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