Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Peek at the Wild Things of Writing for Children

This week, I'm resurrecting a blog I first wrote for Beverly McClure's blog, The Story of a Writer,  in August 2012, about some of what must be kept in mind when writing for children. 

A Peek at the Wild Things of Writing for Children

Writing for children requires a very different set of skills from writing for adults. In some ways it’s much more demanding. I’ve come across many people who are unaware of that and a few, unfortunately, who dismiss writing for children as if it were inferior to writing for adults.

The criteria for writing what children want to read include suitable subject matter, appropriate vocabulary, realistic dialogue including language today’s children actually use, sentence structure, realistic mindsets, point of view, length of chapters, and length of book. That’s just the start and the criteria differ with each age group, to say nothing about the physical appearance of the book and its cover.

In his foreword to the 2012 edition of the Renaissance Learning report, What Kids Are Reading, children’s author Dan Gutman explained what keeps the attention of young readers, especially reluctant young readers.

As a reluctant reader myself, I relate to those kids. I know what bores them, and what holds their interest. They want short sentences. Short chapters. Dialog. Few adjectives. They’d rather use their imagination than read a paragraph of description. They want one sentence to lead naturally to the next one, rather than jump from subject to subject. They want a chapter to end in a way that makes them want to know what happens next.

Gutman should know. He’s written a hundred books including scores of children’s books that have garnered dozens of awards. He didn’t mention humor in his list of criteria, which is surprising for an author who has made a career of it. Humor’s a key ingredient of many books for youngsters, especially middle-grade readers. As Kemie Nix of Children’s Literature for Children, Inc. put it in her 2009 parents-choice.org article What-Kids-Who-Don’t-Like-To-Read-Like-To-Read™:  

The books with the greatest chance of hooking the transitional readers and pulling them out of the pre-book limbo are the humorous ones. And books of humorous episodes are the very best of all! With fifty really funny books, the world could be saved from illiteracy.

What Nix means by “episodes” are books in which each chapter stands alone, as a separate episode. Children enjoy this type of book because it doesn’t require the “mental effort” of a book “with a climax at the end.”

Humor has done well for a long list of other authors too, including Jeff Kinney, Gary Paulsen, Louis Sachar, Frank Asch, Dan Greenberg, Cressida Cowell, Lemony Snicket, Mo Willems, Dave Pilkey, and Judy Blume, to name only a smidgeon of today’s most popular children’s humorists.

Even when writers think they know exactly what children want to read, they still have to jump the hurdle of appealing to the adults who buy the books that children read, and before that, the agents and publishers’ editors who believe they know what books adults will buy for children. Each layer has its own filters and each has its own pattern of influence.

According to a 2010–11 Bowker Pubtrack® report, The Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age, the strongest influence on a child’s reading material are parents, particularly mothers, who do most of the book buying, relatives, and friends. After that come teachers and librarians.

When it comes to how adults and children find books, bookstore browsing is important but most books are acquired through school and public libraries. Children ages seven through twelve tell their parents what they want to read, but the main sources of their information remain bookstores, teachers, and libraries. Because most purchases are impulsive, the attractiveness of the book’s cover image is critical. So too are the front cover’s descriptive copy and age rating. But the latter two factors are less important than a friend’s recommendation of the book and whether the book is written by a trusted and known author.

Like Max in Sendack’s classic tale, we hope to make friends with the wild things of children’s writing, not be eaten by them. But a pinch of humor can tame them—well, almost.

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