I think what makes a successful writer and editor for children is the ability to remember what it was like to be a kid. It wasn’t so long ago that we believed that our letters to Hogwarts was in the mail, that every door could lead to Narnia, that fairies in the bushes drank tiny saucers of cream and candy corn, that ghosts haunt the basement, and that dragons live in misty mountains. Writers for kids are lovers of cartoons, kid movies, children’s books, comics, silly songs, and the realm of imagination.
But remembering your child-like self is only the first step to getting a good story out on paper. I have a few tips for aspiring children’s authors:
1. Channel Your Inner Child
Think like a kid! Before you start writing, take a deep breath and transport yourself to the time when you were curious about absolutely everything. Pretend, for a moment, that you are your audience’s age. What scared you? What bothered you about adults? What words did you know? What delighted you? What made you laugh? What was the biggest conflict you faced? Channel these emotions, thoughts, and fears as you write.
2. Ask for Kid Feedback
Seems like a no-brainer, right? Ask kids whether they like your work! Ask the kids you know to read your work and comment on what the like. What makes them laugh? What makes them sad or worried? What makes them ask questions? What do they like and not like? What's confusing or boring?
3. Treat Children Like People
Children are whole people who have a complete range of emotions and opinions. They know what they like and don't like. Don't talk down to them or treat them like they can't handle certain topics, words, or voices. (And make sure your kid characters have this range, too!)
4. Don't Force Fun
Exclamation points, wacky fonts or text treatments, capital letters, and a forced cheery voice do NOT make something fun or funny. There are only so many exclamation points, capital words, acronyms, and slang terms a manuscript can take before it starts sounding forced and unnatural.
5. Write to Your Audience
Remember to meet kids where they are. You might need to do some research on child development. You might need to answer questions like “Do kids have dreams at this age?” and “At what age do kids start doing X?” Try not to overthink this step and don’t let the research take the heart out of your manuscript. If you have a sci-fi story about flying babies, by all means let babies fly!
6. Don’t Over Explain
Kids do a lot of their learning through context clues. You can’t expect every reader to understand every single thing. But you don’t always need a glossary or in-text definition for all complex words. Kids like a challenge, and some will take out the dictionary, ask their parents, or just keep reading anyway if it's a subject they really like.
7. Avoid Moralizing or Proselytizing
If you have a message for kids (as in traditional folktales, fairytales, and legends), try a subtle approach. Stories can demonstrate things like “We should share what we have instead of being greedy” or “We shouldn’t hit our brothers and sisters because it’s mean” metaphorically through the story itself. Overt moralizing statements comes off as cheesy and insincere. (And they can have the opposite effect of what you intended!)
9. Read, Read, Read!
Make sure to read the books that you think are similar to your audience, genre, and age group. Get a sense of the vocabulary, humor, and style of books other authors are writing. Make sure the book you want to write hasn’t been done already, or find a way to do it better than it's been done before.
9. Expect the Writing to Be Lengthy and as Difficult as Writing for Adults
Oftentimes writing a short piece for kids can be more difficult (and take more time!) than writing a comparable piece for your own age group. The shorter the story is, the more removed you are from kids this age, and the younger the age group, the harder it can be to connect to the voice, create convincing characters, find an interesting story, and say what you need to say, especially in such a short word count. We writers are verbose! Keep in mind that a good editor can help you cut it down later, but write everything you need to say before you start trimming. Then ask yourself, what is absolutely necessary to tell this story? Where will illustrations, photographs, and captions help to tell the story and help me cut down on words?
10. Write the Stories You Wish You'd Had as a Child
Lastly, and most importantly “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it” (Toni Morrison). Make sure you are passionate about and interested in what you’re writing about. What was missing from literature when you were a kid that is still absent? Write it!