Here are his top seven things you should remember when you're writing for children.
Image source: Tom Dullemond
Writing for children? You just have to dumb things down a bit, right? And they'll love your story with all its amazing twists and turns? So what could possibly go wrong?
Turns out the answer is: lots of things.
Let me tell you some things about writing for children.
Write to Experience
Children don't have the life experience of adults, which means it's harder to draw parallels and analogies in your writing, and harder to evoke emotions that you might take for granted.
The key is that you can't talk about adult experience, or at least you can't use it as a reference point to analogise or throw metaphors around. You need to address things more universally, from the core human experience, or from a child's experience. You can cheat a little here: if you have children of your own you can model the target audience on your own age-appropriate children.
In general, you want to write less of 'like a fine steak' and more of 'like a delicious milkshake'. That example sounds trite, because it is, but the same principle will help you work out what you can and can't write about relationships, shopping, money and fighting dragons.
An opportunity to teach
Where adult fiction can often get away with being simple fun, I don't feel that children's fiction has the same leeway. Your child audience needs to be entertained—obviously that remains the primary goal—but where adult fiction can take a pass and be pure escapism, I believe we owe more effort when writing for children. Children deserve to be both entertained and educated.
This doesn’t mean that they ought to be lectured or patronised (that means being spoken down to and having everything explained to you as though you are an idiot).
See? How annoying was that?
Be didactic, not patronising.
It may seem counterintuitive, but don't excise all complicated words. Context and the internet and parents and friends will help, and you have an opportunity to expand your reader’s vocabulary.
You need cadence. You need strong sentences. This is always true in writing, but it's truer for children. You need to use age-appropriate vocabulary, yes, but still keep your language rich and engaging.
At the same time, you have some leeway. Longer words that an adult audience might find overused, a child audience gets to discover for the first time. For example, in children’s fiction you can get away by calling a wealthy family the Highbrows, or a villain Inglorious. You’d sound a bit foolish trying that in adult fiction.
Not too hot and not too cold does the trick. Just right.
Morality and Ethics
Children read to learn. Children are not ready to have a huge block of ethical dilemmas thrown at them without guidance. You need to hold their hand (don't be patronising, remember!) and show them the nuances, if any, of a situation. It's easy to abrogate responsibility and say, 'Well, some people think it's okay to execute criminals so I'm just going to have a character execute criminals'. A child will want to know why that's happening in your story. They don't have the life experience to affect a grim expression and say, 'Hey, that's life'. They will turn to you, the author.
In this situation, if you choose to be neutral you are actually doing your reader a disservice. Yes, you don't need to bore your adult friends about why you think the death penalty is okay or not, but if you tell a child a story about the death penalty, you have raised a difficult topic and now owe it to that child to explain the issue.
Children are impressionable and always learning; you can't just throw a ball to a child without telling them what game you're playing.
Violence will fix it
I don't like it when story arcs in children's fiction are resolved with violence. Violence is a cinematic, escapist, cathartic and fundamentally adult solution to problems. And although adults know that they shouldn't solve problems with violence, sometimes violence is the only solution. Ethics are complicated, right?
Like Picasso, who had to learn the rules of classical painting before knowing exactly how to break them, I don't think it is wise for children to be shown that violence is a legitimate way to solve some problems until they understand the fundamentals of how to get through life. Their framework is still being built, and your writing is a part of that.
That doesn't mean there can't be violence. I just don't think there is much point showing that a protagonist's ultimate goals can be solved with violence. You see, children already know that.
Love and relationships
When dealing with relationships, remember that a three year relationship has a significantly different meaning to a 15 year old than it does to a 40 year old. This doesn't mean that relationships shouldn't be broached at all, but they, like many other things, need to be simplified without being patronising.
In children's writing we're driving to the core of what a relationship means; there's no need to dig four layers deep down into the vindictive psychological habits acquired after a third marital breakdown. The very concept of marriage and love shifts with life experience.
Some of my favourite childhood reads were what I would consider kids’ horror fiction, specifically Roald Dahl's books like The Witches. Dahl's villains were horrific and grotesque, child-killers and child-eaters and child-torturers. His protagonists were children whose parents were inevitably dead or otherwise gone.
Children. Love. This. Stuff.
You loved this stuff.
Just look at the fairy tales of your youth, when the Big Bad Wolf still ate grandma before being brutally axe murdered and cut open. Contrast this to today, when the wolf chases grandma out of the house before being subdued by hugs, or whatever else is being revised in the name of protecting children.
The same principle of simplifying concepts while maintaining complexity applies here. Roald Dahl didn't talk down to his child readers. He didn't overcomplicate concepts like death. Bam. James's parents are dead because of a violent car crash so now he gets to live with his awful, irredeemable aunts. Hooray!
Roald Dahl's witches are simple (monsters that look like women and hate children) but complex (they hate them for very specific reasons, they themselves are grotesque in very specific ways, and we pore over very specific and frightening stories about how witches have gotten rid of children in the past).
The complexity is in the detail, not the nuance.
Keep your concepts simple but detailed, adult but with a certain naivety. Keep your language straightforward but rich.
You're a teacher and an entertainer, a surrogate parent to your audience, with the temporary responsibilities of a parent.
And yes, I mentioned that we have a duty to educate children when we write for them, but let's take that a step further (he whispers conspiratorially). It's our duty to subvert them. That bit where we can't write about complicated things because children don't yet have a moral framework informed by life experiences?
You're the life experience. You're the one who shows them that dragons can be killed (there's that violent solution again) and that the world is a scary place but your friends can get you through.
Remember that, and you'll find that the extra challenges you face when writing for children will be more than worth it.
Tom Dullemond stumbled out of university with a double degree in Medieval/Renaissance studies and Software Engineering. One of these degrees got him a job and he has been writing and working in IT ever since. Tom writes primarily short fiction across all genres, including literary fiction and the occasional poem. He co-authored ‘The Machine Who Was Also a Boy’, the first in a series of philosophical fantasy adventures for middle-grade students, and writes regular flash Science Fiction for CSIRO’s The Helix high school science magazine.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.