Article by Chris Eboch.
Remember the magic of bedtime stories? When you write for children, you have the most appreciative audience in the world. My new book You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers will take a beginner through the process – or help a more experienced writer fine-tune their work. But a lot of myths get shared or assumed when it comes to writing for children. Here are some of them, with adapted excerpts from the book to tell the truth.
Myth 1: Writing for children means writing picture books or teen novels.
Most Kid Lit authors start out wanting to write either picture books or novels, but the market doesn’t end there. Schools and libraries need nonfiction books for all ages. Easy Reader books are designed to help kids learn to read. They use simple vocabularies and short sentences, appropriate to a particular reading level.
Magazines publish articles, short stories, poems, crafts, and activities. You may find it easier to break in with a magazine piece than with a book manuscript, and some authors find regular work in magazines. If you are fairly new to modern children’s lit, study magazines for a good overview. The Cricket Magazine Group is a great place to start. They publish 14 magazines. Some are fiction and some are nonfiction, and they cover age ranges from birth to teen. You can read an online sample of each magazine on their website.
The truth is, writing for children covers a broad range of styles, topics, lengths, and age ranges.
Myth 2: Children’s books should be cute, sweet, and gentle.
Cute and sweet have their place, but not if it’s sappy or talking down to kids. And serious topics have their place as well.
Serious topics can be addressed in different ways, depending on the audience age. For example, the picture book Oskar and Klaus: The Search for Bigfoot was inspired by two real-life cats, one blind, the other a scarred former stray. Blind Klaus uses his other senses to find the way on their adventure. Laurie Thompson is the author of Emmanuel’s Dream, illustrated by Sean Qualls, an inspirational picture book biography. It tells the true story of a young man with only one leg who bicycled across Ghana. Books like these inspire young children as they see characters overcoming adversity to have adventures.
Books for older readers can tackle more challenging subjects. Silent to the Bone, by E. L. Konigsburg, is a mystery where the main character tries to find out the truth about his best friend, who is accused of abusing his baby sister and sent to a Juvenile Behavioral Center, where he can’t or won’t speak. Although the book deals with difficult issues, it’s shown through the best friend’s view as he investigates the story. This slight distance from the trauma, and the exciting mystery plot, make the novel accessible to the average middle grade reader (aged 9-12).
For teen readers, anything goes. Ellen Hopkins is well-known for her edgy, young adult novels, which tackle tough subjects such as drug addiction (Crank) and teen prostitution (Tricks), using a series of poems. While many adults are shocked at how dark some teen books are, Hopkins’s books are bestsellers. More importantly, she gets incredible fan mail from teens thanking her for helping them deal with issues in their own lives, or the lives of friends and relatives.
Myth 3: That cute thing my child or grandchild did would make a good story.
Ideas are everywhere, including in our own lives. However, even the most exciting events may lack important story qualities such as character growth and strong plots. (These topics are covered in You Can Write for Children.)
Still, personal and family experiences can provide the raw material to be molded into publishable stories and articles. Even if a specific episode doesn’t make for a good story, the emotions you experience can give power to fiction. Highlights for Children Senior Editor Joëlle Dujardin says, “Past events that stick with you are probably memorable in large part due to your emotional response to them. Try to capture some of this feeling in your story without tying yourself to the events as they actually happened.”
You can “borrow” stories from history and the news as well. I found an interesting tidbit in a history of Washington State. A teenage boy had met bank robbers in the woods, and for some reason he told nobody about them. Why? This question, and my imagined answers to it, became my YA survival suspense Bandits Peak.
Myth 4: Children’s stories are a chance to teach moral lessons.
Children read for fun, not a lecture, so you shouldn’t end your stories with obvious morals. The message should come out through the story itself, from the thoughts and actions of the main character, and what she learned from the experience. Instead, many beginning writers make their theme too obvious. Perhaps an adult character scolds the child, telling him how he should have behaved. Or the writer flatly states the moral at the end, like an Aesop’s fable. Don’t do that. Keep the message subtle.
All stories have themes, but when someone asks you about a mystery you read, you’re probably not going to say, “It was a story about how crime doesn’t pay.” Rather, you’ll talk about the exciting plot, the fascinating characters, perhaps even the unusual setting. A story’s message should be subtle, no matter the audience age.
Myth 5: You won’t make any money off of writing for children, or it’s a quick and easy way to make money.
This is a funny myth, because it swings in both directions. Neither is true. It is possible to make money writing for children. Some people even make a modest living from writing. However, if you want to get rich quick, then writing – especially writing for children – is not the way to do it. You might as well play the lottery or try to get on one of those talent TV shows.
But there are other reasons to write. Perhaps you want to record family stories or write down some of the bedtime stories you told your children or grandchildren. Maybe you enjoy the creative expression of developing stories. Maybe you have ideas, thoughts, messages, or entire worlds to share.
You get to choose your goals when it comes to writing. But if you want to reach young people, you need to write fresh, dynamic stories, whether you’re writing rhymed picture books, middle grade mysteries, edgy teen novels, nonfiction, or something else.
Learn all about writing for young people in You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers.
- How to explore the wide variety of age ranges, genres, and styles in writing stories, articles and books for young people.
- How to find ideas.
- How to develop an idea into a story, article, or book.
- The basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme – and some advanced elements.
- How to use point of view, dialogue, and thoughts.
- How to edit your work and get critiques.
- Where to learn more on various subjects.
Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages, with over 30 books for children. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; Bandits Peak, a survival story, and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children and Advanced Plotting. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her workshop newsletter for classes and critique offers.