Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writing children’s literature is kind of like comedy. Everyone thinks it’s easy when, in reality, it’s actually much harder than it looks. Perhaps it’s the lower page count or the simplified language, or the popular belief that kids will be satisfied with any form of entertainment – no matter how superficial. Waggle some bright objects in front of their faces, make some funny noises and they’ll be happy, right? This is a common misconception. Sure, babies are a fairly easy audience to entertain, but as they get older, children quickly become very discerning critics. Simply put: if they don’t like your book, they won’t read it. And they won’t sugarcoat their reviews either.
To help avoid your book being converted into a brick for an imaginary castle during playtime, here are the three golden rules you should know to keep young minds engrossed in your story.
1. Know your target demographic
‘Know your audience’ is good advice for all writers, but when writing for children, it is absolutely crucial. Most importantly, you need to have a target age range in mind. This will not only help to dictate how complex your writing should be and what kind of themes to include (or avoid) but it will also be one of the first things publishers will need to know when considering your manuscript. Beyond marketing purposes, this is because publishers tend to pair different formats with different age groups :
- Ages 0—3 – board books
- Ages 3—8 – picture books, coloring and activity books (C&A books)
- Ages 3 and up – novelty books (depending on content)
- Ages 5—9 – early, leveled readers
- Ages 6—10 – first chapter books
- Ages 8—12 – middle-grade books
There’s leeway to broaden your target demographic by a year on either side of these groups if you want, but other than that, you should consider these categories to be very rigid. The main reason for this is to account for children’s varying reading abilities at different ages, and having an idea of these yourself might be helpful too.Knowing how age relates to reading ability is essential for a children’s book.Click To Tweet
For instance, children don’t usually start to recognize rhyming words until ages 3—4. That doesn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t write a book of rhymes aimed at children under 3, but the rhyming aspect would mostly likely be lost on them. Don’t forget that your other target audience is parents and guardians – the ones who will actually be choosing and forking over the cash for your book. Catering to their child’s specific developmental needs is often a great selling point and can give them confidence in your book over someone else’s. You can see a full breakdown of children’s literacy development by age group here.
Other than age, ‘knowing’ your target demographic also means just that: really knowing them. Once you have your age range in mind, make sure you understand them. How do kids talk to each other at that age? How do they view adults? What cultural references do they understand? What do they find funny? What do they find scary? How much technology do they have access too? What is their level of education? How do they see the world? Thinking about these questions will help you to craft relatable characters and situations that children will respond to.
2. Don’t patronize your reader
If this is your first time writing children’s literature, you may feel like you’re ‘dumbing’ your writing down to reach a child’s level of comprehension. This was certainly a concern I had when I made the switch from writing for adults to writing for children. But after a little while, I actually found it helped to de-clutter my writing for the better. It started to feel more like ‘streamlining’ than ‘dumbing down’. The tricky balance you need to strike is making your writing clear and understandable for their reading age without losing your unique authorial flair. And you absolutely shouldn’t underestimate the intelligence or creativity of children by talking ‘down’ to them. They come for compelling stories and interesting characters, but they’ll stay for what inventive writing sparks in their imaginations. Children notoriously have better imaginations than adults, after all.
Although you want to be on their reading level, you might also want to try and challenge them a little. Even if you’re not writing an educational book, in some ways, every book a child reads is educational, as it will impact in some way on a developing mind. Get to know their literacy level and then throw in some slightly more advanced vocabulary or concepts to get them thinking a little harder. If you’re particularly skilled at this, you can create a multi-layered narrative that can be understood differently at different ages to achieve the cross-generational appeal that classic children’s literature often has. I’ve re-read Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books more times than I can count since childhood, and I still get something new out of them every time.It’s okay to challenge your young reader; they’re not afraid to work.Click To Tweet
3. Keep the reader’s attention
One thing everyone knows about children that is mostly true is that they have short attention spans. However, they might not be as short as you think. Children aged 5—6 can concentrate for an average of 10—15 minutes on a single activity that has gained their interest, while 6—7-year-olds are able to concentrate on a book they like for up to half an hour. Note that this is the case when they’re engaged.Children have a longer attention span than you might think.Click To Tweet
Tips on sparking and retaining your young reader’s interest are similar to those you’d use when writing any adult book, but considering how little time a child is willing to spend giving your story a chance, you really need to nail these – and pretty early on.
- Think less about genre and more about originality. What do I mean by this? Well, The Very Hungry Caterpillar didn’t become a classic because kids are all entomologists at heart. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt doesn’t speak to their innate hunting instinct. Same goes for Where the Wild Things Are. In fact, kids don’t even usually start to actively explore genres until age 9. Focus on making your story original and inventive rather than on what’s popular or what has worked well in the past.
- Children should take center stage. Children like reading about fantastical creatures and weird and wonderful alternate worlds, but they also like reading about themselves. Authority figures – parents, teachers, or any other adults around them – should be kept in the background as much as possible. Child protagonists should be driving the narrative as much as possible.
- Keep the pace up. Short attention spans, remember? Keep things moving along at a brisk pace to keep them engaged.
- Make things up. If you’re writing fantasy, don’t get too bogged down in researching whether your dragons have the right number of scales or your magic spells match the right Latin phrases. Creating your own mythologies and alternate histories is much more fun and creative. The weirder the better.
- Don’t do it if your heart’s not in it. As I said at the beginning, don’t make the mistake of thinking of children’s literature as an ‘easy’ option. A halfhearted attitude will come through in your writing as much as genuine passion. You should get as much enjoyment writing books for children as they should from reading them.
Great children’s literature
Writing children’s literature is a great way to share your work with the most loyal, enthusiastic readership you could hope for. Give them your attention, creativity and time (in the form of research), and you’ll get much more back in return.
If you want to move up an age range, check out The 3 Golden Rules Of Writing A Young Adult Novel, or if you want to know more about book length, try How Long Should Your Book Be? The Complete Guide. Finally, if you have more questions about writing amazing children’s literature, let me know in the comments below.