Writing for Kids

Kids are not as high-minded as adults.  They can’t suffer through a thousand pages of literary fiction, watching everyone of importance die meaningful and moralistic deaths, and still call it a good book.  Kids are not as low-minded as adults, either.  They won’t settle for a cheesy romance plot, or bloody-fanged monsters chasing down screaming people in the dark.  Kids are almost a species unto themselves.

One of the inescapable questions for every adult author turned middle grade is whether they find they must write differently for children than for adults.  The infallible answer is no.  No one finds writing for kids any different than writing for adults.  At least, no one who knows kids.

If that’s the case, why does everyone keep wondering?  And why would an obviously experienced author like John Grisham treat kids like idiots?

In the third book of the Theodore Boone series, Grisham suddenly switches from writing good plots with a good style to writing a sloppy plot with a ridiculous style.  It was as if he decided that since he was writing for kids, they weren’t worth the effort.

The first two books in the Theodore Boone series weren’t bad, but they weren’t great, either.  None of the suspense I’ve come to expect from Grisham was ever present.  The character was a model student and a little Mary-Sue-ish.  Nevertheless, the plots were okay and the style was smooth.  I was okay with both of them.

The third book had several problems.  First, the plot was sloppy.  It got the main character into trouble ponderously, and even then, the threat was never real.  There were three characters who were really against the main character– the rest were reluctantly introducing plot twists, wishing they could do anything but hurt this nice little boy.  Of the three characters who disliked the main character, one was seen once.  Two (the real antagonists) were seen… twice.  They were unknown until very late in the story.  The structure was terribly skewed.  Once the main character started acting instead of reacting (always halfway through the story), everything worked out.  There was no low point at all.

And that’s just the plot.  The style was despicable.  You’ve probably heard the saying, “Show, don’t tell.”  I never knew quite how important it was until I read this.

Grisham obviously knows how to show instead of tell.  He’s probably brilliant at it.  Unfortunately, he decided merely showing wasn’t enough for stupid kids these days.  He decided to show and tell at once.

“He frowned.  He was unhappy.”  “He nodded.  He agreed with the idea.”  “He shrugged.  He didn’t know.”

That’s just… stupid.  He’s showing body language and telling what that body language says at once.  Kids can read body language too– they’re often better at it than adults.  They know that when someone frowns, they’re unhappy.  When they lean forward, they’re interested.  When they sigh, they’re hesitant or whatever.  (I can’t even describe the mood a sigh conveys.)  Kids know this stuff just as well as adults do– there’s no reason to dumb it down.

However, all that is good for adults is not always good for kids.  Excessive gore, mature subjects, moral quandaries– they won’t go for that.  But that means content, not style or plot.  The suspense can be just as great in a middle grade novel as in an adult thriller– the difference is whether the protagonist is being chased with a rusty knife or with a device that will tie their shoelaces together.  The only difference is the content.

Imagine the Hunger Games without the killing.  Take away the death, the bombs, the kissing.  Make it about a team of people who are running around, trying to eliminate everyone else so they can take care of their families at home.  What have you got?  A pretty pathetic story, seeing as how it’s the same as any reality TV show today.  The same idea cannot work with different elements– but that doesn’t mean a different idea can’t work with those different elements.

Adult writers are cheaters.  They use presets.  At that age, everyone knows how murder works, how romance works, how the world works.  Kids are different.  They think seriously about licking sharp knives, not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t know what will happen yet.  Using that openness, you can introduce fantasy concepts no one else would buy because hey, anything could happen.  They don’t realize that cars don’t fly– not because they’re stupid, but because they want to believe cars can fly.  Kids are open in ways that adults can never be, and that’s both good and bad for middle grade writers.

As I said, kids will believe fantasy concepts more easily– but that doesn’t mean they won’t question them.  They’ll question until their tongues fall off.  You’ve got to be on top of everything, having figured out every possible thing they could ask before they ask it.  You have to be smarter than they are, which is difficult because it means thinking like them.

Not only that, but since kids don’t have the presets that adults do, they don’t understand a few things.  Yes, a person’s head was chopped off– does that mean they’re dead?  No!  What’s the use of fiction if people can’t come back to life?  If the main character is being chased by an axe-wielding maniac, what’s the problem?  They can just come back to life.

So middle grade authors have to use different techniques to generate sympathy and suspense.  Rather than the loss of life, the loss of a prized possession; loss of an important friendship.  These things can be regained, but kids know they don’t want to live for long without them.

Kids are as tricky to write for as adults are, or trickier.  If you overanalyze them they’ll prove you wrong, and if you underestimate them they’ll disdain you.  They aren’t stupid, and they definitely aren’t predictable.  Treat them as adults when you can, but take the opportunities they give you to write better stories.


39 thoughts on “Writing for Kids

  1. Well shame on that author! I’m not reading that book! Children AREN’T STUPID! I’ve barely moved on from that stage yet so I know. Seriously, adults can be so…. idontknowtheword, they just think children are SO much more unintelligent that them. Shame I can’t do anything about that.

  2. Amen from the MG author!

    But I do have a question. How do you not repeat information too much? There are some things that will need repeating, if it’s scenes in between, but how do I know I am not repeating it too much or even unnecessarily?

    1. I’m not sure. I think it’s both a matter of taste and how much you remember. You, as the author, are going to remember most of the early plot points– but the reader might not. Give it to an alpha reader and see if they’re confused by it, and judge from there.

  3. Huh. That’s an…interesting topic. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had problems with it before, much, because I still think like a kid, in some ways, when I write.

    But I have seen some things like this in other books before, and it is rather annoying to have other adults to assume we can’t understand things just because we’re younger.

  4. I found this to be a fair analysis of a tricky audience. I remember that my favorite books when I was that young were the ones which treated all the kids in the story as though they had complex emotions and made rational decisions. Which may not be the case, but it was refreshing to be taken seriously.

    1. Indeed. And while sometimes it was fun to read about kids with the same weirdness as me, I found the ones taken seriously were my favorites. That being said, a kid written too logically and grown-up would immediately raise a red flag.

  5. This is a very interesting post. It reminds me of a book series I once read called ‘The Secret Series’ (where the title of the first book was literally ‘The Name of This Book is Secret’ and the titles just get weirder from there). And I think it was a really good piece of work that you’d find great even if you were a teenager and even if you were a child. Everything was really well thought out and despite the characters being about 12 years old, it read like a YA novel in terms of maturity of prose. Having said that, it was also a good book for kids because despite leaning more towards YA, the way it dealt with things like romance or violence or whatever was simplistic without being stupid. It was like chocolate; everyone likes chocolate.

    Ahem. Anyway, I had a question.
    Tragic villains. What’s the deal with them? How on earth do you write a tragic villain without him/her coming off as weak? A penny for your thoughts?

    1. Interesting. I must confess, I’ve never heard of the series, but it sounds interesting.

      Define tragic villain. You mean someone who readers are supposed to hate, but who has a reason for his madness as well? Someone the readers can pity, though they still want to see him fall?

      1. Hey there! Sorry for not replying…I’ve been travelling and wifi is a hard thing to come by.

        Anyway, what I mean by tragic villain…A character who’s become evil/villainous because of some terrible horrible thing that’s happened to him in the past. He’s seen pain and grief and that agony is his cause for becoming evil.

      2. No problem. Most of these conversations take place over several weeks anyway, so I don’t mind.

        Such as Loki from Thor and the Avengers, or Darth Vader, or (I’m trying to think of a book example) I’m sure you can figure out one for yourself. I can’t. Anyway, would you classify a tragic villain as anyone who meets those criteria, or anyone who develops past that and becomes good in the end? If I can figure out what I think about this, I’ll try to make a blog post about it.

      3. Villains that become good in the end are so boring. Unless there’s a proper character arc in place where he slowly starts regretting his evil ways (such as Darth Vader, *perhaps*), I hate it when villains randomly become good again. Everyone likes to see a good villain go down.

        I can’t think of a book example right now. But I’ve been struggling with the antagonist of my novel. He’s a tragic villain of epic proportions, but he’s also extremely powerful and selfish. Even though you can sympathize with him to some extent, you condone his actions. I was having issues making him seem as dangerous on paper as he is in my head. Because when I wrote him down, he felt like a flat Coke. A drink that had no fizz.

        But I think I’ve fixed that. I realised that I’m making the readers sympathize with him too early on in the story. At first, he needs to come off as an evil (insert expletive here) and then later gradually give away his backstory.

        (And as for this comment, I’m not sure I’ve replied to the same thread as before…I have no idea why but I couldn’t reply to your previous comment because there seemed to be no reply button. Or something. I don’t know. I can’t comprehend technology half the time. I do hope this gets added to our previous thread, but if not…oops.)

      4. (Don’t worry, it worked.)

        Well, think about it. In Thor, we see Loki very early on fighting on the good side. Then he has a Moment of Grief and everything about him changes. He becomes evil. We hate what he’s doing, but we wish he wasn’t doing it. So it might not be that you’re sympathizing too much too early– it could be something else.

        I recently wrote a tragic villain for my latest novel Arson. He seemed antagonistic but not villainous for the first half of the story. Then we hear his backstory, making him sympathetic, at the same time that we see his true colors. I’m not sure how that juxtaposition will work out, but I think that might be a good thing to do. If you’ve read my post on midpoints, I think the midpoint is the place to do that.

        But you have an evil villain, correct? He’s evil before the book begins and he’s evil after the book ends. You want him to be tragic, but not necessarily wimpy. It’s a difficult mixture. I’ll think about it.

      5. (Yay! It worked!)

        I’ve decided that to make him seem villainous on paper, I’ve got to make him cold.

        To quote Kahmunrah from Night of the Museum 2: “You don’t seem very evil, just vaguely grouchy.” (Or something like that, anyway.)

        That was my villain’s problem. I think. I’ve changed him around a bit, making him quiet and just…cold. Very cold. He’s like the human version of a knife’s edge. Which is a total cliche, as far as villains are concerned, I know, but…I can’t describe it. He’s angry. With himself. His diabolical evil villain plans are a kind of atonement for his guilt. So…yeah. Cold, angry, guilty, twisted and desperate.

        The villain of your novel sounds very interesting. I’d be very curious to read the book.

  6. Brilliant post, Liam. You’re totally right – it’s the content that should change, but little/nothing else.
    Also, I loved the part about kids licking knives and being open to story ideas and whatnot. That was a good description of it, and it’s true. 🙂

      1. Occasionally I use cyanide, but as of late Charley has been questioning my choice of poisons. It makes me feel so insecure about my career as an assassin.

      2. Ooh, good point. I should stab you now, to stop you from imparting that wisdom to anyone else.
        Also, you could impart a comment on my blog, you know… or I may have to bring out the cyanide.

      3. Why do you always have to come here to make me comment on your blog? Why don’t you ever hook me with your title and first paragraph?

        Consider this constructive criticism.

      4. I didn’t. I came over here because it dawned on me that I hadn’t checked your blog in a week.

        I shall take that criticism under consideration, but like you’re one to talk. You write good posts, but they take a while to get going. With the exception of the Phil Phorce, oddly.

      5. I tend to ask questions near the beginning of the post and answer them near the end. If that’s what you mean by a while to get going, okay.

        I’ll work on it if you will. I just scrolled through half of your home page and haven’t found anything to comment on.

  7. Oh, I agree. Kids aren’t stupid. (And, too, I think most of us would be surprised how much moral dilemma kids can take–as long as it’s not mature content. 😉 ) I know an eight-year-old who comes up with complex and detailed plots–even though most of those plots involve extreme silliness. But what’s wrong with that? 😛

      1. Yeah… which is why I always have my characters start snowball fights if they are in any place to do so. (I still think it would’ve been hilarious if they’d started a snowball fight on Caradhras, though it would have been sort of out of place… ;-P)

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