By Brooke Thompson
When writing children’s literature, all authors hear the same advice:
“Treat your audience with respect. Write as if they were your equal.”
But what does that even mean? How do we as writers achieve that, especially if we have little to no experience with that age group?
To help you get started, the first thing to do is decide which age group you want to write for.
Now, think back to when you were a kid. Think about your favorite things to do at the age you picked, what your home life/school was like, and any lessons you learned.
Or, if you have difficulty conjuring up those memories, think back on your last interaction with someone of that age.
What were they like?
What things did they talk about?
How did you talk to them?
Jot down those thoughts and continue.
Now, that you have created a list about what it’s like to be a child of your chosen age group, think back to what kind of books you read or had read to you when you were that age.
Think of the children’s literature your parents would read to you at bedtime or what your teachers read to you during circle time.
Go to your local library or favorite book store and sift through the children’s section. Pay attention to how the authors write.
What are these children’s books about?
How do they treat their audience?
Do you feel like their authors are talking down to you or treating you as their equal?
To give you a visual, I’ve compiled some examples of how authors of children’s literature write for these different age groups.
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Children’s literature for early childhood reading
For young children up to kindergarten, I will use one of my personal favorites: Chika Chika Boom Boom by John Achambault and Bill Martin, Jr.. Look at the opening paragraph:
“A told B
and B told C,
‘I’ll meet you at the top
of the coconut tree.’”
Its repetitive nature and fun AABB rhyme scheme make the book an easy yet enjoyable read for 5-6-year-olds.
Another book I’d like to mention was also a personal favorite: Curious George Goes to the Hospital.
I remember my mother making me sit down and read that one aloud a couple of times at bedtime to sharpen my reading skills. While this book does not follow a fun little rhyme scheme like Chika Chika Boom Boom, its authors Margaret and H.A. Rey use simple words for children beginning to read to make the experience somewhat challenging but not frustrating.
Let’s look at the first page for it:
“This is George. He lived with his friend, the man with the yellow hat. He was a good little monkey, but he was always curious.”
Look at the language the Reys used. The sentences are straightforward and short. The words used are ones that children can easily sound out which allows them to conclude what the word is.
First grade/second grade reading
For children in the first and second grades, you can start using more complex words and sentences.
When I was in the second grade, what got me interested in reading chapter books were the Junie B. Jones series and the Boxcar Children series.
Let’s look at some excerpts:
“She smiled politely at the woman, but the woman did not smile. She looked at Henry as he put his hand in his pocket for the money.”
– The Boxcar Children, Gertrude Warner
“And so Grampa sliced all those fruits into a bowl. And he let me eat them in the living room. In front of TV! And I’m not even allowed to do that! Only we’re not telling Mother!”
– Junie B. Jones and the Yucky Blucky Fruitcake, Barbara Park
While the language from these examples retains their simplicity, the words have multiple syllables and the sentences are longer than those from the aforementioned kindergarten books.
However, despite the sentences’ straightforward nature, they still do not talk down to their audience. Instead, they allow the reader to draw their own conclusions, rather than explicitly saying what is going on.
In The Boxcar Children, the reader is gathering that, based on the woman’s behavior, she is not a pleasant person. On the other hand, in Junie B. Jones, the reader can tell that the protagonist is excited about getting to eat somewhere that isn’t the kitchen.
Third grade reading and up
Finally, with children’s literature catered to the age groups from third grade and up, you as an author have a little more leeway into what to write.
Look at the differences in language and sentence length in these stories:
“Mig, for her part, continued to stare. Looking at the royal family had awakened some deep and slumbering need in her; it was as if a candle had been lit in her interior, sparked to life by the brilliance of the king and the queen and the princess.”
– The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillio
“Beatrice Quimby’s biggest problem was her little sister Ramona. Beatrice, or Beezus (as everyone called her, because that was what Ramona had called her when she first learned to talk), knew other nine-year-old girls who had little sisters who went to nursery school, but she did not know anyone with a little sister like Ramona.”
– Beezus and Ramona, Beverly Cleary
“Even aside from the rain and wind it hadn’t been a happy practice session. Fred and George, who had been spying on the Slytherin team, had seen for themselves the speed of those new Nimbus Two Thousand and Ones.”
– Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling
Through these examples, you can see that the words are a little more advanced than The Boxcar Children and Junie B. Jones. The writing rule “show, don’t tell” plays a huge role in these types of books as the added details give children a chance to visualize what is happening in the story.
In The Tale of Despereaux’s case, DiCamillio uses a lit candle as a simile to show Mig’s “awakened” desire to be a princess and gives her a goal for later in the story. Not only does giving the reader this visual signal to them that this moment is important but makes the reader empathize with Mig and her goal.
Or, look at the excerpt from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Rowling’s mention of the rain and wind suggest to the reader how exactly miserable the “practice session” was.
While the Beezus and Ramona example seems to be doing the opposite of the “Show don’t tell” rule, the way Cleary writes that paragraph sets up Beezus’s feelings toward Ramona. The reader can feel how annoyed she is with her sister through Cleary’s choice to write the paragraph as someone’s thoughts, rather than their speech.
Now, if you’re still feeling nervous about your own writing—just start writing!
Do not stress yourself out with what to write. Just write your story. Use your experiences as a kid or with kids to help guide you with your children’s story.
Although children’s literature should be written mindfully and with respect, do not be afraid to challenge your audience with new ideas. Make adjustments in the language, if you need to, but don’t worry. Kids want to learn and to try new things!