Writing for children is like writing for adults—only harder.
People who have never tried to write for kids don’t “get” that statement. In fact, many children’s writers will tell you that they have been asked, at one time or another, if they think they will ever write a real (read adult) book.
Like adult literature, a good children’s book is marked by an interesting plot, fascinating characters, and enough tension to keep the pages turning. However, a writer for children must also pay attention to extra aspects when creating a story. We think about our intended audience in order to determine how easily they will absorb the tale. This ability is going to be based on the child’s level of reading skill and more importantly, his or her age. For most children, their age will tell us a little bit about their life experiences and their life experiences will color their perception of a story.
Here’s an example from my own life:
I'm about age four or five. I’m standing in the kitchen with my mother. She leans down to tuck my t-shirt into my pants. As she does so, the scoop neckline of her dress opens enough so that I can see something terrible: a hole! My mother has a long, dark hole in her chest! I experience an onslaught of emotions such as fear, curiosity, and amazingly, sympathy. I feel so bad for my mom. She has to live with that hole in her chest! It’s no wonder that she’s never mentioned it. She’s probably embarrassed. Well, I decide, I’m not going to make it worse for her. I will NEVER mention the terrible chest hole to anyone. I will keep her secret. I will not even ask her about it, because I don’t want to hurt her feelings. I am old enough to understand about hurt feelings.
What I don’t understand at that age is cleavage. Women in those days did not flaunt it. My mom is a pretty small woman. I’ve never paid attention to the shape of her body. My grandmothers—who were full-figured ladies—had big bosoms. But I don’t know bosoms. I know fat people. Some were fat on top (like my grandmas) and some were fat in the middle (like my grandpas). At that age, my life experience was limited to my ability to be observant. At age four or five, all you care to observe is what impacts you directly: toys, friends, food, love, comfort, feeling safe.
While such an example probably wouldn’t occur in today’s more open society, it serves to show that kids’ stories need to start where they are in life experience. Innocence has to do with the lack of life experience.
Books help kids to grow intellectually, too, but they are not going to succeed if stories start beyond the young reader’s ability to relate. There’s a reason the only kisses in a toddler book are from mommy or daddy. There’s a reason today’s 12-and-13-year olds consider phone texting as “going out” with someone. There’s a reason no book incorporating the U.S. tax code will ever win a Newbery Medal. Reality for a child Is not the same as adult reality.
As you write your story, think about the reader’s perception. Who is your audience? What will they get out of the story?