Monday, April 2, 2012

Mentor Monday: Age-Appropriate Literature

Barbara Turner’s well-written piece, posted last week, on how to test if a story is written for the appropriate reading level came at an opportune time.

I’d been thinking about the continuing argument between writers for children. It’s the “Who’s your audience?” group vs. the “Just write a good story, it’ll find an audience” group.

I happen to belong to the first group. I truly believe that when one is writing anything for children, one should have his/her intended audience in the back of one’s mind. Some of these leanings have to do with the 16 years I spent as a 4th grade teacher. A classroom of nine and ten-year-olds is a microcosm of variety. There are the kids who are thrilled to just be decoding any words at all and the kids that are devouring novels that are hundreds of pages long. There are the kids who stay up late watching R-rated movies while their parents are asleep and the kids who have not graduated beyond the latest Disney feature. Their world views are so different. Their needs are different. Their life experiences are different. But my former occupation is not the only reason I think kids’ writers need to think: audience, audience, audience.

I spent a recent evening with friends watching the first movie in The Hunger Games franchise. We were 8 adults aged early thirties to early sixties. Not a child in the group. Suzanne Collins’ story of a dystopian U.S. is meant to be a kids’ book. Yet, once again, a writer for children has appealed to adults. (Harry Potter or Twilight anyone?)

My daughter mentioned that she had given the novels to her sister-in-law who has three young children. The sister-in-law read it and thought her oldest (age 10) might like it too. Aimée was not so sure. She told me her niece had not made it past the start of the Harry Potter books because it frightened her that Harry’s aunt & uncle made him sleep in a cubby under the stairs.

Some of the characters in The Hunger Games, “the tributes” who must fight to the death, are not much older than Aimée’s niece. Yet, is the book suitable for her? I don’t think so. Not yet. Even though truth can be brutal, not every child needs to hear “truth” at the same time or in the same way.

Barbara Turner’s post dealt with writing words that can be deciphered by children of a specific age and skill. While we’re honing that skill we also should take into consideration another point: not only who can read our stories but who will read our stories.

Some decisions seem obvious. You wouldn’t put profanity in a picture book. You wouldn’t submit a horror story in rhyme. But other things are a bit stickier.

Remember learning about Benjamin Franklin in grade school? His inventions? Poor Richard’s Almanac? His work as a statesman helping to build a new government? Here’s what you didn’t know about him in 5th or 8th grade: that he was known as a womanizer in Europe; that he had an illegitimate son in England; that he once advised a friend on how to choose a mistress. All these “truths” were not necessary to successfully introduce a child to the life of Franklin.

In the same way, it is not necessary to go into great detail—for younger readers—about violence, murder, or sex. Stories should elicit emotions from their readers but I believe an author can do that without going into very specific detail when the expected reader is a young person.

Next time, I’ll provide examples of authors who successfully brought emotion into their manuscripts without resorting to overly detailed descriptions.


I'm Jet . . . said...

You hit it right on its head, Mur. Emotional readiness is a big part of matching the right book to the young reader.


Karin Huxman - Romance Author said...

I don't know how many times, as an elementary school library/media specialist, I had a conversation with a parent or teacher of a 2nd or 3rd grade student who was reading way above their grade level and how difficult it was to find interesting fiction for them that wasn't too sophisticated for their younger world view. I had parents who wanted me to censor books from the library, clearly for older readers, so their kids couldn't get their hands on them. Tricky.