Children and YA by David Elliott
Writing for Children and Young Adults 101
by David Elliott
The inimitable genius Maurice Sendak once famously said that he didn’t write for kids. He just wrote — and then somebody else told him who it was for. As much as I admire The Master, this may be just the tiniest bit disingenuous. Who else did he imagine was going to read books with titles like Higglety Pigglety Pop or Ten Little Rabbits: A Counting Book With Mino the Magician?
In many ways, writing for children is different from writing for adults.. And I don’t just mean employing a limited vocabulary. (You shouldn’t, by the way.)
Let’s take an expansive view and define children as everyone, from the newly swaddled infant up to and including the angst-ridden high school senior, who is still developing: physiologically, emotionally, spiritually. If that’s the case — and everything from neuroscience to depth psychology tells us that it is — then the writing necessarily has to be different, doesn’t it?
But there is one important way in which writing for kids and writing for adults is the same: They are both work, serious work. Even the funniest picture book can represent months, even years of labor on the part of its author. And that’s the way it should be. After all, putting a mediocre book in the hands of an adult is one thing. Putting it in the hands of a child is quite another, right?
Let’s get some basic vocabulary down.
In general, a picture book is 32 pages long, including title and dedication pages. Here the art and text are heavily dependent on one another. When writing the text of a picture book, you must think like an illustrator since the art does so much of the storytelling. But you should know that in the end, your book may look completely different from the one you imagined. Publishers, not the author, choose the artist. By the way, don’t make the mistake of accompanying your picture book manuscript with sketches by a friend, especially if the friend is an amateur, even a good amateur. It will hurt, rather than help, your chances. Again, publishers choose the illustrator. The author doesn’t.
In this format, children are making the transition from the picture book into more independent reading. Like picture books, early reader books are heavily illustrated, but the text is no longer dependent on the art. Often, dialogue has much more page-time than descriptive writing. Think short(ish) sentences without a lot of fancy subordination, appositives, etc. Many publishers have their own guidelines about text length, depending on the reading level. There can be a wide range of sophistication in this form. Check out Frog and Toad by Arnold Loebel. Or the Mercy Watson books by Kate di Camillo.
Now we’re in even dicier territory. Roald Dahl wrote middle grade books. So does J. K. Rowling. Yikes! Generally, think of middle grade books as those novels whose readers might be anyone from a precocious second grader to maybe a slightly immature sixth grader. (Harry Potter fans don’t kill me. I’m not talking about you.) Think of the age of your protagonist. That should help you place your book.
These are full-fledged novels, though generally much shorter than novels written for adults. Again, think of the age of your protagonist. Is he somewhere between twelve and eighteen? Then you might be writing a young adult novel. Oh, I should mention that there is no topic that’s off limits. Sex? Drugs? Rock and roll? No problem. Check out Adam Rapp’s beautiful 33 Snowfish. Or any of the books by Francesca Lia Block. Block thought she was writing for an adult audience. Her work was published as YA.
SO WHY ARE THESE FORMATS IMPORTANT?
While there are always exceptions, whatever you write should fit comfortably into one of these formats. If it doesn’t, a publisher won’t know what to do with it. And if that’s the case, you’re sunk. It’s important to remember that while writing is an art (with its feet firmly planted in craft), publishing is a business (with its feel firmly planted in profit). Increasingly, marketing departments have a say in what and what does not get published.
When you’re first getting your text onto the page, it may not be clear what you’re coming up with. Is it a picture book? Or are the characters better suited to a middle grade novel or early reader? Maybe you don’t know. That’s okay. Many writers tell stories of how they began a project thinking it was appropriate for one form and ended the project with something completely different. The process of how you get there isn’t important. What is important is that by the time you’re ready to send your manuscript out, it is firmly planted in the conventions of one of the forms I’ve mentioned above.
Your first task, then, is to familiarize yourself with these formats. Learn their conventions, and their limitations. Part of me hates this advice because, let’s face it: If everybody followed the rules, there would never be innovation. We’d never find new forms or new ways to tell our stories. So let’s hedge a bit and say that if you’re a beginner, maybe it’s best to know the rules before you flout them.
Okay. So you know you’ve got to immerse yourself in one or more of these forms. But how? Pick the format you think you might be most interested in writing and read. Then read some more. But wait! You’re not done! You’ve got some more reading to do, my friend.
If you’re not sure where to begin, go online and look for best of lists. There are plenty of these to choose from. Or ask your local children’s librarian, the hero of every children’s book writer, for some help. The librarian can put you on the right path. Or get a list of current award winners. Or simply wander the shelves and pull titles that look interesting to you.
That’s the easy part. The more difficult task is learning to read.
“You’re off your nut,” I hear you shouting. “I’ve been reading since first grade.”
All right. All right. But I’m not talking about any old reading. I’m talking about reading like a writer.
READING LIKE A WRITER
Read like a writer. What does that mean? Basically, it means that you aren’t reading for content, what the book is about. Instead, you are asking yourself the questions that will hopefully unlock the book’s secrets. Or perhaps better put, the author’s secrets. Questions like:
What writerly techniques has the author employed to trick the reader into caring so deeply about the characters? (And make no mistake, writing is a trick. If you don’t believe me, check out what Kurt Vonnegut had to say on the subject.)
What is the ratio of dialogue to narration?
Why did the author choose that particular point of view for this particular story?
How is the book structured? What is the internal architecture that is holding the book up? Chronological? Episodic?
What is the balance between showing and telling?
These are only a few of the questions you might ask. Again, the idea is to suss out the writer’s craft. It’s much easier than it sounds.
By the way, while that famous maxim “Show! Don’t tell!” is useful, it’s also important to remember that every writer tells — a lot. Imagine a book where everything is shown. You’d go mad.
What if instead of, “Joanna tied her shoes.” the text read:
Joanna’s first, second and third fingers of her left hand, curled around the brown, frayed lace. “It’s limp,” Joanna thought. “Like overcooked pasta.” Then, with the same fingers, but this time with her right hand, she nipped the lace that lay on the cracked concrete on the right side of her black-and-white saddle shoe. The shoe, with a total of twelve eyelets, had a scuff mark running diagonally across the toe and was worn down slightly at the heel, the result of Joanna’s tendency toward pronation. “Oh, where can the aglet have gone?” she wondered, releasing a heart-rending sigh of despair.
John Gardner has some very good advice about the never-ending dance between showing and telling. He says, and I’m paraphrasing here, that you can tell a reader almost anything, except what a character is feeling. That’s a good thing to remember.
Anyway, you get the point, I hope. Not about showing and telling, but about reading like a writer.
I forgot to mention that you can’t really do this well without taking notes. One of the first assignments I give my picture book students enrolled in Lesley University’s Low Residency Masters of Fine Arts Program is to do an annotated bibliography of School Library Journal’s “Top 100 Picture Books” (easily found online). After the bibliographic material, I ask them to write a brief summary and then two or three sentences that focus on an element of the book’s craft. Here’s a typical entry:
51. Stewart, Sarah. David Small, illus. The Library. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.
Elizabeth Brown loves books, and reading is all that she does. When she finally over the years has collected more than enough books for herself, she donates all of them to her town, creating a free public library.
Stewart uses rhyming and repetition on each page of her story. In the beginning and the end she uses the same phrase repeated with the same structure to bring the story full circle.
It’s a good idea to keep this kind of thing near your desk. Before you begin to write, read a random entry or two as a reminder of possible techniques you might … er … borrow.
NOW YOU’RE READY TO START WRITING
And this is where I leave you. (Hey! It’s 101, remember?) The truth is, no matter what anyone tells you, including yours truly, there is no magic bullet, my friends. The only way you can learn to write well is, well, to write. Write, and read. And that is up to you, and your deepest self.
I can leave you though with one or two or more random thoughts.
Your job is to tell a story. Not to teach a lesson. Children don’t want to be taught anything. Who does, really? Besides, the world doesn’t need any more schoolmarms. Children want to be understood. Who doesn’t, really? That’s your job, to show them that you understand, or maybe even that you don’t understand but that you are standing by their side in the chaotic, confusing task of growing up.
Be very careful about sentimentality. There is a big difference between real sentiment, that is, honest feeling, and sentimentality, the sugar-coating that so many people feel that children need — and like. They don’t. On either count. They like what we like. Honesty. Truth. Comfort. Respect.
Think of your favorite book. I’ll bet anything you’re thinking of a character right now. Harry. Or Àntonia. Or Matilda. Or Pip. That’s because almost always the reason we love a book is not because of its plot, however inventive that plot may be. We love a book because of the character at its heart, the one who works his or her way into our heart. Huck. Or Winnie Foster. George (of the curious variety). Or Lyra. This is perhaps the single most important thing to understand in all this hot air I’ve blown. The character is the story. Not the plot. Know (and love) your character.
In general, adverbs are not the writer’s friends.
Finally, read aloud. Language is music. Get it in your ears, in your fingertips, and on your page.
David Elliott is an award-winning author of many middle grade novels and picture books, including the New York Times “Best Sellers” And Here's to You! His latest work includes This Orq. He Cave Boy, illustrated by Lori Nichols (Boyds Mills Press, fall 2014); a young adult novella, Forever and Ever (Gemma Media, fall 2014); and On the Wing, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander (Candlewick Press, fall 2014). On the Wing, a collection of poems about birds, and the fourth in a series of similar volumes (On the Farm, In the Wild, In the Sea, all illustrated by the late Holly Meade), received starred reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal, the latter of which referred to the book as “stunning.” BULL, a novel in verse, will be published by Houghton in 2016. David teaches at Lesley University’s Low Residency Program in Creative Writing. He lives in Warner, New Hampshire, with his wife, Barbara Seebart, and a Dandie Dinmont terrier. You can learn more about David and his books at davidelliottbooks.com.