M.D. Spenser is the author of the popular 36-book Shivers series and a journalist. In his new column, Story Craft, he will help you improve your writing by sharing his decades of knowledge on the craft of creating stories for children. (Learn more about M.D. Spenser here.)
Don’t talk down to kids. They can sense it.
When you’re writing for children, your writing needs to be appropriate for the age group you’re targeting. That’s obvious. But avoid condescension. Kids can smell it. And it offends them just as it would you or me.
Ever sat down and held a good conversation with a six-year-old, maybe sitting on stone wall with your legs dangling off? Listen carefully and you’ll hear some sharp observations.
Children are watching. They’re learning. They know stuff.
One of the things they know is the difference between a story and real life. A number of Roald Dahl books, like “Matilda” or “James and the Giant Peach,” begin with the main character being abused or neglected. Of course, the kids win out in the end. But the point is that young readers understand the difference between a good yarn and something that’s actually going to happen to them.
This does call for judgment, both on the part of the author — and maybe even more on the part of the parent or caregiver. As a 17-year-old camp counselor, I once told a cabin full of six-year-olds a ghost story just as they were drifting off to sleep. Next morning, I found myself changing an unfortunate number of bed-sheets.
Nevertheless, kids don’t need to be treated with kid gloves. Too many people think you have to restrict yourself to saying things like “gumpy-wumpy cuddly-wuddly” to avoid any possibility of upsetting the poor little dears.
I think the poor little dears like to be challenged. Toss in vocabulary that might be a bit above their level, as long as the meaning’s clear from the context: “Bethany was disillusioned – things weren’t working out the way she had expected.” Figuring it out makes your readers feel good about themselves — and about your faith in them.
Make the story suspenseful, too, even if there’s just a bit of fear in not knowing how things will turn out in the end.
Remember the conversation on the stone wall with the six-year-old? Listen carefully and you’ll hear something surprisingly sharp. If you reply, “Hey, that’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of that,” you’re going to find you’ve made a friend.
Writers make friends with kids exactly the same way – by showing them respect.