Be Immature

Five Tips to Help You Relate to Your Young Audience

"But how do you know that you can write for children?" she asked.

"I'm immature and have a limited vocabulary," I said.

That answer, given to a woman in my writer's group, was meant as a joke. Later, as I pondered her question, I realized that it was true. I had listed two of five basics for a children's fiction writer.

Am I suggesting that those of us who write for children are less professional, less intelligent, than other writers? No way Jose! We just need to be more in tune with a child's world.

  1. 1. Be Immature

  2. "If I read that I need to get in touch with my inner-child one more time, I'm gonna barf. Uh, oh! Here it comes...raaalllfff!"

  3. Sound immature? Good. Now I'm thinking like a kid.

  4. How does a writer, especially one many years beyond high school, learn to think like a child? By getting in touch with an outer child.

  5. I watch cartoons everyday. Not just because I enjoy them -- which I do -- but because they provide valuable research. I'm seeing what kids see, enjoying what they enjoy. Try it. You'll begin to remember the shows that once amused you. Why did you like them? What made you laugh? What did you find interesting at age seven, ten, fourteen?

  6. Also, during cartoon time, you will be bombarded with commercials geared to children. Use these. You will find out what's hot, what's new, the latest styles, and the newest releases in kid flicks. If animation doesn't move you, there are plenty of other children's programs that will. Try watching with a group of kids. Their comments can be jotted down on a note pad to be used at a later date for dialogue examples.

  7. Speaking of dialogue...

  8. 2. Talk Too Much

  9. I can remember relatives asking my mother, "Is that child ever quiet?"

  10. That child was me and the answer was 'no' then, and it's 'no' now--at least in my writing.

  11. Spend an afternoon with a chatty three year old. You will be convinced: children love dialogue. A good conversation brings your subjects to life. Most important, dialogue breaks up the words on the page, making them less ominous for young readers. After all, what is the good of writing for kids if we can't get them reading.

  12. Never use dialogue just for dialogue sake. Make sure your conversations serve a purpose.

  13. Consider how this scene from Marvin Redpost: Why Pick on Me? by Louis Sachar, uses mostly dialogue to create tension, and set up the plot of the story.


  15.        "I won!" Clarence declared.

  16.         "You did not," said Marvin. "The ball was over the line."

  17.         "You're crazy," said Clarence.

  18.         "I saw it," said Marvin.

  19.         "You did not," said Clarence. "You weren't even watching.

  20.         You were picking your nose!"

  21.         Several of the kids on the line laughed.

  22.         "It was over the line," said Marvin.

  23.         "Go pick your nose," said Clarence.

  24.         The kids on the line laughed again, even Nick.


  26. Notice also, how Mr. Sachar didn't justify each comment with an adverb. He used the word said. Not, 'said angrily', 'said adamantly', or 'said impatiently. Yet reading this scene, a reader will feel all of these contained in the dialogue itself.

  27. Now that I've got you talking...

  28. 3. Have a Limited Vocabulary

  29. "Don't we want children to expand their vocabulary?"

  30. Of course! But if a kid has to pull out the dictionary on every other page, you will lose him.

  31. One way to keep your vocabulary in check, without getting bogged down in repetition, is to purchase a child's thesaurus. That is: a thesaurus written for elementary aged children. That way, you will be sure that your substitutions are appropriate.

  32. This does not mean that a writer should limit himself to three and four letter words. (Unless your targeting the very easy reader market.) In her picture book, A Porcupine Named Fluffy, Helen Lester used the word exhausted, to describe her two animal characters. She could have used a more familiar word like tired or sleepy, but they would not have been as effective a description. Go with your instinct -- just don't go to far.

  33. That's all I have to say about that. On to my next topic.

  34. 4. Have a Short Attention Span

  35. You've read five pages of a novel and the author is still describing the character's house, car, toenails, etc. What do you do? You put down the book.

  36. The first page, the first few sentences, should grab the attention of your young audience. For example:

  37.         "Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty. But I was just such a girl, and my story is worth relating..."

  38. These are the first two sentences of the book, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi. Are you curious to find out what happens next? So was I, and so was the author's targeted audience. This book won a Newbery Honor Award.

  39. Now that you have their attention, you will have to keep it. How many long flowery passages do you have in your story? Are they important to the overall plot? How many descriptions of secondary characters can be shortened? It's okay to say that Chucky has blond hair and freckles, but do we need to know what his parents look like, where his mother works, all the favorite foods of his six friends? I think you are getting the picture. Just remember, when writing for kids, the story must keep moving.

  40. Uh, I forgot what I was going to say next. I must have been...

  41. 5. Daydreaming

  42. This is the most important part of writing for children. Forget what your teachers said. Go ahead, gaze out that window. Examine each blade of grass. Let your mind wander, and wonder. Lose yourself in cotton ball clouds and always give yourself permission, even if only for a few hours, to be immature.

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