5 Tips for Writing for Kids and Teens

tagged : kids, YA, how to
writing for children and young adults

With all the kids running around the neighborhood in summertime, the mind can easily wander to thoughts of writing for little ones ... or bigger ones in the tween and teen age groups with their fascinating blend of vulnerability and strong sense of what is right and wrong in the world. But writing for children and young adults is anything but child's play. As Marion Crook, author of Writing for Children and Young Adults, explains below, the writer aiming for these audiences needs a keen understanding of the psychology and reading levels of different age groups.

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I have written for kids and teens and written for adults. The basic components of the story are much the same: appealing characters, interesting settings, and gripping plots. But while adult readers come in age groups with genre-specific interests, the distinctions are less sharp than for kids and teens. The following are some guidelines I find helpful for considering how to approach a book aimed at younger audiences.

1. Understand and Respect the Age of Your Reader

The successful writer of kids' or YA titles respects her audience's reading ability. Certainly some readers in an age group are more accomplished than others, but you need to be clear about the imaginary reader you are writing for and make sure that your work is accessible to that reader. Readability tests are available on the Internet. This article rates a Flesch-Kincaid score of 34 (90 would easy, 10 might be your rental agreement in legal language). The average grade 11 student could read this.

A reader's comprehension of the story is also a key issue. Most readers under ten are confused by the first-person narrative and want a chronologically straight story. You wouldn't expect to find a book with flashbacks and a tragic ending aimed at an eight-year-old reader or pages of philosophical self-talk for a twelve-year-old. Children expect to read for excitement, enchantment, information, and increased understanding of their world. It’s a good idea to have a clear grasp of what their world looks like to them before you invite them into your imaginary one.

2. Know the Market

Where does your book fit in the market? Cruise the shelves of your nearest books store. Check the online stores for new books in the age level you are writing for and read the first few pages. Pretend you are the editor of the publishing house trying to sell your book to the marketing department. How could you describe your book so that it fit into the present marketing goals of the company? If the company is selling a line of teen vampire series and your book is a teen who inhabits the body of an owl at night, you might have a fit. However, if your teen protagonist is a pioneer in 1837, you may look for a company who sells historical novels.

The YA market in particular is a fast-moving trendy market that rises and falls rapidly. Check out the trends. Your novel may fit into the young adult market, but if there is no one selling any books like yours, you may have to create a fantastic proposal to show why a publisher should take a risk with your book—a much harder task than fitting into an ongoing program. Having said that, however, there is always a market for a great story.

3. Create an Appropriate Format for Your Age Level

Readers have expectations of format. They graduate from picture books with no text to picture books with some text to chapter books with some illustrations to books for six to eight-year-olds with text and occasional illustrations or photos. These run from sixteen-page formats to 64-page formats. Juvenile books can run to much more text, although companies may have a series that requires a particular word count, often 15,000 to 25,000 words. Juvenile and young adult books resemble adult books in size, often mass market size. They also may have the glossy paperback look of adult mass-market books. The length of young adult books is usually 40,000 to 60,000 words but it can be much, much more. The length is not as circumscribed now as it was formerly. Thank you, Harry Potter!

4. Be Content-Specific for the Psychological Profile of Your Age Group

Psychology can help us to understand what matters to children as they develop. Six to ten-year-olds want, among other things, to achieve success in some venture or sport, and they admire those who do achieve. They like adventure; they want action; they want to feel safe. Twelve to fourteen-year-olds want to belong, to have friends, and to establish their own morality. They demand justice and are affronted by unfairness.

Of course, children’s intellectual and emotional development is much more complicated than this and requires serious inquiry. Understand what most children of your protagonist’s age find important and work with this. Also, be aware of the particular world your protagonist inhabits: not all children live in two-family houses, not all parents have jobs, and not all children have enough to eat. What is normal in your protagonists’ world? How do they think about it?
 
5. Use Appropriate Language

The use of language is probably the most particular and intriguing aspect of writing for kids and teens. Read-alone books for children aged six to eight are difficult to write because the language must be simple, direct, and constrained to a restricted vocabulary—kids this age don’t know how to read many words. Juvenile readers usually have a greater vocabulary, although the ability to read is highly individual. Publishers usually require that you be at least close to what they consider an appropriate reading level. While a few difficult words can stretch the reader’s vocabulary, too many will be overwhelming. Readers want to be caught up in the story, and do not want to have to stumble and stop in the bog of esoteric words. The writer, then, has to know which words help to make the story clear, and which ones make understanding difficult.

Writing for a specific age level requires understanding what matters to them, as I said above, but also how they think and how that thinking comes out in diction. The “authentic voice” is crucial to your intimacy with the reader. You need to enjoy the way your characters think and talk—and that talking has to resonate with the readers.

All age groups are interesting, but teens are particularly fascinating to me. They are a collection of individuals with particular ideas, prejudices, concerns, and hopes. They want novels that give them beauty and order, hope and role models. They want to know that they are appreciated, enjoyed, loved, and needed. Our North American society is very good at telling them they are unnecessary and unacceptable unless they are stunningly gorgeous, thin, rich, and exceptionally talented. Books, their own books, can reflect a more positive society to them. They need their own literature.

When you write for teens, you find that they use several languages: one for parents, one for adult strangers, one for contemporaries, and another for younger siblings. Sentence construction, use of words, and choice of words change as circumstances change. A teen who says to her friend, "I mean, I mean, ‘duh!’" is the same teen who can say to her teacher, "I'm sorry, I have no information on that," and who can say to her little sister, "Get real. Who knows?" Her varied diction is part of her personality and part of her life. It’s important to hear what she means underneath what she says.

If you interview teens in a group, rather than individually, you are more likely to hear the teen jargon and superficial, fast talk. If you can get one or two teens to trust you, and you meet with them, they will tell you how they really feel—if they know.

In whatever way teens speak in your book, they need to speak as they think and feel. That means you have to know them well. You need to write for teens and for all kids about matters they care about in a way they can appreciate and understand. And it isn’t always easy.
 
Marion Crook is the author of Writing for Children and Young Adults, published by Self-Counsel Press. She has written ten juvenile and YA novels and four non-fiction YA books. New to Twitter, Marion can increasingly be found here; follow her for her #TuesdayTips.

July 23, 2013
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