Voices in Writing For and About Kids
Well, the title of this piece promises a guide to writing for and about kids. This is an all-encompassing phrase that, I hope, will grab anybody who wants to write for or about any characters between the ages of about nought and eighteen. So, is this the part where I reveal that this guide is actually more limited than that? No it is not! At least, I have done my very best to cater to all possible needs, with the following handy headings:
Issues and Obstacles
The Voice of the Child: Advice on Writing Dialogue
Childrens Literature and the Narrative Voice
Young Adult Fiction and the Teenage Voice
I admit it: this guide is not going to be short, and while it is not going to be excessively long either, it will try to answer every question I have been able to anticipate.
Issues and Obstacles
Picture this. You have spent all week writing a story which features characters under eighteen years of age. It may be a childrens story, or it may be targeted at adults and happen to have children in it. You have emailed it to everybody in your writing group, and finally you go along to your seminar with a print-out of the piece. Your turn comes to read out your story. You do so, and then comes the hard part: feedback!
Everyone knows that writing for and about children is very difficult, and everyone has certain ideas about how it should be done. You hear advice like, A six year old would never say this, and, I cant believe hes fourteen - hes too immature.
Some of these people might be right, but some of them might be asking for a slap. You probably sat down to write this story with the intention of writing individual, multi-faceted characters of all ages, under the impression that every child was different. If you were under that impression, I shall say this to you now: you were right!
If you only take one piece of advice from this whole guide, let it be this: make your child and teenage characters individuals: do not let them be static or stereotypical. I suppose some people might be tempted to stop reading now, thinking: Thats it, then - I can make my kids characters say and do whatever I like! Well, you could do that, but please keep reading because I have more to say. My next piece of advice is this: however you characterise your kids, be consistent. That word underlined in bold, consistent, is very important. A child in your story may have a big vocabulary (more on that in a minute), but if he or she is going to use big words, make sure he or she does so all the time.
The Voice of the Child: Advice on Writing Dialogue
This section will talk very generally about children, as opposed to teenagers. What does that mean? Well, let us say anything between one and twelve years. My advice applies to all such characters you may want to write about, in spite of the obvious difference in speech and vocabulary between different age groups. Children mature and develop at different rates. Some children under two may string five or six words together, while others will not speak in sentences until they are three or four. If you do take my advice, please take it alongside your own judgement and ideas about your characters. I am not going to specify the ages at which children are likely to speak in certain ways.
Whether you are writing for children or you are writing for adults about children may make a difference to your dialogue. Personally, I hope it makes no difference at all. The best childrens stories have strong characters and gripping dialogue. So do the best adult stories. Children say what children say, no matter who reads it. The narrative, and your writing of other characters besides the children, will differ depending on your target audience - but this section of the guide is about the childs dialogue only, and it applies to all kinds of fiction.
Now, I shall return to my point about being consistent. You might write a story in which a small child utters a big sentence, and you could justifiably argue that a small child would talk like that. It is quite possible - but has the child been using short sentences and simple language up to this point? If so, you need to go back and change it. A child using sophisticated language is not unbelievable, but if it is not shown in the childs character throughout the story, it will be unbelievable.
Some people might try to tell you that a child of a certain age would not use a certain word. If someone does say this, I do not want you to dismiss it out of hand. Please think carefully about whether your character would, indeed, use that word. But of course, the answer may very well be yes. If you read a late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century childrens story, you will see that the characters use sophisticated language. To pick an author off the top of my head, try E. Nesbitt. Children may not habitually talk that away now, but they are impressionable and will pick up language from what they read. I have known many modern children to speak like a character from an E. Nesbitt novel.
They also pick up language from the adults around them. At what stage a child learns long, complex words depends entirely upon the words used in their presence. A child just learning to talk is likely to say anything his or her parents, or other primary carers, say. Even if the childs primary carers do not feature heavily in your story, it is still important to consider how they would speak to and around the child.
Having said all of that, I must now say this: do not try too hard to write as a child would speak. If you can make a child sound like a child, so much the better. I recommend that you read some novels by Hilary McKay. If you can, find one with a front cover labelled A Casson family story. Pay particular attention to the characterisation of Rose, the youngest Casson child. She speaks exactly as a child would - a six year old, an eight year old, or whichever age she happens to be in that book. Dialogue and characterisation are very strong in McKays writing, and she captures childrens voices beautifully.
Are you that brilliant? If you make a conscious effort to be so, you are likely to fail. Do please consider my advice, but if your child only sounds like an adult trying to sound like a child, it is not going to work. I could now get into a rant about the dumbing-down of childrens television this century, but I shall restrain myself, and only mention that I hate the British Broadcasting Corporation for it in relation to their Charlie and Lola books for under-fives. It is good that the BBC are encouraging children to read, but when I was a child, I would have been deeply suspicious of a book entitled Snow is My Favourite and My Best. This title was obviously devised by a try-hard adult, as any child could tell you.
If you cannot easily capture the childish voice, do not despair, and please do not go and get a job writing Charlie and Lola stories for the BBC. You do not have to stoop to that level. Instead, read something by Roald Dahl, possibly the greatest childrens author of all time. I never said this was an unbiased guide (and perhaps you have noticed by now that it is not), but I am not alone in my high opinion of Dahl. I recommend most of all that you read The BFG, The Witches and Matilda. That was and, not or; read all three of them, and pay close attention to the dialogue. You know the characters are children. When they speak, you hear the childs voice. But are they using a childs words? I should say not. If you are not as brilliant as Hilary McKay, then you are surely not as brilliant as Roald Dahl, but he at least demonstrates that a childs voice close to your own, adult voice can be effective in childrens literature.
I conclude this section with one more piece of advice: do not try to sound exactly like McKay or Dahl or anyone else. Brilliance can always be matched, but never duplicated. For the most effective story, find your own voice for the children therein.
Childrens Literature and the Narrative Voice
This section will be short. I hold up my hands and admit that I cannot give you very much advice on this. If you are writing a story for children, dialogue is just a part of it. Writing for children is hard, and we all know why, but I shall remind you:
1. You must find a balance between not patronising children, and not writing for them in a language they will struggle to understand. I said that children mature and develop at different rates, and I am absolutely right about that, but you can only really use that as a defence against what your characters say and do. For real children - the ones doing the reading - there is a certain reading level that most children of each age will be able to cope with. Some may surpass this level, and some may be behind it, but trying to write just for those select few would be a very strange idea and likely to fail.
2. You must sustain the childs interest throughout the story. I think I wrote what were probably some of my best childrens stories when I was a child, because I knew the pace at which I wanted my stories to run. The older you are, and the younger your target audience is, the harder it is to write for them.
I realise I am not being overly helpful here, but I am including this section in the guide because it is important to acknowledge that in a childrens story, the narrators voice is as important as the characters voices. You cannot simply use your own voice, as you might for an adult novel.
There are but a few pieces of advice I can give you. The first is not to worry too much about narrative voice on your first draft. Do your best to get it more or less right first time, but do not dwell on it. You can go back later, and edit it as many times as you need to. Second, I must give you the same old piece of advice that you will always hear: read the books in the current childrens market. See what other childrens authors do to good effect, and learn from it.
In my opinion, it is easier to write a childrens book in the third person than the first. I can think of very few childrens stories written in the first person, and all those that I can think of are in the nine-to-twelve age group. I suggest that it is easier to write as an adult addressing a child rather than as a child.
Finally, show your work to some children in your target age group when you think it is finished, or nearly finished. If they like it, this will be a huge achievement for you, and you can give yourself a pat on the back. If they do not like it, ask their advice and take it.
Young Adult Fiction and the Teenage Voice
When I began writing this guide, I did not plan to consider teenage characters in adult fiction, but it now occurs to me that I should. Essentially, the same rule applies as before: what I say about the dialogue of teenagers characters applies to fiction aimed at any age group. But of course, there must be an exception. If you are writing a story for young children and there is a teenage character in it, you readers parents will thank you to watch that characters language and behaviour.
I have noticed that in a lot of adult fiction, teenage characters are stereotyped. Perhaps that says something about the quality and/or range of adult fiction I read, but I feel that it is worth mentioning. Whether you want to do the same thing in your adult fiction is entirely up to you; if you do not think your readers will mind it, write your teenage characters as you see fit. But now I say something obvious: do not stereotype the teenage characters in young adult fiction.
Ask anyone who knows anything about it whether all a young adult story needs is a teenage protagonist, and they will (rightly) say no. However, if you write a good story with adults in mind but it has a strong teenage presence, you might be told that it has crossover appeal. Crossover novels have become fashionable since adults started wanting to read Harry Potter, but were too silly to want to admit to reading a childrens book, but it was not the first time a novel had been published in different editions for different age groups. Popular examples are Dodie Smiths I Capture the Castle (which I hated to a somewhat alarming degree, but that is beside the point), and Mark Haddons The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which I thought was fabulous).
Do not set out to write a crossover novel; no one does that, and yet some manage to produce crossover novels anyway. My advice is this: if you are writing a story for adults with teenage characters, make them unique and interesting and multi-faceted and not at all stereotypical, and everything else a character should be. If you do that, you may write a crossover novel without even realising it.
I shall now move on to the main point of this section: teenage, or young adult (YA) fiction. These are novels aimed at the thirteen-to-sixteen market. Many are written in the first person, but some are not. Although a teenage protagonist does not necessarily a YA novel make, very nearly (though not quite) all YA novels have a teenage protagonist. Whether you are writing in the first person or the third person always makes a difference to your novel, but either way, in this case you must write with a voice that will sustain a teenagers interest. But how? You may well ask!
At this point, I shall recommend two authors to you: Meg Cabot, and Carolyn Mackler. Both are American novelists who write for teenagers. Macklers fiction is, I feel, more literary than Cabots. Both authors capture the teenage voice effectively. Read Macklers best work, The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, or Cabots highly entertaining Mediator series, and see how soon you forget that the words were not written by teenagers. Then ask yourself: Can I do that?
More to the point, do you want to do that? I am thinking now of a specific creative writing teacher who would say yes, you do want to do that. He had very set ideas about what a fourteen year old would and would not say, even though - I stress again - not all fourteen year olds are the same. This teacher wanted me, in one story, to substitute pretty for fit. This, he insisted, was what a fourteen-year-old boy would say. I do not say he was wrong about that, but I do question his advice on how to improve my work.
I am not being precious and bitter, honestly. This was one point by one teacher that I disagreed with, and I even have support from childrens book editor Louise Jordan, who has written a fabulous book entitled How to Write for Children (and get published), from which I shall now unashamedly cite two excellent points.
The first point is this: by using contemporary slang, you will inevitably date your stories. This may not bother you, as an author. Sue Townsends fictional diarist Adrian Mole starts his life on the page approaching fourteen years of age. He constantly uses dead as an adverb (dead good, dead tired etc.), which I am assured teenagers did in the nineteen eighties. Townsend wants us to know when her novels are set. The Adrian Mole series continued into the nineties, and each book contains political references that date it very precisely. Essentially, this is an issue that comes down to personal preference.
Here I must mention Louise Rennison, who writes the popular, trashy and hilarious Georgia Nicolson diaries. She has avoided all problems relating to slang by giving her characters their own language, their own unique vocabulary, and incorporating it into stories so fabulous that teenage girls copy words and phrases from them, not the other way around. Rennison accomplishes this by using language she and her friends used as teenagers, many years ago, but it was so unique to them that it was unheard of until her novels came out. If you think you can do something similar, go right ahead!
Jordans second point is, I think, more pressing: if you try to sound like a teenager, there is a very real danger that you will sound like an adult trying to sound like a teenager. I made a similar point earlier in the guide; now, do you want to be the YA equivalent of the person who thought of Snow is My Favourite and My Best? As much as I hate to make generalisations about people of a particular age group, I want to say that teenage readers will be even less forgiving of this than children will.
So what do you do? Well, my advice is still this: find a voice that you can write with effectively. If you know teenagers, or if you have never been able to accept the fact that you are no longer a teenager yourself, perhaps you can sound something like a teenager in your narrative. If you are a teenager, then you need not be reading this. You know better than the rest of us, and can go away and write a YA novel right now!
Try to sound as much like a teenager as you possibly can. But if you fail then do not despair, because there are other routes you can take, and you will still be able to write a fabulous YA novel. Earlier in this guide, I cited Roald Dahl as a childrens author whose dialogue works brilliantly without really using the language of children. I now have a YA equivalent for you, and this is Jerry Spinelli. His novel Stargirl enjoyed critical acclaim in the US, and recently found its way over to me in the UK.
I loved it. Admittedly I am in my early twenties now, but for the book to be so popular, teenagers must love it too. When I think of it, I remember the effective exploration of old topics - first love, bullying, non-conformity
- in new and interesting ways; I remember engaging characters, a touching love story and, shall we say, an effective ending (I am giving nothing away, because I hope some of you will now go off and read Stargirl). I do not remember any teenage slang. Spinelli simply writes honestly, somewhat colloquially - but without trying to sound young - and very effectively.
Now, there is one more issue I must cover in this section: the old question of mature content! Some aspiring YA novelists seem to agonise over whether they should include coarse language, sex, drugs, whatever in their novels. I say if you want to have those things, have them! If you want your teenagers to swear, let them swear. If you want to have sex scenes, have sex scenes. If you want to have sex scenes but feel uncertain of their suitability, read Doing It by Melvin Burgess and you will not feel inhibited anymore. If your YA novel is then published and subsequently banned, or at least slapped with an age restriction label, so much the better: your readership will double in size.
If you made it to the end and read every word, well done - it is all very valuable, I can assure you. Do not groan and wish you had skipped to this part when I say that my advice to you can be summarised in the following three points:
1. Children are individuals, and so should your characters be.
2. Do not feel too restricted with the way they speak, but do consider what they say and try to make them believable, and above all be consistent.
3. Find a narrative voice that works for you. A slightly unrealistic voice is infinitely better and more believable than a forced voice.
Writing for children and teenagers is very difficult indeed, and takes far more courage than writing for adults (and you can pass that on to anyone who thinks childrens literature lacks difficulty and/or merit). But it is also very rewarding. Childrens books are the best loved, and the longest remembered.
Creative Writing Theory
How to Write for Children (and get published)
Georges Marvellous Medicine
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Exiles at Home
The Exiles in Love
Caddy Ever After
Five Children and It
The Railway Children
Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf
Polly and the Wolf Again
Tales of Polly and the Hungry Wolf
Young Adult Fiction
Junk (published in the US as Smack)
The Mediator 1-6
Love and Other Four-Letter Words
The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things
Vegan, Virgin, Valentine
Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging
Its Okay, Im Wearing Really Big Knickers
Knocked Out By My Nunga-Nungas
Dancing in My Nuddy-Pants
Note: There are later novels in this series which are also worth reading, but these four were the first published and made up the complete series for a few years. Some of Louise Rennisons novels are published under different titles in the US.
The Man Who Wasnt There
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Adrian Mole series, in particular The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 & 3/4 and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole