Friday, August 5, 2011

In Miniature: Writing for Kids

by Cat Woods

Over the weekend, my youngest son played baseball. Usually this isn't a big deal. We've been watching our boys hit the sticks for over a decade. But this went beyond normal. Youngest played in an All Star tourney against other teams. He swung his bat, scooped the ball and donned catcher's gear.

It was big person baseball in miniature. The whole thing was too cute for words and evoked warm fuzzies that are almost too hard to describe. Maybe the picture will help.

Little boys playing in the big league. When Youngest first got invited to be on the team, I scoffed. "They're so little. They don't have the experience or ability to play a real game."

Writers of juvenile literature are guilty of this same thing. We underestimate our target audience. We see picture books with their small word counts and think, "Ha! I can do that."

We pen ridiculous rhymes about Carlos the Croaking Cricket onto a page and call it good. After all, writing for kids is easy, right?


Picture books, chapter books and middle grade literature are not short cuts to getting published. In fact—as a writer who's had short stories, articles and poetry pubbed in the adult market and nada in the juvie field—I'd venture to say that getting a byline in the kidlit arena is more difficult than pubbing for big people.

The reason? Kids are big people in miniature. They can hit the ball, round the base, tag a runner and read a book—or at least listen to one—just like the grownups they hope to someday become.

They are not less worthy of reading a well-crafted story than adults are. Likely, they require far more from their favorite authors than we big leaguers do from our own. Like adults, they demand quality characters and amazing story arcs—in far fewer words than the latest Grisham novel.

  • Characterization: a cutesy name doth not create character connection. Clara the Caterpillar is no more a story than Hannibal Lector. Clara needs strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes and a personality that draws kids in. Kids may be accepting and make friends easily, but they are not shallow. They want a character they can relate to—and since their experiences are limited by time on this earth and not limited by a supressed imagination, this is a tall order for writers.
  • Word Choice: writing a fraction of the words isn't easier. In fact, it is much more difficult. Writers have to say the same thing in a clear and concise way. Every single word counts. Literally. Today's picture book market trends to 500 words, while chapter books top out around 10,000. Writers simply cannot afford to pad their manuscripts with extra words. Verbs must be strong. Adverbs non-existent.
  • Description: so how do we evoke strong images without the padding? A lot of it has to do with illustration. When text pairs with pictures, a fuller story can be told. Writers don't need to describe red shirts with blue stripes. The illustrator can fill in those spaces for young readers. Seems simple, but description goes beyond an adjective or two. Think of how often the gentle fall breeze rustles the leaves as evening dawns against a pinkened sky in your favorite novels. In kidlit, virtually all description is purple prose.
  • Emotional Content: children don't want fluff. They want stories that evoke a full range of emotions. They want to laugh, cry, scream and squeal. They love hiding their faces under the covers or in Daddy's shirt. In other words, they want the good stuff just like you and I.
  • Story Arc: simply telling a story about a night crawler, a pirate or a lost dog isn't enough. Like big people, miniature peeps demand a conflict and a resolution. In 500 words (sometimes less), a story must still have a protagonist, antagonist, character growth and a satisfying climax. Not to mention that kids love plot twists and stories with unexpected endings.
  • Theme: teach, but don't preach. Can you imagine the strike that would follow if authors pumped out novel after novel of moralistic tales? Ones that shove the theme in your face over and over again? Concept books can be a great addition to a child's library, but all books should be pleasurable to read. Kids are not dumb. Their vocabularies may be smaller (maybe), but their ability to comprehend a well-crafted story is the same as ours. Their bull-shit meter is also highly sensitive. They can sniff out and reject moral lessons faster than the Devil himself in Sunday School.
  • Vocabulary: as long as we're on the topic, books are a great place to stretch a child's vocabulary. Instead of a boat, can Clara sail a sloop? Children use context clues to decipher meanings. This skill is invaluable to readers of all age groups—adults included. If writers don't stretch audience vocabularies, readers will never grow in ability and skill. This is a particular loss for kids, as childhood is the window of opportunity for language development.
  • Rhythm: as many picture books and chapter books are read aloud, a certain lyrical cadence must be present. The words must roll off the tongue and not stop the flow. Readers shouldn't stumble all over themselves to spit out a slew of sloppy sentences and poorly penned paragraphs. You've probably heard that writers have an inner ear for great sentence structure and lyrical writing. Books in miniature showcase this fine-tuning. BTW, alliteration can almost always alter an anecdote's rhythm.
  • Rhyme: this is likely the biggest no-no for beginning kidlit writers. I scream this from the housetops: the story comes first. Write the best story you can, with amazing characters and great story arcs that teach subtle lessons. Only then are you allowed to rhyme. If a story lacks any of the above components, end rhymes are not going to save it.

As you can see, writing in miniature is more than cutting word counts and penning tales for tots. It is creating solid, well-crafted stories in fewer words for a discerning audience.

I am happy to admit my assumptions were wrong about our Pint-Sized Players. Who knew seven-year-olds could work as a team and make honest-to-goodness double plays? I didn't, but I do now.

So, fellow scribes, what words of wisdom do you have for writing in miniature? How is writing for children different than writing for adults? What is the same? If you write for kids, what appeals to you about the process? What is the most difficult aspect, in your opinion?


Richard said...

Very good post.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post, Cat. I find kids are very discerning readers. If they feel the author is talking down to them, or trying to teach them something, they usually drop the book. They want characters they can care about involved in interesting situations. Not as easy as it sounds :)

Matt Sinclair said...

With my pair of little ones, the rythym is vita. And just as with adult writing, voice is crucial. At least for toddlers, I find they want a story to sound like mom or dad.

cherie said...

Excellent post, Cate!

I have two little ones so I've had my fair share of reading picture books and juvielit. I can always tell which books are going to be winners (judging by the attention span of my 3-yo who would rather be jumping on the bed than listen to a story): great illustrations, a relatable conflict, and of course, characters that are endearing (endearing does not always equal cutesy). Plus if the book is too lengthy, the kids start wandering off. So yes, juvielit is definitely a lot harder to write.

Connie Jensen said...

Very good post. My five year old grandson told his teacher that a book she sent him home with had "no point" Apparently though, it did have all the sounds he is meant to be learning! These sort of goody goody books should be treated with the contempt they deserve. i hope we are not bringing up a generation of children who meekly accept them because they have been told to read them. Sadly, these sort of mechanical ways of teaching reading- or rather decoding- just make many children bored and switched off.Many will never get to read real books.

catwoods said...

Thanks, Richard!

Jemi~ I love hearing from educators on this topic. So very important that writers understand what (good) teachers see first hand.

Kids are, indeed, picky readers. Preaching is the quickest way to turn them off to an otherwise wonderful book.

catwoods said...

Matt, great point. I think picture book writers can forget that voice is two-fold for these youngsters.

The words themselves must lend well to the adult voice reading them. Kids love to be engaged and if readers are fumbling all over themselves, well, attention spans can be lost pretty quickly!

catwoods said...


Length is HUGE when writing for little ones. We've tossed great characters in the trash because the story took so long to appear on the page.

Thanks for that reminder. Especially since now, shorter is coveted by publishers. Five hundred words isn't a lot of time to tell a story, but it's about all we have in this day and age.

catwoods said...


You're grandson is very astute, and I hope writers will take his words to heart.

If kids don't connect with a story, it doesn't matter how great the premise is or if it has all the right teaching tools.

And once we push too many books with "no point" into their little hands, they quickly push all books back at us, assuming that they are all the same. Many young readers have been lost this way, and since reading is the single most precious gift, we need to be mindful of writing for kids, not at them.

Thanks for this perspective!