Writing for children – a new experience

As I am taking a self-imposed leave of absence from Victorian England and the supernatural encounters of a certain man named Jason Dark, I have been working no some material to branch out. No, I am not tired of writing Jason Dark mysteries — far from it — but I felt that I needed to add a little diversity to the books I am publishing. The idea is that I want to reach readers that I simply cannot entice to read horror mysteries — such as children.

Yes, you read correctly. I have written a book for children. A middle-grade adventure, to be exact. It is one of those things that happen to you when you’re a parent, I suppose. You start taking an interest in the material your own children are reading and you begin to detect that some of this is actually quite interesting or intriguing. In my case, it sparked an interest to write some stories for children myself.

Easy as pie, you might say, but don’t be fooled. Writing a book for children is a lot harder than writing a book for adults. The reason is quickly becoming obvious when you consider that you are trying to tell a story to someone who has only a fraction of the vocabulary of an adult. Word choice is one of the most critical elements — and one of the biggest challenges — when you write for children.

When we write a novel, it is easy for us to create diversity by spicing up our writing with words of different meaning, sometimes relying on very subtle nuances of these words to create atmosphere, mood or action. This is a lot hard to do when all you have is one or two words for a meaning.

Let’s say, for example, in your children’s book you want to write about a dark and foreboding room. For adults we could draw from a wide variety of words to create the right mood for this. The room could be gloomy, dark, depressing, spooky, ominous, foreboding, shadowy, malignant, pitched in darkness or even tenebrific.

When you write for middle-graders, out of that entire list only two or three words could be really be applied safely. Maybe a few more, depending on the exact age range you are writing for, but the general point I am trying to make is that your vocabulary is severely restricted. In order to be able to still paint vivid images with your words, you end up doing a lot of wordsmithing. I spent a lot of time revising my book over and over again. Not so much for content itself, like it is often the case with my stories for grown-ups, but instead to create sentences that flow easily, that have a solid rhythm. I will check sentences to make sure they are word appropriate, I will double-check sentences to make sure they do not run too long, and I will remove most of my sentence modifiers, rephrasing paragraphs to make the clear and to the point. All of this is essential for young readers to be able to follow your writing.

Much of this is actually good practice when writing for adults, also, but naturally there is a lot more leeway. Starting with the word choices, adults have a much wider knowledge base, usually, a vocabulary upon which we can draw as writers to create more colorful prose.

Naturally, in books for adults, we also want to make sure our sentence structure is not always minimalistic and overly simplistic. While it is never a good idea to get lost in your own convoluted sentences, I do believe that insertions and modifiers can vastly define the style and voice of a writer.

For me, it was an experiment really, to see how well I would do within such limitations. Since English is not my native language I am always very conscious about potential weaknesses in my writing, and creating this book was an exercise for me to really get down to the fundamentals of it all.

Some time soon, I’ll tell you more about this exciting new book. It is completed and I am only waiting for interior illustrations and the cover to be finished.


5 Replies to “Writing for children – a new experience”

  1. Giulio

    I’m working on an idea for an animated children’s book. The Nook Kids website shows several books that seem to have some kind of animation. I experimented including an animated gif into a short trial using Sigil. Both Sigil and Calibre open the epub file with the gif animated, but when I tried it on the nook for PC there was only a static image. Do you have any suggestions?

  2. Guido

    The Nook software for desktops was completely broken the last time I checked. It could not even properly center text, so I’m not surprised that an animated image file wouldn’t work.

    Unfortunately Barnes&Noble has some serious work to do on their software end.

  3. C. S. Hand

    You should do one of those hip and trendy remixes (I have in mente texts such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and at the very end of your childrens novel insert a horrific conclusion =)

  4. LeNore Merritt

    I teach middle grades, 6-8 to be exact (8 years with those grades). I also read what they read. As in, we share books. You are right about stripped down minimalist style. They have no patience for description, unless it is of clothes or accessories. No insult intended. However, on vocab I disagree.

    While I wouldn’t use tenebrific, all of the other words you listed are found in YA books. If you mean 5th graders or below, which is 11 and under, then you are right. However middle graders who read have high lexile scores and large reading vocabularies. Plus, they can stay interested in a book with as many as 5-10 unknown words per page. Because they are readers they are able to extrapolate the meanings of words through context clues when their non-reading peers can not.

    By the end of the 8th grade nearly all students who read have lexile scores above 12th grade, which means they can read and understand adult books. Non readers remain at grade level.

    You do have to be wary of your metaphors because metaphors are interpreted based on the readers experiences and middle graders just don’t have a lot of experience.

    You are right about the more subtle nuances of words going a long way in adult literature. While YA’s don’t have the language or life experience to understand all the nuances, again they are taught to use context clues to interpret meaning. Just don’t use too many on a page

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