Copyright © 2011 Jerry Dunne
The beginner writer of children’s fiction can run quickly into difficulties if they insist on applying their own tastes and desires to the genre.
You cannot write for children some of the types of stories that you can get away with writing for adults. You cannot write a story that simply creates a mood, paints a sketch or any of these wonderfully modern and intellectually edgy kind of stories that lack plot, storyline and so on. The type, for instance, that often leaves one shrugging with indifference and a vague sense that someone somewhere is pulling your leg by publishing this sort of stuff. No doubt, there are those who will tell you that you just don’t understand what’s going on with this brilliant type of writing. But I have a child’s attitude to it all. If I don’t like it, if I find it lacks punch! then in my head I simply shrug. Naturally, some people see it as their solemn duty to put you down if you dare to criticise something they happen to like and feel is important. Many of us poor souls will simply bend our spoken words to their will and say out loud, yes, it’s quite good. But, of course, we secretly know it isn’t.
The child, on the other hand, is thoroughly used to this sort of browbeating, intellectual or otherwise. They are lectured at day and night by the adult world, some of it useful, some of it finger-wagging nonsense. But when it comes to children’s fiction, the genre offers an escape for them. This is exactly the same thing that an adult seeks when reaching for fiction. This means the writer must cater to their tastes and desires. The writer must see the world from their perspective. This is something that many without the necessary imagination are simply unable to do. The child will not read for entertainment what you want them to read. You cannot blackmail them with attacking their lack of sophistication, or lack of intellect or lack of high culture or whatever. These are all concepts that force us poor adults into complying with the browbeating highbrows, but for a child this sort of intellectual bullying flies right over their heads.
So, as far as being entertained is concerned, they get to set the terms of the engagement. If you in any way try to argue against this, if you think that you know better than they what they should like, then you are shark prey. Think about this! Your story isn’t just competing with other stories for the child’s attention, but with film, TV, comics, computer games, sport, play, ice cream and general idleness.
An adult loves to write about things that concerns them (no surprise). But unfortunately, some insist on doing this exercise through the format of a children’s story and then trying to push it as a story for children. Sometimes this takes the appearance of an ‘allegorical tale’. These overwhelmingly don’t work. The adult is thinking too much about the allegory, rather than the story itself for their supposedly target audience. These stories usually turn out to be stilted, poorly plotted and boring tales.
Always consider the audience! And forget about your adult angst thinly veiled within your allegory! The child doesn’t care for it, unless it’s what she or he happens to share in their own lives. But the allegory will probably go over their heads, anyway. It often goes over mine. Once more, look at what they want to read! If you want to do angst, find out what their angst is all about. But beware here, too!
Angst ridden stories can work, the very best children’s writers can pull it off, and girls in particular like these stories. But the point is that the writers really understand what their readers want. And they are mostly novels, anyway, and mostly for girls touching their teens! These types of stories revolve primarily around character development and relationships and don’t have too much of a racy plot going for them. Many child readers, particularly boys, find it difficult to get into these stories. Be sure, if you go down this path, that you know who you are writing for. You are splitting the child audience, including some, but leaving others out, though this is probably inevitable, anyway, to some extent. As long as you are aware of it, and are happy to do it, all well and good. At least you’ll have a readership.
So, if you simply write what you want to write thinking it will be enjoyed by a child reader, you are taking a big gamble. A few gifted and natural children’s storytellers can do it, but they are few and far between. Most of us need to be aware of what works for the young reader and what doesn’t. You become aware of what works by reading lots of successful children’s stories.
If you think about it, if you can entertain children with your writing, your writing will have an influence over them, a powerful influence that does not have to be so apparent, not even in their childhood. Sometimes, a story takes decades to seep through the psyche. You know what I mean when I say this: what about those books that you recommend to your children that you loved in childhood but have never consciously thought about since then. How about that for influence!
Write to entertain, give the children what they want, and maybe one day some parent somewhere might be pulling your book off the shelf in order to recommend it to their child because they themselves had once enjoyed it when young.
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