Sunday, February 16, 2014

Five quick tips to reach the kids you’re leaving out.

Try to guess which group gets forgotten most often when we write kids’ books.  This infographic will help you figure it out…


You guessed it:  the “have not” kids, the ones who are socioeconomically in that depressed left-hand group.  Not enough books, yes, and when they do open up a book, what do they see?

It’s not written for kids like them.

Chances are, the kids in the books have parents who are around to take care of them, living orderly lives in clean houses in good neighbourhoods (why are the neighbourhoods in kids’ books generally squeaky-clean, anyway???).

There are easy ways to open up your books to include these kids.

We care a lot about inclusion these days, and go to great lengths to show kids with disabilities, different skin colours and other differences in our books.  Writers are happy to create characters of different genders, who live in countries they’ve never been to, and had experiences they’ve never had.  But too often, poor kids are simply not represented.

Bring them inside 

Use these five strategies to help your kid include EVERY kid, regardless of economic status!

1) Give it grit

0688156347I’m not talking about putting a crack house across the street from your main character.  But maybe a mess in the kitchen, or a child going home with a key around his neck to add grit.  Poverty doesn’t mean there’s any less love!  In the book More, More, More said the Baby (a great one, for sure) by Vera B. Williams, a mother removes the cushions from a sofa to turn it into a bed for a much-loved and sleepy baby.  Why is she removing the cushions?  Because in poor families, that’s where the baby sleeps – there’s no crib.

2) Disturb the universe

Chances are, the phone or lights never get cut off in your book’s world.  Why not?  Toss in a little instability to convey to show that not everybody belongs to the cozy upper middle class.  Too much instability is scary, but a little – that’s exciting.  In Vera B. Williams’ (again!) A Chair for my Mother, a young girl must cope with her memories of a fire that destroyed her old house.  “Our cat was safe… But everything else in our house was spoiled.”  It’s an extreme example, but the mother holds the child’s hand the whole time and everything comes out okay in the end.

3) Delay gratification

0688040748Don’t jump straight from wanting to getting.  That’s not interesting fiction, anyway.  If  they want something badly, make them wait for it!  Make them save up.  Make their parents (or the universe) say no at first.  That’s the way it works in the real world anyway.  The real theme of A Chair for My Mother is not the fire at all, but about saving up pennies to buy a comfortable armchair where her mother can relax after a hard day of work.

4) Put mom and dad to work

S0380709163how the connection between their jobs and the family’s financial wellbeing.  I won’t mention A Chair for My Mother again, but how about Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and her Father?  They’re not exactly poor, but when Ramona’s father loses his job, the family must cope with money troubles.  “I think we’ll eat at home after all,” says Ramona’s mother at one point, “looking sad and anxious.”  Ramona has so many questions about money – and so does every kid.  Your story doesn’t have to answer them all, but why not cash in on kids’ natural fascination?

5) Pick on your characters

Re0689711735member Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst?  It sure wouldn’t have been interesting if nobody picked on poor Alexander!  Test their character by dumping on them just THIS much more than you are naturally inclined.  You don’t have to create a constantly-suffering Job or sad sack… just give him or her enough adversity to make life interesting.

What do those “have-not” kids see when they crack open your book?  Is it their world, a world they can believe in?  Or is it a fairytale realm too shiny and clean to believe?  It’s your choice, but choosing right can help create literacy and success for every kid.

Have I left out any tips for writing books that speak to lower-income kids?  How do you pump up the adversity, in general, without making your story scary or threatening to kids?


  1. Jennifer, this is great advice. I appreciate your attitude of "yes we can include these kids" against other voices that say "you're not qualified to write what you don't know."

  2. Thanks, Marianne! Feedback is always good. I was disgusted at one point when I read something about how some people thought Ezra Jack Keats should not have made his story, The Snowy Day, about a black character, because he himself was white and Jewish. We shouldn't draw these lines around ourselves and only draw who we are, that's for sure.

  3. Great Idea! I have included these children in my book Secret Melody. My characters are immigrant children. I wrote it because I was tutoring immigrant children and could not find a book with their voices.

  4. Elizabeth, your book looks terrific - lots of action and many authentic cultural touches as well. Thanks for stopping by!

    1. Dear Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod,

      This essay is very helpful for writers of realistic stories for children. More fanciful tales which do not aim at realism may appeal to children of all backgrounds.

      Best wishes for 2014!

      Janet Ruth Heller in Portage, Michigan
      Author of three poetry books, a scholarly book, and the award-winning book for kids about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Sylvan Dell, hardback--2006, paperback--2007, e-book, audio, and Spanish edition--2008, 3rd paperback edition and iPad app--2012)
      Website is

  5. Jennifer,
    I take particular delight in telling the stories of my 'rescued' toys that came mainly from 'op shops' for amazingly small prices. My 'Small Knitty Gritty Folk Tales' is written in praise and celebration of the courage and adaptability of the unwanted and unloved. I hope there's a valuable message for the needy, as well as a gentle prod to the conscience of the more fortunate.

    1. Christine, thanks for stopping by to share how you're reaching these kids. Those stories do sound terrific - and don't we all feel unwanted and unloved sometimes? :-)


As always, I love to hear from you.