Thursday, May 21, 2015

Are your books too babyish? The grown-up way to write kids’ books, with 3 easy fixes.


Writing for kids keeps us young at heart.  How great is that?


But maybe you’ve made the mistake of thinking that “young at heart” means writing in a childish way.  Are you underestimating your readers’ intelligence?  Is your children's book TOO childlike? 

Sure, we’re writing for kids.  Sure, I feel like a kid when I write.  But we shouldn’t make the mistake of creating books that sound like they’re written by kids – or worse, babies. 

Here are three common problems, and quick fixes to make sure you don’t fall into these traps.

1.  Baby talk

Language development experts say parents should try to speak normally to even the youngest kids.  Some “goo goo” is fine if we’re playing around, but when you’re talking to a baby, you should make an effort to use real words.

Same thing if you’re writing for kids, even babies.  Use real words.  A grown-up is going to be reading the story, so you don’t have to worry that your words are too hard for kids to read.

And whatever you do, don’t make spelling or grammar mistakes – especially on purpose.  Don’t spell fruit as “froot” just because you think it will appeal to kids, or emphasize how hard something was by spelling it “harrrrrrd.” 

Would writers REALLY do this?  I assure you, they would.  I’ve seen some horrors out there.  But you’re the one I care about: don’t you do it.

The Baby Goes Beep, by Rebecca O'Connel and pictures by Ken Wilson-Max Two of the best books for fun language that doesn’t resort to baby talk are The Baby Goes Beep, by Rebecca O’Connell (pictures by Ken Wilson-Max) and Yummy YUCKY (and others in the series) by Leslie Patricelli. 

cover of Yummy Yucky, children's board book by Leslie Patricelli These books use a very basic vocabulary, without resorting to nonsense words or spelling boo-boos (see what I did there???).

image from Yummy Yucky, children's board book by Leslie Patricelli

image from Yummy Yucky, children's board book by Leslie Patricelli

(aren’t these illustrations hilarious???)

QUICK FIX:  Check the language.  Are all the words found in a dictionary?  If you use a word that isn’t, ask if it sounds babyish.  Would you use it in conversation with the teller at the post office?  If not, maybe consider skipping it in a kids’ book.

2.  Talking down

Kids know SOME stuff already.  Once they’re more than six months or a year old, they have some experience of the world. 

So even the youngest kids won’t be happy if they think you’re talking down to them.

Are you telling them something that’s completely duh-obvious?

See if there’s something new you can teach in a way that makes it seem like you’re sharing fun new information about the way the world works.

cover of Freight Train, by Donald Crews One of the best books for this is Freight Train, by Donald Crews.  Not only are the illustrations beautiful, lively and compelling, but the text introduces many new vocabulary words that wouldn’t normally be in a toddler’s repertoire:  trestles, tank car, hopper car, cattle car, gondola car.  Toddlers love knowing this kind of stuff.  They’ll feel so proud that they’re getting REAL ideas about the world.

image from Freight Train, by Donald Crews

[photo from Design of the Picture Book]

Introducing new ideas in a fun way is one thing, but we can also do this when it comes to concepts.

Don’t oversimplify ideas.  Sure, sometimes, you need to get complicated thoughts across in a simple way.  But you don’t have to lose accuracy to do that. 

Think about when a woman is expecting a baby.  It’s a serious oversimplification to say that the baby is in her “tummy,” or even “stomach.”  In fact, it can lead to real misunderstandings about biological processes (“If you love that baby, why did you EAT it?!?”).

Even the very youngest kids can understand that women have another place inside them.  The word “womb” or even “uterus” isn’t really harder to say or remember than “stomach,” if you think about it.  And those clear, precise words are fun to say – and no “dirtier” or more “graphic” than “stomach.”

QUICK FIX:  Did you write your way AROUND a concept instead of addressing it straight on?  Have you provided a lot of explanation about basic things that most kids would know, like the days of the week, or the fact that summertime is hot?  Ask yourself if you’re insulting their intelligence, and if there’s a chance you are – reword it or cut it.

3.  Not enough trouble

Your job as a writer is to make trouble for your character or characters… and then let them get themselves out of trouble.  Oh, and you’ve got to do it in a satisfying, believable way.

The biggest mistake you could make as a children’s writer is not creating enough problems for your characters.  Stories without problems don’t have enough tension.  They’re bland; they fall flat.

The good news?

It’s almost impossible to mess up in the other direction.  There is almost NO WAY to give your character too much trouble, or a problem that’s too large for readers to be interested in it.  The only catch is – he or she has got to solve the problem all alone.

So kill off the parents and any other grownup helpers who might mess with your characters’ ability to solve their own problems.  Kids get enough bossing around in their day-to-day lives.  Here are some tips to help you successfully “orphan” your characters so your story can get more interesting.

cover of A Good Day, by Kevin Henkes You know who does a great job of creating satisfying story tension AND resolution?  Kevin Henkes.  It helps that his drawings are absolutely gorgeous.  In A Good Day, some pretty serious things go wrong for all four animal characters. 

Like here, where the squirrel loses her nut:

image from A Good Day, by Kevin Henkes

[photo from the Writing and Ruminating blog]

And this little dog gets tangled up in his leash:

image from A Good Day, by Kevin Henkes

What kind of problems should the characters have?

Anything, really.

A Good Day proves that the problems you create for the characters in your book don’t have to be momentous.  They don’t have to be facing death or poverty or despair or any of the truly unhappy things in life.  They just need to be having a bad day. 

Who hasn’t had a bad day? 

(I had a terrible one earlier this week, when everything seemed to be going wrong… plus, our apartment was overrun by ants.)

The nice thing about bad days is that everyone has them sometimes.  And they always, somehow, come to an end.  In A Good Day, Henkes manages to have each character find a satisfying resolution to their central problem, and ultimately, it is a good day.

Letting your characters solve their own problems keeps kids on their toes, rooting for your hero and empowering them to take charge of their own lives.  They can’t get rid of parents in their real life – so why not give it to them in a harmless fantasy form?

QUICK FIX:  Scan your book for parents or parent-like characters.  How central are they to the story?  Who’s the main character, and what’s his or her problem?  Who solves the problem?  If it’s anyone other than the main character… you may be in trouble.  Figure out how the solution comes as a natural extension of that character’s personality.

Kids won’t realize why they don’t like your book.  They probably won’t think about it at all.  They’ll just decide it isn’t for them.  They’ll shake their head, put it down, and that’s the end of it.  You’ve lost your shot.

You can’t argue with kids once they’re holding your book in their hands.  Luckily, you can fix these problems before you publish the book.

How can you get started writing “grown-up” quality books for kids?

Let’s sum it up:

  • - Use real words.  Even big ones – don’t be afraid.
  • - Don’t talk down.  They’re children, no morons.
  • - Make trouble for your characters.  Root for your hero, but don’t swoop in to save the day.

Sure, you’re writing for kids.  But you’re a grown-up – and that gives you a huge advantage.  Use your special grown-up writing superpowers to create fun books that even the youngest kids will want to read again and again.

Love to read more?

Check out the Children’s Story Magic Writing Course – a book I wrote just for new and experienced children’s authors – to help you tell the story that’s waiting in your heart.  Comes with free downloadable worksheets so you can put every day’s lesson into practice.

cover of Children's Story Magic Writing Course, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

[baby photo © Paul Inkles used with permission]


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