Writing For Kids
What makes a kids’ story great?
How do you write for kids?
What basic rules apply to kids’ fiction: novels, short stories, interactive fiction and graphic novels?
Fiction gives children a chance to explore the world—to have adventures without danger, learn lessons without getting hurt, discover fantasy worlds, and explore values so they can develop their own compass to guide them through life. They can live vicariously through fiction. They can laugh and cry. Fiction can inspire them, give them insight into social issues and help them to empathise with others. It’s also fun and a great escape.
It’s vital that kids and young adults are empowered when they’re reading—that they have a sense of their own strength and can choose to make the world a better place.
10 Key Strategies When Writing For Kids
As always, remember, rules have exceptions.
1. The Protagonist Must Be a Kid
It’s a story for kids, about kids. They want to read about other kids having adventures, not about adults. They want to live vicariously through young characters and experience emotions and events through their eyes.
Tip: Kids often want to read stories about children older than themselves, so most authors create protagonists that are 1–2 years older than the age of their target readers. 8-year-olds enjoy reading about 10-year olds, who enjoy reading about 12-year olds.
2. Orphan Your Protagonist — Make Her Autonomous
‘Orphan’, in this sense, means ‘without adults around,’ rather than ‘parents who have died.’ Let your kids adventure freely by setting their stories in a world where the adults are absent or don’t exist.
Think of The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S . Lewis. Brothers and sisters flee wartime London to live in a house with a magic wardrobe that leads them into another world. In the movie Home Alone, Kevin is accidentally left behind when his family goes on holiday and has to defend his home against burglars.
Kids can go through portals, lose their parents, or have parents that are always busy or off the scene. How will your main character be able to get into scrapes that parents or teachers wouldn’t sanction?
3. The Kid Needs a Problem to Solve
Problems provide conflict and tension and keep our readers reading. This basic plotting premise applies to kids’ fiction too. However, the problem needs to be something kids can relate to. Typical problems that kids face include:
a. Conflict with others (parents, friends, siblings, bullies)
b. Something in their immediate environment that needs solving (pirate attack, the end of the world, a dragon in the toilet bowl)
c. Their own weakness or perceived weakness (cowardice, clumsiness, superpowers that are out of control, exploding pimples)
d. Anything else that could affect them (grief, loneliness,)
Try brainstorming about the types of things that worried you as a kid. Ask kids around you what problems they encounter. Scan library shelves and read back covers. Look in online book stores. Turn your ideas on their heads by listing the opposite to these problems. For example, ‘not being good at anything’ could become ‘being too good at everything,’ which poses a whole set of different social problems (friends being jealous, teachers thinking you’re cheating, others leaving the work to you). Once you’ve brainstormed your problem list, see if there are any themes that interest you.
4. The Problem Must Matter
Once you’ve found a good problem for your story, you need to make your readers care about the outcome, by raising the stakes. Here are some examples:
- A story about a kid getting a flat tire on his bike is not that extraordinary.
- A story about a kid getting a flat tire while being chased by a bunch of aliens is more interesting.
- But what about a kid who gets a flat tire while being chased by the same bunch of aliens who killed all her family members because her family knows a world-changing secret that, now, as the sole survivor, only that kid knows?
- And for older readers? What if that character is a teenager in love with one of those enemy aliens? Or has an alien as a friend?
- Find a problem, and raise the stakes, then raise them again so there’s more to lose. Empower the kids in the story by giving them the ability to impact more lives than just their own.
5. Kids Must Solve the Problem Themselves
You’d be surprised at the number of new authors that let adults rescue the kids in their stories. These stories don’t tend to work, because readers (kids) are not being affirmed as proactive and empowered.
Adults may assist if the kids enlist them. Adults can also doubt the children’s solution until they try it and find it works. However, it’s more satisfying to kids to have children solve the problem.
The method of overcoming the problem should stretch both the author and the readers. Kids like to keep guessing until the resolution of the story, so characters (and authors) need to come up with clever solutions. If you’ve written your character into a corner and don’t have a means of escape, try the ‘what if’ game, to test various scenarios. Brainstorm with friends, or with a group of kids or in an online forum. Don’t discard any ideas until you’ve hit on the one you like best.
6. In Kids’ Fiction, Adults Are Usually Part of the Problem.
A. Cause the problem
B. Compound the problem
C. Don’t understand the problem
D. Are ignorant about what’s really going on
Kids still need to solve the problem, despite meddling adults getting in the way, or being ineffective. Relationships with adults can provide a great source of conflict—the teacher that’s out to get Bob, the coach who nags Sally, Karen’s parents imposing restrictions that she has to break.
7. Protagonists need to grow.
Stories are about change—and kids’ stories are no exception. Kids like to see characters overcome their weaknesses, master their talents, and solve a problem or solve it, or learn to live with it. They like to see change, because, deep down, they want to know that they can overcome life’s obstacles and face challenges successfully.
In Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta learn about the value of sacrifice and loyalty, the power of rebellion, and that violence has consequences. They will never be the same again. Their friends who haven’t participated in the Hunger Games will never understand what they’ve been though.
In my interactive novel Dragons’ Realm—A You Say Which Way Adventure, the protagonist learns many strategies for dealing with bullying—including some that backfire.
8. Develop your voice
For readers to enjoy your story, the language has to sound authentic and resonate with them. Your characters must sound like kids, do things kids do, and think like kids.
As authors, we need to listen to how kids talk and what they talk about. Enjoy their banter. Incorporate their characteristics and foibles into your characters. Wherever possible, try to avoid clichés (there, I’ve just used one by saying that!) and have a fresh perspective. If your character is a teen with an attitude, then every sentence in your book is going to reflect that attitude.
What does this opening sentence tell us about the character?
It was a two-hoodie day—so cold I had to stuff newspaper in my sneakers.
The voice instantly lets us know the character is young (or wears hoodies) and can’t afford a jacket or winter shoes. We assume the character is poor. The voice is original, strong and fresh.
Experiment with voice. Kids like to see themselves reflected in stories, and the more you can get inside their heads and skins, the more authentic your story will be. [Editor’s note: see Holly’s short article here on getting inside your characters’ skins.]
9. Have a laugh
Writing is fun. Reading is fun too. Most kids love humour, so include it in your books. There are a variety of secrets for dealing with humour, which I will save for another blog post. For now, remember, if you’re not having fun, then your readers may not be, either! Inject some levity into your kids’ stories if you can.
10. Make your protagonist stand out.
There’s an increasing clamour for more stories about under-represented groups in society. For years, kids’ fiction has been dominated by stories about white males, and to a lesser extent, females. Be brave. Dare to be different. Research issues. Draw on the range of your experience to create characters that show diversity and inclusiveness. Our readers come from a variety of cultures, countries, backgrounds and races, with values as diverse as blooms in a garden. Walk in their shoes, live in their skins and help kids see themselves reflected in their stories.
I challenge you to create fresh, new heroes for our youth.
I love writing for kids and teens. I enjoy teaching creative writing workshops for kids. I love visiting schools and meeting my readers. I hope that you get these opportunities to engage with kids, too.