Last night at a party that had nothing to do with writing, I was tackled by a guest who had already published an adult book. No, he didn’t want advice on this as it was doing well. What he wanted from me was to read two stories his six year old grandson had written and to give him an opinion.
I pointed out that my opinion would make no difference to having these stories published. Unfortunately I wasn’t thinking fast enough to suggest he send them to The Children’s Charity competitions because this excellent group produce a magazine with the best literary and art work children can produce and that his grandson might have a goodly chance of being published.
Which leads me to the problem of how to cope with people who, when they hear I write for children, assume this means ‘story picture books’. These potential authors tell me they have a terrific story for children even though they have never actually written it. By the way SPB are regarded as ‘Haiku for Children,’ and extraordinarily difficult to write.
So here is some basic information for anyone planning to write for children. Unlike adult literature which pitches itself as being either literary or belonging to a specific genre such as science fiction, history or crime, and though all these genres are tackled in children’s books, more specifications should be kept in mind.
To put this succinctly, when writing for kids try and think of the reading age of the child you are writing for. This is how it works:
Baby books: usually one word a page.
Story picture books: aim at preschool and prep. Rarely more than 600 words and the illustration must tell half the story. Unless you are a skilled illustrator, don’t attempt these yourself. Also, don’t employ someone to do this for you unless you are self-publishing. Publishers like to choose their own illustrators.
Readers aged 7 to 9. These begin with simple stories and can progress to short chapters.
Readers 9 -12. These novels can range from 30,000 words to Harry Potter lengths. The themes and subjects can become extremely complex, but the language and tone should suit the reader. For example, when I wrote ‘My Holocaust Story Hanna’ the editor told me that children cope with a person being shot, but never a dog. Though open to all genres, I have personally found that fictionalising history works well for me as does science fiction and fantasy as language and technology don’t date.
Young Adult fiction covers just about everything tackled in so called ‘adult fiction’ though the protagonists tend to be young. Presently there’s a surge of books about mental illness and the difficulties youngsters can face. My verse novel ‘In Hades’ though based on Homer’s Odyssey, tackles homelessness and anorexia.These days young adult fiction divides itself into three sections: stories aimed at lower secondary readers, stories aimed at older readers and something called ‘new adult’. I have yet to figure out what that actually is.
Please note that regardless of the ages I mention, reading age is often be totally different to chronological age. You might have an eight year old genius reading Young adult books, and a Young Adult only ready to tackle something far easier.