In part one of this article, we discussed how children are smart enough to detect unsolicited lessons, fake narrative voices, and lack of interest on the part of the author. In this part, we will discuss how they resent condescension and how easily they lose interest if you do not provide them enough information to be able to understand the book. It is really like walking a razor's edge – a very fine balance indeed. So here are a few more aspects to consider when you are writing for children.
Are you trying to dumb it down?
We grown-ups are guilty of underestimating children. Children are more perceptive than we give them credit for, and a simplistic book that deals only with blooming flowers, rainbows and fairies may not make the cut with them. Death and loss are real enough to them, and since children are probably facing these realities for the first time, they are tougher for them. A good book deals with these subjects with finesse. And one such book is My Name is Mina by the British writer David Almond. The book deals with complicated issues such as bereavement, loneliness, grief, abandonment and isolation without oversimplifying the language and emotions. Consider this excerpt from the book, and it is worth keeping in mind that the narrator is a 9-year-old girl, Mina:
“Mum has made a little model of Dad – it looks nothing like him, of course, at least not when I compare it with his photographs, but somehow it seems to be more like him than the photographs do.”
And consider this excerpt from Roddy Doyle's Brilliant:
“The house was full of mumbles these days. Mumbles that often stopped whenever Raymond or Gloria walked into the room. Mumbling was what grown-ups did when they thought they were whispering. Whispers only stayed in the air for a little while but mumbles rolled around for ages, in the high corners, along the window frames, all around the house.”
The imagery is impeccable. Considering the book is meant for 7 to 11-year-old the imagination is perfect for a narrator of that age group. It is believable and is probably how imaginative 7-year-olds think of the world.
Are you assuming knowledge on behalf of your readers?
There is no doubt that children are perceptive and that you can't afford to dumb down your writing, but it is equally true that some topics, some words and some emotions will be unfamiliar to them. But this does not mean that you should talk about things children know already. On the contrary, your book will appeal to the young readers if it makes them curious and introduces new concepts and words without intimidating them. Whenever you feel that a concept or a word will be unfamiliar, there's no harm in offering an explanation, though this is probably easier done while writing non-fiction, but skilful writers can do it in fiction too.
I will quote again from My Name is Mina:
“Weirdly enough, the sad things in my life make the happy things seem more intense. I wonder if other people feel like that, if they feel that sadness, in a weird way, can help to make you more intensely happy. That's what is known as a paradox, I suppose. PARADOX! What a word! It sounds good, looks good, and the meaning's good! And if something is a paradox, it is PARADOXICAL. Which is an even better word!”
Writing for children isn't less or more difficult than writing for any other audience. The key in all the cases is to be honest to yourself. Fake, insincere, hollow writing can be spotted easily, not only by well-read adults, but also by children. And while adults might mince their words, children won't.