Engaging the World's Most Ruthless Critics – Children (Part I)

Engaging the World's Most Ruthless Critics – Children (Part I)

Vibha Malhotra

A firm believer in the power of books, Vibha is convinced that while science and technology are the body of a society, art and literature are its soul. A writer, poet, reviewer, editor, and creative writing tutor, Vibha is the founder of Literature Studio (www.literaturestudio.in) and a Consulting Editor at DK.
May 16, 2015

Quil Artwork

All of us who have some contact with children, especially those below 10 years of age, know how difficult it is to keep them engaged. Children are easily bored and when you are working on a book meant for children, you need to keep this in mind. But this is perhaps just the one of the challenges you will face when you are writing for children. Having studied Writing for Children and Writing for Young Adults as subjects during my MA and subsequently working with DK on books that were meant for younger audience has given me some insights into the art. And based on my experience, following are some mistakes that may land you in trouble with young readers:

Are you trying to pack in a lesson?

World isn't black and white, and children, especially, young adults understand this. Lessons like “Thou shalt not steal” don't catch their fancy. Even if you try to be smart and sneak in a lesson, young readers will see right through you. So what should you do? The answer is simple: Don't try to pack in a lesson. If you tell tales of characters who face the same issues as children and teenagers do, even if these characters operate in a fantastical or dystopian world, a perceptive child is bound to draw out a lesson or two, without you trying to impart it. And that will be an infinitely more enriching experience for the child.

Does the story interest you?

If you feel the topic you are working on bores you to death, but will appeal to children, you need to rethink. You won't be able to fool your readers. C.S. Lewis, the author of Of Other Worlds, explains this beautifully: Nor, I suspect, would it be possible... to regale the child with things calculated to please it but regarded by yourself with indifference or contempt. The child, I am certain, would see through that... I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.”

Most writers who write fairy tales for children, love fairy tales themselves. If you don't like fairy tales, then you probably shouldn't be writing them, and if a concept seems too fake to you as an adult, it will probably not appeal to child readers. It is as simple as that.

Is your narrative voice realistic and relatable?

Especially in case of fiction, it is important to get the narrative voice right. Books that appeal most to children are the ones in which the narrative voice is true to their own age group. While it isn't possible for you to be able to perfect a narrative voice that works for all age groups of children, try to identify the most suitable age group for the story you want to tell, and create a narrative voice that sounds realistic for that. It may still not be possible to get it exactly right, but that is acceptable. As Claire King, the writer of The Night Rainbow, says in one of her interviews: “All voices in fiction are constructs, and I don't believe authenticity is as critical as a voice that is engaging enough to allow suspension of disbelief.”

One good way to create a believable narrative voice is to interact with children the same age as your narrator and take note of speech patterns. This research sounds like hard work, but will go a long way in helping you create a narrator who is believable and relatable.

These are just a few points that instantly come to my mind when I consider the challenges of writing for children. And these are by no means the only challenges. Anything related to children cannot be simple. We will discuss a few more challenges in the next and concluding part of this post. In the meanwhile, if you wish to write for children, read lots of children's literature. There's no better way to pick up best practices.

(To be continued...)


Illustration: Rahul Kumar


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