Do you want kids to say "Wow!" when they read your stories? Author Mary Hertz Scarbrough outlines the common mistakes to avoid as you write for children to increase your odds of success.
You’ve come up with a great idea for a book or magazine story for children. You’ve let it rumble around in your brain for a bit, maybe you’ve even come up with an outline, but you’ve definitely kept your butt in the chair as you hammered out a rough draft. This is a significant accomplishment! Give yourself a pat on the back and maybe a teeny piece of dark chocolate. (If that’s your thing – purely for medicinal purposes, of course.)
But now, you’re asking yourself: Is this a good story? Should it go back in the drawer for further germination? Or should you consign it elsewhere – oblivion, perhaps?
I can’t pick the correct answer, other than to say that you should expect to write a fair amount of dreck – it’s the dues we all pay. Don’t beat yourself up on that score. Today, my focus is narrower: helping you avoid some common mistakes in writing for children.
Let’s say that you are writing a picture book about a feisty mouse – she’s in kindergarten or maybe first grade, and she’s beyond excited to show off her new purple plastic purse to her classmates. It’s the coolest thing ever – it plays a tune whenever it’s opened, and inside are three quarters that jingle and jangle. And to top it off, your character – let’s call her Lily – also has some new, glittery movie star sunglasses.
Understandably, your young protagonist is too jazzed to wait until sharing time to show her classmates. When she – not surprisingly – disrupts class, Lily’s normally hip/way cool teacher (we’ll call him Mr. Slinger), confiscates her treasures. Infuriated, she slips a rather nasty drawing of him into his bag right before the last bell of the day.
[So far this story is a winner! Keep up the good work.]
On her way home, Lily discovers Mr. Slinger has left a kind note and a bag of snacks in her purple plastic purse. Mortified and crying, she spills her guts to her parents.
What happens next? Do Lily’s parents make her write an apology? Do they call Mr. Slinger to tell him how sorry Lily is? Does Lily’s totally terrific teen babysitter step in with suggestions how Lily can say she’s sorry?
Real kids get told what to do, how to do it, and what not to do all the time. Parents, teachers, older siblings, coaches, music instructors – kids have to listen to adults blathering all the livelong day. Think of a child you know and start enumerating how many adults/authority figures that child interacts with on a daily or weekly basis. Sure, a lot of this instruction from one’s elders is necessary in real life, but it doesn’t make for good literature, not for a young reader, and not if you are the adult reading to a youngster. Ugh. It gets old fast. Give kids a break!
If you've been doing your homework, you have probably already figured out that someone – Kevin Henkes – has actually written this story, Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse. Here’s what really happens in this absolutely delightful picture book: Lily confesses to her parents, but we aren’t told their reaction. Instead, we watch as Lily wrestles with how to make amends – including a bout of woe-is-me. She struggles mightily, but finally comes up with the solution. Her parents provide some moral support, and that’s about it. In the end, Lily dictates the happy ending in a way that no other character could.
The quick and dirty point to all this: Ditch the buttinskys.
The slightly longer version: Keep parents and other authority figures in the background (at most); make sure their involvement is minimal. This rule applies even when you’re writing for really young kids.