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.
Trouble Right Here in River City
Back to Lily: She really, really, really wants to show her classmates her wonderful new things RIGHT NOW. She is a little disruptive, so Mr. Slinger asks her to wait. He asks her more than once. He is super nice about it, because that’s just the kind of guy he is.
Lilly keeps pushing, until finally Mr. Slinger has no choice but to remove the distractions. From then on, Lily gets more and more stoked with anger. Finally, she draws the naughty picture of Mr. Slinger and then slips it into his bag. (I'm repeating myself, but stick with me.)
Lily is endearing. She is adorable. She could be your child, grandchild, niece, or favorite student (although presumably none of them has a long, thin tail and pointy snout). You love her. How could you not?
Watching a child you care about get into trouble is painful. The agony continues as you see that beloved child struggle with the realization that she has caused pain to someone else. You want to rush in and make things better.
As a responsible adult in the real world, you resist the urge to step in, however. You know that we must all make mistakes in order to learn and grow. So you grit your teeth. Maybe you cry, but you do it in secret. Or, in a pinch, you say you have allergies.
Just as you want the best for those children near and dear to your heart, likewise you want only the best for this fictional creation that you have gestated and birthed. Sure, you know you have to have some conflict in your story, so you’re willing to give her a problem to overcome.
As a writer, however, you can make life easier for your character in a way you can’t for the real people in your life. So, possibly quite unconsciously, you take it a bit easy on your protagonist.
What NOT to Do
Imagine if the story ends after Mr. Slinger gently reprimands Lily and asks her to wait until the appropriate time to show her treasures to her friends. Lily feels impatient, so she tries again. Mr. Slinger again asks her to wait. She doesn’t want to – she feels cranky about it – but she does, and the school day goes on.
Yawn. It’s probably obvious that’s a terrible idea.
If you are still awake, let’s examine another idea. How about if Mr. Slinger confiscates Lily’s things? She gets angry and pouts. She goes home and complains to her parents. But a part of her knows she was wrong for both the disruption and the pouting. Once she cools off, she’s ready to say she’s sorry. She delivers her apology the next day and everything is hunkydory.
No one told Lily to apologize, so she’s solved her own problem! Yay!
Just one problem: You’re yawning again. And if you read this story to a child, the child will yawn, too.
Next idea: Maybe Lily draws the picture, but doesn’t leave it in Mr. Slinger’s bag. She feels really guilty, even though she doesn’t get caught. This ending is surely getting closer to the mark, but thank goodness Henkes didn’t stop there.
So here’s today’s second quick and dirty tip: To have a great story, you’ve got to get your main character into trouble.
Get your character into trouble. Then get that character into more trouble. This guiding tenet of character development has probably been around since people started making up stories. It seems like good advice.
How much trouble? It needs to be age-appropriate. How old is your main character? How old is your intended audience? To engage in a bit of hyperbole as you gauge the appropriate amount of trouble, picture young Lily atoning for her misbehavior by being forced into an arena with 23 other kids to fight to the death.
Yep, highly inappropriate. But put 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen into that arena, and you’ve got pure gold. Now recall how she keeps getting into more and more trouble. Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, it does. It just makes you want to say "Wow!" That’s what the characters in Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse say whenever they are really impressed.
Make your readers say "Wow," even if it means you have to have a good cry as you’re writing it. Or here’s a thought – perhaps it's your allergies acting up again.
Mary Hertz Scarbrough is the author of two dozen children's books. Her book, Heroes of the American Revolution, was a top pick of the Junior Library Guild in September 2012. Her freelance experience includes books for English Language Learners, curriculum writing, encyclopedia articles, corporate communications, and much more. Mary taught children’s writing through the Institute of Children’s Literature and served as an assistant regional advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Mary teaches writing for the University of South Dakota; she has degrees in English and German, as well as a law degree.