Adult readers would not be content with a story meant for a child; so it stands to reason, the converse is true. Children don’t give a hoot about what adults are reading. That is, unless, it’s an adult reading to them. In this week’s blog, author Charles Suddeth says, what probably should be said repeatedly and before putting fingers to a keyboard or pen to paper, for whom am I writing? Charles offers some clear and poignant guidelines for those who may consider writing for the younger set. It is tougher than you may realize.
By Charles Suddeth
One of my favorite writing rules is: There are no rules. But I would add: you have to know the rules and your audience before you can break the rules.
I am primarily a children’s writer. I belong to the Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, or SCBWI, and I host two critique groups: a picture book group and a middle-grade/young adult group. Members often submit manuscripts that either aren’t children’s books or their main character is the wrong age. For an annual contest I sponsor, some of the submissions I receive are poems or short stories with children as the main character, but with adult feelings and observations. I also receive memoirs of an adult looking back at childhood, which is also not what children enjoy reading.
If your interest in writing children’s books, the rule of thumb is that children like to read books with a main character their age or slightly older. Although recommended ages for readers and main characters differ from publisher to publisher, here are a few guidelines you should keep in mind:
Picture Books: Ages 3 to 7, with main character’s ages 5 to 9 (Board Books for younger readers and Easy Readers for slightly older readers will extend this range in both directions).
Middle Grade (Middle Reader’s): Ages 8 to 13, with main character’s ages 10 to 14 (slightly younger readers may read Chapter Books, which are early middle reader’s books with a limited number of illustrations).
Young Adult: Ages 14 to 18; high school readers. Main character’s ages high school freshmen to seniors. (New Adult, Young Adult fiction geared toward college-age readers, is becoming popular).
Two years ago, an adult fantasy anthology published my dark/horror short story about a little boy almost drowning in a well. It didn’t deal with a child’s issues or problems, so I never considered submitting it to children’s publications. Here are the issues the main characters usually deal with for each category:
Picture Books: Searching for Security. Children this age, even while playing and having fun, need to know their parents are there for them with love, protection, and life’s necessities. The Llama Llama series of books by author/illustrator Anna Dewdney is about a baby llama that endures various adventures and challenges, but above all, Mamma must remain nearby. Llama Llama Red Pajama, I believe, was the first book of the best-selling series.
Middle Grade: Searching for Identity. Children in this age are not certain who they are or what their abilities are. They often do things in groups to obtain peer approval, because they lack self-confidence. JK Rowling’s early Harry Potter books are an example. Harry didn’t know he was a wizard with powers or that he would have a quest. And he didn’t know who his allies (his group) would be, but he gradually learned.
Young Adult: Searching for Independence. Teenagers are famous for their rebellion against their parents, sometimes called “attitude.” Psychologists have described this as subconscious psychological efforts to separate themselves from their families so they can become adults with their own families. Most people think of the Hunger Games as pure survival. But it’s more than that. Katniss loses her father, her mother is weakened and out of touch, so she seeks independence from the oppressive, totalitarian society that has crippled her family.
Another peculiarity of writing for children is that boys prefer to read books where the main character is a boy, but girls will read books where the main character is a boy or girl. I don’t believe this applies to adults.
I understand that most of the writers in Killer Nashville are genre writers, but nowadays children’s books come in all genres. This year, 4RV Publishing will release my picture book, Spearfinger, about a Cherokee witch battling a little boy. The story of Spearfinger could have been a horror story, but I adapted it as a picture book for ages 5 to 8.
My other favorite rule for writing is: Take your reader where they are not expecting to go. This rule also applies to children. Once you know your audience you can take them to destinations unknown and even undreamed.
If you would like to read more about Charles Suddeth’s books please click here.
Charles Suddeth was born in Jeffersonville, Indiana, grew up in suburban Detroit, Michigan, and has spent his adult life in Kentucky. He lives alone in Louisville with two cats. His house is a few blocks from Tom Sawyer State Park, where he likes to hike and watch the deer. He graduated from Michigan State University. He belongs to the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI Midsouth), International Thriller Writers, Green River Writers, and the Kentucky State Poetry Society.
Books: Halloween Kentucky Style, middle readers, Diversion Press, paperback, 2010. Neanderthal Protocol, adult thriller, Musa Publishing, e-book, 2012. 4RV Publishing will release three books: Picture book, 2014, Spearfinger; Young adult thriller, 2014, Experiment 38; Picture book, 2015, Raven Mocker. He moderates two critique groups for children’s writers, and hosts a monthly schmooze (social/networking meeting) for Louisville children’s writers. He is also the Contest Director for Green River Writers’ yearly contest. Visit his website at www.ctsuddeth.com
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