Writing for children is a joyful experience – although be prepared for some candid criticism. When I pitched the concept for Who Let the Gods Out? to my seven-year-old son, his considered review was, “sounds rubbish”. Mercifully, my readers have been rather more enthusiastic in their response, to the extent that a fan at a Story Stew primary school visit recently informed me she was never going to wash her hand after I shook it. Upon reflection, perhaps I should have checked that she did beforehand.
Here are my thoughts on how to make sure that when it comes to your children’s book, the kids are alright:
1) Never underestimate a child: In art as in life, remember that you are dealing with a highly sophisticated being. Although children (particularly younger ones) can be fairly black and white in their opinions, the range of input they can absorb is vast. Every day is a voyage of discovery for a child and as such, they can assimilate many and complex ideas. Challenge their brilliant minds with different notions and world views. They can take it – arguably, better than we can.
This is also true of the language they can take on board. Children don’t understand everything they hear, so they are much better than adults at using context to make sense of the world. Don’t be tempted to over-simplify the language of your book. After all, if they don’t encounter unfamiliar words, how are they ever going to learn them?
2) Keep it real: No matter how fantastical your story – and go crazy why not – make sure that the heart of your story is rooted in reality. Kids have vast imaginations, but need something they understand to anchor them. One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever heard was to remember that Die Hard is a movie about a man struggling with his divorce.
Think about some of our big heroes – Harry Potter is a neglected orphan who needs to avenge his parents’ murder. He just happens to be a wizard. Charlie Bucket lives in abject poverty in a world of excess – so of course he longs for the indulgent delights of a chocolate factory. My own hero, Elliot, is teenage carer for a mother with early onset dementia – it just so happens that a teenage zodiac goddess crashes into his shed. Stories need their roots in reality: the branches can go wherever you like.
3) Farts are funny: Yep, there’s no getting around it, children will always find bodily functions deeply amusing – and I’m with them every step of the way. It’s lazy and boring to rely solely on the puerile to amuse your reader (sophisticated, remember – a kid will see through that trick like an iPad screen) but remember your audience and the childlike joy of something a bit rude. It can sugar the pill of the more serious issues and children are far more likely to engage with something that makes them laugh. Aren’t we all?
4) Tinker with your moral compass: Children have an incredibly strong sense of justice, so don’t be afraid to challenge them with your characters. Personally I think that whiter than white heroes are boring – and children are rarely immaculately behaved all the time.
Much as it pains me at the soul to speak any ill of Roald Dahl, for my money, Artemis Fowl and Horrid Henry are far more engaging protagonists than Danny Champion of the World [immediately dons horse-hair shirt and begins flagellation]. My hero Elliot is brave, clever, loyal and funny. He’s also a thief, a liar, stubborn and rude. Perfect is dull. And I don’t wish to be either.
It’s a hoary old writing trope, but your hero is also only as good as your villain. Put some real stinkers in there and make sure that our hero suffers a huge amount of unfairness at their hands. It makes it so much sweeter when they get theirs – although if they don’t, what an excellent start to the Life isn’t Fair diploma from the University of Life.
Remember the books that you loved as a child? Go and read them again. And then? Go and write another one.
Who Let the Gods Out? by Mary Evans is available in paperback and all e-formats from www.maryevanswriter.com, Amazon and all major online retailers.