When writing for young children, we often hear how important it is to stay in-touch with our audience. I have the rare opportunity to interact with the "little people" frequently because I teach first grade. Of course, sometimes it's unclear who's doing the teaching! Whether it's using a published read-aloud in the classroom or observing children in their element, I've honed in on some lessons that guide me as I write for youngsters.
1. Slapstick comedy really is that funny. At some point, we develop childhood amnesia and lose touch with the things that we thought were hilarious as kids. While some of the kids I work with “get” sarcasm or irony, the big laughs come from the obvious stuff like someone accidentally farting or a child with a quirk or hidden talent. Books that I’ve used repeatedly that pass this test include Steven Kellog’s retelling of Pecos Bill and Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.
2. Every day is brand new and second-chances are gold. Kids thrive on the safety of do-overs. Books such as The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns appeal to children because in their time of learning and growing, they want to know that it’s going to be okay when they make a mistake.
3. Friends are important. Kids seek a sense of comfort and belonging in life and in books. It seems there’s always an emphasis on crafting characters that children can relate to as readers. But friendships between characters that model loving partnerships grab children quickly, too. This year, I used a book from Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie series in my classroom. The response to the loving, playful friendship between these two characters was overwhelming from the kids. Not only did I immediately order several more from the series, the kids began getting their hands on their own copies and bringing them in to share. Another classic example of friendship can be found in Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series.
4. Clear expectations. Kids need to know that the world you’re creating and the characters you’re introducing them to are reliable. It helps to select a trait for your character and exaggerate it. Peggy Parish‘s Amelia Bedelia series magnifies Amelia’s tendency to be literal. Whatever setting or dilemma Parish puts her in, the kids know a wacky mix-up will ensue. Helen Lester’s Tacky the Penguin behaves in an oblivious and clumsy fashion, making these books well-read in my classroom year after year.
5. Surprise. From a silly twist at the end to an unexpected roadblock on your character’s journey, keeping young reader’s guessing is what keeps them engaged. Doreen Cronin’s Click, Clack, Moo features cows that face off with the farmer via type-written notes all throughout the text. As the books ends, the ducks unexpectedly begin to make their own written demands. Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard convinces the audience that they’re in on the secret that it’s Miss Nelson who was dressed up as Viola Swamp all throughout the story. Twists are exciting for young readers.
6. Musicality and rhythmic language (though difficult to craft as a writer) are highly engaging. Picture book author Carolyn Crimi recommended Julia Donaldson’s Room On The Broom at a conference I attended. I used it for the first time with my class this year and they were eager to interact and predict the rhyme. Way Out in the Desert by T.J. Marsh offers a song-like rhythm that stays with the reader long after the book has been closed. The kids beg me to re-read these books because they’re attracted to the language.
7. Happy endings are underrated. I recently read The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martina out loud to my students. This is virtually a Cinderella story with a Native American spin. Nothing clenches their hearts like a hopeful, solid ending where the underdog wins the day. Or if you’ve ever read The Empty Pot by Demi, you’ll know how the endings of these stories make you feel and you’ll know why kids are drawn to them. Crafting a satisfying, hopeful ending is practically a pre-requisite for picture book writing.
The lessons never end when you spend time with children. These guiding principles are particularly important when you write for the kid lit audience because they are the reason we write in the first place. What other lessons can you think of that guide you as a writer for kids? Share them in the comments!