Writing for kids, of any age, is a big responsibility. Kids across age groups range in experience and the ability to think critically about what they read. Very young children are especially prone to thinking that a book, any book, must be an authority. After all, books are like, official, right? Even teens and adults can fall into this mindset, allowing the fact that something came packaged in a book to influence how much weight they give the ideas. As such, we have a responsibility to think carefully about what we’re presenting to kids and why. They’re putting their trust in books.
But writing for kids is more than morality tales and special messages. It’s also about wonder and exploration and fun. Kids deserve books that run the gamut of emotions and cover a wide range of experiences.
Kids Deserve Authenticity
One of our goals as writers should be to present an authentic depiction of the world, meaning it should be true to life. That means good stuff and bad stuff.
Sometimes people assume that kidlit should be a ‘gentler’ version of the world. But that erases the experiences of kids who don’t live in gentle places. To deny that bad things happen is to send these kids into the closet. “Your story is too dark to talk about here. No one would believe you. So don’t talk about it.” That message is downright dangerous, allowing abuses to fester and poison generations of children.
It doesn’t help kids to shield them from the world as it is. It actively hurts them to pretend the world is not as their own experiences have shown them.
Kids Deserve Representation
Representation matters. “Representation” is the way in which media, in our case books, depicts people. If you have a book that only shows one kind of character you’re sending a subliminal message that other types of people do not exist in your book’s world. Or that their stories are not worthy of being made into books. Collectively, publishing has typically focused on white, abled, Christian, cisgender characters. That’s an entire industry telling kids who fall outside that narrow definition—black kids, gay kids, Sikh kids, neurodivergent kids, and on and on—that they don’t exist in the world of story. That their stories aren’t important enough to tell. There’s been a big push in recent years by organizations like We Need Diverse Books to get better representation for all groups in children’s literature. While progress has been made, there’s still a long way to go.
One of the most heart-warming moments I’ve had online was to see the photos of black girls with big natural hair taking photos of themselves with Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper. The cover shows a girl with her curls flying free, proud and ready for action. Young readers were, and are, ecstatic to see themselves on book covers.
“She looks like me!”
We need to depict the real world, so kids can see themselves in stories. So they know their voices matter.
When a child or teen sees themselves on the page, sees their circumstances on the page, they feel validated. Recognized. Like they matter. Like it’s okay to talk about their experiences, and to feel all the mixed up, painful things they may be feeling.
Kids Deserve Aspirations
But fiction isn’t solely for showing all the bad things that happen. None of us can survive on a diet of gritty realism alone. This is where fiction excels: in aspirations. Aspirations are hopes and ambitions, the things we long for. Dreams.
Sometimes kids need an escape from the real world. Sometimes the real world is too brutal. Or maybe they’re sick of monsters under the bed and pop quizzes. They want adventure! They want to go to new places, explore experiences they’ve yet to have.
That’s a good and powerful impulse. Because dreaming, imagining, is the first step in problem solving and accomplishing big things. The more ideas a child is exposed to, the better they’re able to confront new challenges. Seeing a thing on the page signals that the thing is possible, and expands a kid’s sense of what is doable. They can then apply these ideas to new circumstances.
Aspirations come in many forms. It could be the desire to be an astronaut, or simply to grow up and be an adult. It’s been shown that kids “read up”, meaning that they prefer to read about characters who are a few years older than they are. Books are a way of preparing kids for what comes next. A fifth grader may feel better prepared to start middle school after reading a middle grade series set there.
Let kids dream. Let them experiment. Let them see that amazing things are possible. Show them that the world is full of wondrous things, and that they can directly contribute to making things even better.
Kids are People, Too
Most importantly of all, kids deserve our respect. They are small, learning humans, not inferior to adults. Just less experienced.
They are still capable of the full range of emotions. They feel fear and love and anger and sadness. We must treat them responsibly—showing them the truth, showing them what’s possible, and showing them in a way that acknowledges their capabilities and limitations.
Just like characters, kids have agency. In story terms, agency is the character’s ability to push on the plot more than the plot pushes on the character—do things happen to the character, or does the character make things happen? Children often feel powerless because the adults in their lives control everything from what they eat to when they sleep to where they live. Stories starring kids with agency give the reader a taste of responsibility and power. Seeing a character mess up or succeed primes a young reader to make decisions in their own life.
Every experience they have impacts the adults they will become. For instance, it’s been demonstrated that reading increases empathy for other people, with Harry Potter cited as a particularly potent shaper of attitudes.
When you set out to write for kids, be they babies, grade schoolers or teens, you have a responsibility to treat your readers with respect. Know their limitations as well as their capabilities and expectations.
Kidlit can help build a better, more inclusive, more creative, more truthful world. If we work to give kids everything they deserve.
Bronwen Fleetwood writes fiction for young adults, and nonfiction for writers. Bronwen studied creative writing at Eugene Lang,The New School for Liberal Arts, has acted as leader of the Princeton Writing Group, and as a Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month. Bronwen currently lives on the Whale Coast of South Africa, between the mountains, the sea, and a lake. You can connect with her at bronwenfleetwood.com.