What’s the difference between writing for kids and writing for adults? You may assume it’s something like using simpler words for kids, or ‘dumbing down’ the story, but that’s not the case. Kids can handle challenging words and concepts. Kids do have different needs and expectations, though.
There’s a great DIY MFA post here with the details of writing for each age group—what the age groupings are, who they are for, and how many words you have to play with. It’s a great starting place when you’re trying to decide where your story belongs.
But there are some things common to all kidlit, that help make it distinct from writing for adults.
Aim for young readers—and adults
When you write for kids you’re often aiming for a dual audience of kids and adults.
When an adult reads out loud to a child you have to entertain both toddler and grown-up. When a book entertains the adult as well as the child, you have a winner. Very young kids often fixate on favorite books and want to read them over, and over, and over, and OVER again…so whoever’s doing the reading needs to find enjoyment in it as well.
Books for older kids, middle grade and young adult, are often read by adults for pleasure. A 2012 study found that 55% of YA readers are over 18.
The book probably has to appeal to “gatekeepers”—parents, librarians, teachers, and other adults who make decisions about what kids should be given to read. Gatekeepers take their responsibility to kids seriously, and they often have to juggle the demands of other adults. For instance, a school librarian may think twice about a book with swearing in it if they know parents will complain.
As kids grow, some parents choose to read the same books their kids do so they can know what their kids are reading and even discuss them, like an in-family book club.
Remember, kids “read up”
While adults read about characters of any age (not all books about kids are for kids), kids tend to prefer to read books about kids who are a few years older than they are. If your main character is 16 they’re going to be read by 14-year-olds. If the main character is ten their readers will be seven or eight. The books should be written with those younger readers in mind.
Kids like getting a taste of what’s to come. Reading about a slightly older protagonist is a preview of what the reader may someday face, and helps to prepare them for the future. Reaching up just a couple of years makes the characters accessible for the younger reader.
Make kids the heroes
It’s important to give your young protagonists agency. While it may be tempting to have Mom or Dad swoop in and save the day, that infantilizes your characters—keeps them dependent and ensures they don’t learn or grow. Kids are looking for role models, and those role models should be the kids in your story. Let them be clever enough to figure out the solution. Let them have the strength to save the day. Let them be heroes.
Don’t talk down
Kids. Are. Smart. They know when the author thinks they aren’t. They know when the author is shoveling bull-puckey. And they resent it. Kids won’t stick with a book that treats them like they’re younger than they are.
When writing for kids, respect both their capabilities and their limitations. Yes, they lack context and experience but they are also highly adaptable and empathetic. Play to their strengths rather than rubbing in their weaknesses.
Focus on voice, not vocabulary
It used to be that publishers would provide lists of acceptable vocabulary, especially for their youngest readers. Books like the Dick & Jane series and Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat (which uses only 223 words!) were written using deliberately limited vocabulary to be “easy” for kids.
Afraid you can’t use “big words” in your kidlit? Think again! Reading is a great way to expose kids to new vocabulary, so make sure you give them plenty of context clues to make an educated guess about a word’s meaning. Curious readers can always look words up in the dictionary (which is even easier when reading ebooks), but even if they don’t they will take away many positives from reading new words.
What’s important is that the word choice should suit the characters. A five-year-old might say “Daddy” where a ten-year-old might say “Dad”—but if you’re writing about a certain kind of kid, or a kid in a culture where this is the norm, they might both call the guy “Father” or “Paw.” A precocious kid might use the word “precocious” where their peers just call them “smart” or “brainiac.”
If your character’s voice is authentic you can use any language that’s appropriate for that character.
Handle subject matter appropriately
Books for very small children tend to stay clear of dark topics, but they may imply their presence in the background. Adults are more likely to pick up on what’s really going on, and that can open a door for discussion.
On the Nickelodeon show Hey Arnold! Helga’s mother shows signs of being an alcoholic, but her “smoothies” are never directly addressed on the show. Instead Helga works around her mom and the way her mom’s drinking impacts her is shown without explanation. Adult viewers recognize the root problem where children may not.
Other books for young kids may revolve around difficult subjects, like a parent in jail. These books are designed to help kids cope with and speak about the things they’re going through in a healthy way. If you want to write such a book, it’s a wise idea to include psychologists, counselors and teachers in your research.
As kids age, more things appear on the page. In middle grade books, a serious problem is more likely to happen to a character who isn’t the protagonist. The younger the main character is, the more distant the problem will be. For instance, a friend or a parent may struggle with addiction but not the child protagonist.
In young adult books the protagonist can be the one with the dark problem, so instead of a mom with an addiction, the teen protagonist themselves has the addiction. In YA there are almost no limits on what can appear on the page so long as it isn’t gratuitous—gore or sex just for the sake of titillation. (Editor Kate Brauning has a great Twitter thread about writing sex through the YA lens.)
Include hope: The secret to a great ending
Not all stories end happily. Even kids know this, and the stories written for them can reflect this. But even in a bittersweet ending or a tragic ending there should be a glimmer of hope. The protagonists don’t have to get everything they want, but they should still see potential for a better future.
In Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, Starr suffers two major blows toward the end of the book, but by the final pages she is determined to keep fighting for justice in her community. Even in the face of rising stakes, she sees a way forward. Both Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series end with the next generation, and a promise of a world without the chaos that defined the books.
Remember, your young protagonist is the hero. Even if they fail at some things, they must persevere in others. Tomorrow is always another day.
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.