WRITING CLINIC: The Secret of Writing for Young Children

When people learn I write for children and young adults, its often met with a ‘Oh, I’ve got a great idea for a children’s book!’ comment. Depending on my tolerance level at the time, I may listen/smile or politely make my excuses and get the hell away.

I just don’t want to hear any more tales of ‘The Adventures of Squeaky/Billy/Tig/Taylor the (insert inanimate object of your choosing)’. And I certainly have no truck with ‘…sort of like a Horrid Henry character, but instead of being outrageously rude, he’s polite and good at sharing.’

Writing for children – especially very young children – can look simple. Behind the scenes, however, it’s a DARK ART. Picture books may go through as many revisions as an adult novel. Of course, there are fewer words to revise (usually no more than 500), but it’s imperative that they are the right words.

 If a picture book is to hold the attention of an active three year old, then there’s no room for sentence flab, plot slack, or adjective overload. Every word on the page needs a function. It has to:

1)   advance plot

2)   aid comprehension

3)   establish character

4)   build energy and excitement

5)   provide age-appropriate clarity

If that same word can do all of these things at once, so much the better.

As an added complication, the text for a picture book needs to co-exist alongside illustrations. The words need to ‘anchor’ the image and, at the same time, avoid duplicating what is already being ‘shown’ visually. In other words, if the picture says it all, the words don’t need to.

When writing for young children goes well, it’s brilliantly fun. When it doesn’t, it’s a whole world of frustration.

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