Connecting with Young Readers

For my first post with Thinking Through Our Fingers in September, I wrote about Emotional Resonance. Today I’d like to zero in on writing for children, and how to create stories and characters that will ring true for younger readers.

Picture books, middle grade novels, and YA novels are very different animals, but they all share the common goal of connecting with a young person. Recently there’s been a lot of discussion in the kidlit world about the role of books as both mirrors and windows. Mirrors, of course, provide ways for kids to see their own identities reflected in a story. Windows offer the promise of a journey, allowing readers to explore the unknown or the impossible.

Adults who write for children can only rely so much on memory. Childhood is a hazy, distant reality. I assert that you must interact with children on a regular basis in order to gain a current, relevant perspective on what they fear, what they care about and dream about. Whether you observe your own children, nieces and nephews, neighbors, or friends, this is the most important ingredient in telling stories that kids want to read. Talk to them. Play with them. And above all, listen. They possess a rare brand of wisdom and empathy that will take your breath away.

The next step is to ask yourself: what does my character want more than anything in the world? Why is it important? How is she going to get it?

Now. This one is a deal breaker. At all costs, avoid being didactic or planting obvious “lessons” for kids to learn. Children know when they’re being talked down to, and they will treat your book like the plague if they suspect that a story is “for their own good.” Blech. Do you read stories so you can learn that sharing is good, or that littering is bad?* No? Me neither. (*Self-help books don’t count!)

Kids have a powerful sense of right and wrong. They recognize injustice when they see it. Think of poor Harry, forced to live in the cupboard under the stairs at Privet Drive. Kids feel the unfairness of this, and they root for Harry to have a better life and people who love him, because they want—and deserve—the exact same thing.

Think about a child’s world. They need family (those who love them). They need friends (those who understand them). And they need dreams: the promise that someday they will be recognized for who they are and what’s important to them.

Not so different from adults, really.

A few more things to consider:

-Give your character flaws. No one likes to read about a too-perfect character (a Mary Sue), because it doesn’t reflect reality. Kids can spot a fake from a mile away.

-Send your character on a personal journey of growth. By the end of the book he should evolve in a positive direction, becoming stronger or braver or kinder or wiser (or some other quality of your choosing).

-Show your character’s personality in action. Don’t tell us that she’s impulsive or brainy or has a quick temper. Put her in situations where she can act and react, so we can see it for ourselves. Will she keep her best friend’s deepest, darkest secret? Does she stand up to the school bully? Mouth off to authority figures? Small details provide often provide the clearest insights.

-Place your character’s point of view front and center. Whether using first person or third, zoom in on your central character as closely as you dare. Give us thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears. Allow us to see the world through his eyes—the good and the bad.

Here’s a quote from the best fan letter I ever received: “I noticed that I really felt like I was Josie [the main character], and not just that I was spectating.” Be still, my heart! This is my ultimate goal as an author: to help a child both lose herself and find herself in a book.

Finally, children’s literature should be no less compelling than books written for adults. The content should be age-appropriate without glossing over the sometimes harsh realities of life. By the same token, don’t be afraid of magic and whimsy. Children’s imaginations are fertile playgrounds—and often the only escape available to them. They’re constantly being told no, don’t, you can’t, you shouldn’t, it’s too dangerous/not polite/against the rules. A good book allows them to go exploring in a world of their choosing—and kidlit today offers a wealth of exceptional worlds to choose from.

_______________________________

Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

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