A Question of Style


A Question of Style

By Justin Stanchfield 

©2001, Justin Stanchfield  


There’s a rumor going around that writing for kids is somehow easier than writing for adults. Well, I’m here to tell you, it just ain’t so!  


Writing is writing, no matter what age the audience. Period. And if you think you might like to write for younger readers because it’s simpler, or less demanding, or easier to break into print, you really need to stop for a moment and consider your motives. Writing for kids is a genre like any other, with its own conventions and styles. In fact, it is more than one genre. It’s dozens, from First Readers up through Young Adult and all points in between. And, like writing for adults, (as opposed to Adult Writing, he says with a leer) for every age group there are sub-genres: mysteries, adventure, science fiction, fantasy or romance. The possibilities are endless, and they are just as hard to do well as their adult counterpoints. Don’t step into children’s writing because you think it’s an easy way out.  


If, on the other hand, you want to write for children because you have a story that desperately needs telling, then by all means read on. 


How much difference is there between adult writing and  writing for children? In truth, very little. Of course, I’m not talking about restrictions or taboos. There are, and will always be, certain things that aren’t permissible in a kid’s story. Yet, having said that, if you are writing for Young Adults, the age group between 12 and 18, then all bets are off. Most subjects have, at one time or another, been broached. In fact, one of the most popular genres in YA publishing was, up until a few years ago, the ‘problem novel,’ a book that revolves around a specific issue, often sexual or drug related, and how it takes over the protagonist’s life. These have fallen somewhat out of favor, but it does illustrate how the thin the walls between Children’s Lit and Mainstream Literature have become. 


Restrictions aside, as far as the actual nuts and bolts of children’s writing is concerned, the stylistic differences between material for children or adults are considerably smaller than most people would imagine. Personally, I don’t adjust my style at all when switching between kid’s stories and adult ones. Sure, I might not swear in it, and there probably won’t be any steamy sex scenes, but the way I string my words together doesn’t change one whit. After all, it’s still the same 26 letters, still the same noun-verb/ subject-object relationship we all learned in grade school. Writing is writing. Letters make words, words make sentences. String enough of them together and you have a story. Writing is a direct line from your imagination to the world, and it doesn’t matter whom you are writing to; in the end the basic tools remain the same. Everything that lets someone in their twenties or thirties or nineties enjoy a good yarn goes double for kids. 


One thing to keep in mind is that most kids read at a higher level than they express themselves verbally. This is natural, and a big part of the learning process. Just as adults like to be challenged by what we read, so do kids. Young readers will work through a complicated sentence or unfamiliar word as long as they are engrossed in the story. Ah, but how do you keep their interest? The same way you keep any reader turning the pages. Lots of action, plenty of good dialogue and strong description. Avoid passive verbs like the plague. Don’t waste time on meaningless explanation. Jump into the story and keep it moving. Or slow it down and paint something so wonderfully moody that it follows them not only home, but for the rest of their lives. I remember reading Ray Bradbury when I was in the sixth and seventh grades, utterly absorbed in the images he painted. And I remember those same scenes to this day. The point is, whatever story you’re telling, make it count! 


You will find, as you read through material intended for different age levels, subtle differences in style. A First Reader picture book is obviously simpler in narrative than a middle grade adventure. The plot in the picture book is short, straight forward and without adornment. Characterization is accomplished as much by the illustrations as by the writing. By the time a child is reading on his own, however, he wants sub-plots and strong characters, protagonists he can identify with, and problems that drag him into a story and never let go. Red herrings, flashbacks, in fact, anything in your writer’s bag of tricks is fair game in a middle grade or young adult novel. Don’t hold back. Give your descriptions life. Close your eyes when you start a scene and put yourself inside your character’s point of view. What do your surroundings look like, really look like? Is it hot or cold? Is it raining, or is an August sun beating down on your unprotected head? Use all the senses. Involve your readers. 


One thing I have discovered since I first started wasting ink: No matter what age I was targeting, I try to write to an audience at least a few years above that level. I found early on that I like writing middle grade adventures. (Please, no jokes about my twelve year-old mentality - they’re all true.) But since I’m writing for a twelve year old audience, I write about characters who are fifteen or sixteen. And I write in a style appropriate for my teen-age protagonists, not my adolescent audience. Why? Because no self-respecting sixth-grader will read a story intended for fourth-graders, any more than someone in junior high will read a novel written for kids in grade school. I didn’t realize this at first. In fact, it wasn’t until I began selling stories I had intended for teen-age consumption to magazines catering to much younger children that it dawned on me. It’s not enough to simply say your protagonist is fifteen. You have to match his or her actions with the story’s tone and your own narrative voice.  


Occasionally you will use a word or phrase that is not, as one fine editor once pointed out to me, kid-friendly. Normally you will pick these up during re-write, especially if you are reading your stories out loud, a practice I highly recommend. Sometimes, however, a word just seems to fit even though you know in your heart it’s far above the reading level of your audience. My advice, for what it’s worth, is leave it in, but be prepared to change it if the editor asks you to revise. After all, she knows her readers better than you can. I’ve made a lot of revisions in the stories I’ve had published, and can honestly say, only once did I feel my choice was better than the editor’s. And even then it was a judgment call, and as he needed to make the change to suit the magazine’s format, I had no objection. 


Dialogue is a huge part of children’s writing, as much as if not more so than in material for older readers. But, especially in stories or novels intended for younger grades, you may have to use more dialogue tags than sounds natural, sometimes even including a ‘he said/she said’ at the end of each exchange. Of course you can still use a bit of action to set the speakers apart, as long as your readers can keep clear in their minds who is saying what to whom. 


One thing I have noticed in a lot of Children’s material is a heavier reliance on adjectives than would be usual in mainstream fiction. This, in my opinion, is a mistake. If something is bad writing for adults, it’s bad writing for kids. Show action or description with strong words, not adjectives and adverbs. Let your characters saunter across the room instead of walk slowly. And be wary of stringing too many modifiers together, the ‘big red fuzzy dog with a big red empty bowl’ syndrome. 


One last point: although this may sound crass and commercial, keep in mind that while you are targeting  young readers, the editor who will read your material first is very much an adult. If she doesn’t enjoy your style, she won’t buy your story. Sure, we want kids to read what we’ve written, but before that happens, your precious manuscript must pass through the filter of at least one more set of adult eyes. Try to make your writing work on different levels. Challenge your readers. Challenge yourself. Throw yourself heart and soul into your stories no matter what age group you want to reach. 

After all, isn’t that what writing is all about?