The Dos and Don’ts of Writing for Children … by Rachel Craft

When writers first venture into the realm of middle grade and young adult fiction, they often bring with them some bad habits and unhelpful misconceptions. Leave your baggage at the door, and follow these guidelines to start off on the right foot.

DO capture the MG/YA voice

Children don’t think the way adults do. They have a different worldview and different emotional responses to stimuli. Your MG or YA character’s voice will be unique to his personality, but the attitude, humor, and phrasing should sound true to his age. Always put yourself in your character’s shoes, and consider how you, your friends, or your children would have behaved at that age.

DON’T agonize over vocabulary

Writing for middle graders doesn’t limit you to three-syllable words. Children are curious and perceptive readers; if they don’t recognize a word, they’ll either figure it out from context or Google it. Don’t be afraid to challenge them a little. Similarly, don’t exhaust yourself trying to keep up with whatever slang is #trending at the moment. At best, slang is a poor excuse for voice—and at worst, it will date your book before it even hits the shelves.

DO write about what matters to your age group

Your story conflict and character arc should resonate with your readers. For instance, most MG stories have to do with coming of age because that’s what real middle graders are struggling with. YA stories, on the other hand, often deal with discovering oneself and one’s place in the world. Children and teens also tend to place more emphasis on how they fit into their social group and how others see them than adults. For instance, going dateless to prom may not seem like a big deal to you, but it might feel like the end of the world to a teenager. Make sure the things that matter to your character will also matter to your readers.

DON’T lower the stakes

Some writers worry that if they put their protagonist in too much peril, their young readers will be frightened. But middle graders don’t want their stories sugar-coated. Life-or-death scenarios—for the protagonist, a side character, or the entire world—are welcome, as long as you avoid graphic violence, sex, and profanity. YA readers want high stakes too, and they can handle more mature themes and intense situations. Almost nothing is off the table in YA, including sex, drugs, language, and abuse.

DO let the kids steal the show

There’s a reason many MG and YA characters are orphaned, away at summer camp, or shipped off to boarding school: it gets the adults out of the way. While adults can appear in your story as side characters, it’s important to make sure your young heroine is driving the plot and making the story-critical decisions. She should not spend most of the book watching adults make decisions or following adults’ instructions. In fact, it often works well to use adults as obstacles, getting in the child’s way by imposing curfew or chores.

DON’T teach them a lesson

Children don’t read because they want to be preached to by adults—they get enough of that at home. They can smell a moral from a mile away, and as soon as they do, they’ll close your book forever. So don’t write with a moral in mind. Most stories will have some kind of lesson in the end, but let it grow organically, and don’t be afraid to make it a little vague or oblique. Children are perceptive; they don’t need to be hit over the head with your message. Let them discover as they read, rather than spelling things out for them.

DO read widely in your genre

Reread the books that fascinated you when you were a child, and think about what made you love them. Also read plenty of current releases to see what today’s kids are reading. And if you can, spend time with children in your age group to learn how they think, speak, and interact. This will make you a better MG or YA writer, and your readers will notice.

Writing for children can be both fun and challenging. If you normally write for adults, switching gears to MG or YA can be a good exercise for your writing muscles—and you may find yourself a convert of a new genre. Happy writing!

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Rachel writes speculative fiction for all ages. Her short fiction has appeared in Cricket magazine and the RMFW anthology Found, and she’s working on a middle grade novel. She lives in Boulder, where she works as an engineer and runs a local critique group.

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