For the past several weeks, I’ve been working on a short story for this contest. Stories have to be for a middle grade audience, so ages eight to twelve, and a friend who was also working on a story for this contest asked me for some advice on how to write for kids, since I do it so well. My first response was “I don’t know. I just do.” It’s when I try to write for adults that I flail like a fish out of water. Trust me, it never goes well.
But then I started seriously thinking about it. I’ve already said I prefer to read young adult and middle grade books over adult books, so I’m more well-read in that category, which I think is the first step to writing anything. But what else do I take into account when I’m writing for kids? I’m not a kid anymore—I’m still working on that adult thing, but I’m certainly not eight years old anymore—and while I can remember some things from being eight years old, those memories are colored by other experiences. So, okay, I write for kids pretty naturally, but I still wasn’t sure exactly how I do it.
So, to answer my friend’s question and to satisfy my own curiosity—this is something I should know about myself, right?—I reread some of my favorite middle grade books and some new ones too. It couldn’t hurt my own writing, particularly for this contest, to think about it. I thought about not only why I enjoyed these books but what the writers did when they were writing them. And I came up with several constants.
First of all, kids aren’t dumb just because they’re kids. In fact, children can be quite intelligent and perceptive, but they’re logic isn’t always the same as an adult’s, and it’s totally possible that they will come to the wrong conclusion about something, which is, of course, excellent plot fodder.
So kids aren’t dumb or inherently more simple than adults, and the best middle grade and young adult stories I’ve read take this into account. Things are not overly simplistic. In fact, often they’re quite complicated, with multiple problems the character needs to face and no clear solutions. And just like the stories, the characters can’t be simple either. Kids are complicated, filled with all sorts of emotions and desires. And kids can be mean too, or make bad decisions, sometimes because of peer pressure, other times not. Again, excellent plot fodder.
For example, let’s look at Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, one of my favorite books in the series. Harry is thirteen years old, and this is the last book in the series intended for a middle grade audience. In the beginning, Harry loses his temper with Aunt Marge and runs away, convinced that he is going to be arrested for his illegal use of magic and will now have to live as an outlaw. He has a good reason to believe this might be the case, but it’s still not the best decision he could have made given the circumstances. Then, there are all the different plot lines: Sirius Black is coming after Harry and is connected with the murder of Harry’s parents, Harry is struggling to fend off the dementors, Professor Trelawney is constantly predicting Harry’s death, Malfoy is trying to get Hagrid fired and Buckbeak executed, Harry is desperate to beat Malfoy for the Quidditch Cup, Crookshanks keeps trying to eat Scabbers, Hermione has a secret, Lupin keeps getting ill… I could keep going. And all of these plots come together seamlessly in the climax. And that’s not to mention all the tension and emotion tied up in all this. And this is a book for middle schoolers!
Prisoner of Azkaban is fun to read. And so when I’m writing fiction for kids, the most important thing is that I’m having fun, that there’s this sense of elation and hope that pushes the story forward—especially when the story is tense or sad, especially when the characters struggle and fail and struggle some more. This is what I love about writing for kids, that there are complexities and bad decisions and struggles, but there is always hope.