10+ Rules for Writing Books for Kids and Teens

I read a lot. Non-fiction, fiction for adults, fiction for kids. But the way I really think about books is a simple dichotomy: either the book works or it doesn’t. Notice that the dichotomy is “works/doesn’t work” not “like it/don’t like it.” Sometimes a book works, but for various reasons unrelated to its quality, I just don’t like it. And sometimes the opposite is true: a book just doesn’t work, but I still like it. It’s rare, but it happens.

The rules I present here are about making a book work. These rules aren’t aimed at the publishing industry (whose wheels grind slowly, but extremely finely), and who only produce what they think the public wants to buy. Nor are these rules aimed at the parents, teachers and librarians who buy books, because they have varyious sets of criteria for buying books (and sometimes no criteria, alas—welcome to the impulse book purchase). No, these rules are aimed strictly at potential writers of children’s books. These are partly because I want to help you write a good book, but mostly because I want to ensure that there are as many good books out there for kids as possible. Unlike adults, kids don’t always get to choose the books they read, so if we slowly eliminate all the bad ones, nothing but the good ones will be left. At least, that’s my hope.

Rule # 1

No trite, stereotyped, or clichéd situations or plot devices. In other words, no clubhouse, no backward letters, no silly secret names (except for gang members), no secret handshakes. If you’ve seen it in an episode of “Our Gang,” you should probably leave it out of your book.

Rule # 2

No “rainbow” groups of friends. You know what I’m talking about: “My best friends were Al Wong, Joey Hernandez, Tyrel Washington, Running Deer Jones, and Danny ‘Wheels’ Smith, who zipped everywhere in his wheelchair.” This is real life, not PBS. Kids just don’t form peer groups this way. This is tokenism, which, in this day and age, is just plain racist.

(Yes, I realize this is just a specific example of Rule #1, but I still keep seeing this popping up, even now in 2010. Weird, huh?)

Rule # 3

Don’t write a children’s book just because you’re already famous and you want to add “published author” to your résumé. (Are you listening, Madonna?) Writing for kids is the hardest kind of writing that ever was. At best, your book will sell to libraries (who need the street cred) and parents who fondly remember your first album. Try writing your autobiography first, without a co-writer or a ghost writer, and then we’ll talk.

Rule # 4

Don’t write from the point of view of a gay character unless you’re gay. Don’t write from the point of view of an American Indian unless you’re an American Indian. Ditto Méxican, Asian, Indian, Pakistani, Arab, French, English, etc. At the best, you will present a bland, whitewashed version of that culture. At the worst, you will present a confusing, innacurate, and misleading view of that culture to the world, while insulting and alienating members of that culture.

If you want to know why I feel this way, and what the opposite position is, just Google “insider vs. outsider” controversy in children’s literature. (And yes, this is kind of a big issue, so I’ll write more about it later.)

But do feel free to include such characters in your book, as long as you can depict them realistically without resorting to stereotypes. In other words, if you’ve never known someone from that culture, you would do well to leave them out.

(And yes, there are exceptions to this rule; there are always exceptions. But exceptions to this rule—outsiders who can present a balanced, accurate, and authentic depiction of a culture without demeaning or trivializing it or even aspects of it, and who can avoid sympathizing too much—are rare. I’m not one of them. Chances are you’re not either.)

Rule # 5

Don’t use illustrations just because this is “the age of the graphic novel.” Illustrations are an entirely different language. You wouldn’t presume to write a novel in French if you didn’t speak French, n’est-ce pas? Ditto graphic elements (of which illustrations are a mere subset).

Good illustrations:

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (with illustrations by Ellen Forney)

Not-So Good illustrations:

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney (plus pretty much anything else ever written by Jeff Kinney)
  • There are others, but I haven’t added them to my book collection, so I can’t quite recall what they are just now.

Rule # 6

Ditto the use of handwriting fonts. If you want the text of your novel to look like handwriting, then write it by hand. Don’t just use a font that looks like handwriting, but in which every “a” is identical to every other “a”.

This is just a sales gimmick, and a shameful, untrustworthy one at that, at least when it comes to kid lit. (Yes, I’m still talking about any book written by Jeff Kinney, plus many others. I mean, c’mon people. Most of the big publishing houses are in big cities. How hard can it be to find an artist or a calligrapher to do the text?)

For a good example of how this can be applied, just take a look at any cookbook written by Mollie Katzen (of Moosewood fame). There are a few other examples floating around out there, but they were mainly written by hippies for other hippies thirty or more years ago. (Do you sense a trend? Do you think you might want to rethink this impulse?)

Read your text aloud. If it doesn’t sound good, it’s not going to read good, no matter how much you tart up the text.

Rule # 7

If you want to write for teens, forget about Catcher in the Rye. This is not because CitR is a bad book, but just because it’s old, and we’ve already seen just about every possible permutation of it already. And if this breaks your poor little scribbler’s heart, I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. Feel free to be inspired by it, but not to be influenced by it. Editors (and for the past twenty or thirty years, agents as well) have been rejecting CitR clones for decades now.

Which is not to say that you can’t include angst, ennui, and sturm und drang in your novel. To the contrary—for a postmodern novel, especially a postmodern coming-of-age novel, they’re practically de rigeur. Just make sure that your take on them is fresh and new. (And if you think that is easy, I have several different, ah, “projects” you just might want to invest in.)

And remember, CitR was intended for an adult audience, not a teenage one. But publishers and teachers have always assumed that since the narrator (I find it a little difficult to apply the title of “protagonist” to Holden) is a teenager, then the book should be aimed at teenagers. This concept just bugs the crap out of me—and I have a feeling it’s why J.D. Salinger spent the rest of his life popping his manuscripts in a safe-deposit box instead of publishing—but that’s another rant for another day.

Rule # 8

Be a trend-setter, rather than a trend-follower. Harry Potter is good because it broke a lot of rules and set out in directions no kid lit had gone before. But after Harry Potter, there were a lot of imitators who made some money, and their books were quickly and thankfully remaindered.

And yes, there were a few good, if similar, things that followed in the wake of Harry Potter, if only because Harry Potter broke down some walls and opened the eyes of agents, editors, and publishers to their possible financial success. But 99% of what broke through those walls was still pure crap.

If you do have an original idea (which includes even semi-original, since there truly is nothing new under the sun), then I hope all the best for you and will eagerly pitch your latest work to a deserving audience. But if you experience success only by being imitative and derivative, then I hope a thousand hordes of sand fleas take up permanent residence in your underpants.

And please do not write about angst-ridden, attractive, teenage vampires. (At least not for another twenty years, even if you can write better than Stephenie Meyer, which shouldn’t be difficult.)

Rule # 9

If, no matter hard you try, you just can’t achieve the voice of a kid or teenage, then write your book in the third person. There’s nothing shameful or dishonorable about that — plenty of perfectly fine books have been written in the third-person. Voice is one of the hardest and most important things to get right when writing a book. The last thing you want to do is to get it wrong.

When a writer can get the voice right, the book comes across as honest and authentic. This is one of the reasons the Joey Pigza books are such a delight, and part of what made Catcher in the Rye both revered and reviled. If you can get it right (and it takes work, believe me), my hat’s off to you. There are some people who can hear a particular group of people talking and pick up the rhythms and cadences almost immediately. Most of us can’t. No shame in that. Use the third person. Better to sound good in the third person rather than awkward — or worse, creepy — in the first person.

Rule # 10

Most importantly, take this seriously. Kids can be fairly discriminating readers when they’re given a choice about what they read, and they usually can tell when someone is trying to sell them a bunch of garbage, which is all too often touted as “educational.” Nor is this something to do just because you’ve got a few spare hours on your hands. Writing is serious work; writing for kids is even more serious. If you’re not prepared to devoted serious time and effort to it, don’t even start.

Adding It All Up

A single word: reality. People who write for adults make a lot of effort at getting the details right, so that their readers will be drawn into a fictional world and lose themselves in it. Despite those best efforts, there are always nit-pickers who are willing to point out the tiniest, most insignificant detail is off by half an inch. (Just you wait—I’ll do this in a bit.) We are made a little less than angels, and therefore, will never get anything completely perfect. But we keep trying.

That is, until it comes to books aimed at non-adults at which point people throw all sense of reality out the window. “I’m writing a book for kids,” they say. “Nothing in it has to be real. I can just make everything up as I go along.” Or they’ll say, “I’m writing a fantasy novel/science fiction novel. It’s not supposed to be real.”

Yes, but underlying all great fantasy and science fiction—and all great kids’ books—is a strong sense of reality. There might not be wizards and witches running the breadth and width of England, but the places that J.K. Rowling describes are real places. Tottenham Court Road, Kings Cross Station (yes, without the apostrophe), the English and Scottish countrysides are all real places, and Rowling takes enough pains to describe them accurately so that when she is describing some imaginary place, such as Diagon Alley, she can do so in a way that makes them seem as real as the “real” real places.*

Frogs and toads don’t normally walk on their hindlegs or wear waistcoats or speak English, but Kenneth Grahame gets enough of the other details right that you can really believe that they do in The Wind in the Willows. Frodo and Sam travel through a world that isn’t even our own, but again, J.R.R. Tolkien gets enough of the details right, especially with regard to nature, that the world he’s created is totally believable. Holden Caufield may have been fictional, but J.D. Salinger, who spent his entire life in New York City, incorporated enough details into his work that it made Holden seem very real, indeed.

Getting the details right, working hard for that sense of verisimilitude, is what helps an author create, in Stephen King’s words, “a world impossible not to believe” (162). Even when there are elements of the fantastic, which are common in children’s lit (without the fantastic there would be no fairy tales and precious few folktales, after all), the overall effect must be one of a believable world, even if that world does not physically reflect the “real world” we all live in.

This is incredibly difficult to achieve.

What makes the Harry Potter books and the Lord of the Rings (and sure, even Lord of the Flies) believable, what gives them their sense of verisimilitude, is that the characters in them act like real people, not like clichés or stereotypes. Yes, Harry Potter is sweet and charming and modest, but he can act like a brat sometimes, he has his outbursts and fits of rage and feelings of jealousy, and he feels geeky and awkward around girls. He is fighting a fight he’d rather not fight, one that he can, in fact, walk away from, but doesn’t. Frodo (and sure, Sam, too) make the same decision in The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps in the end these characters do not behave the way we would (when faced with an angry wand-wielding Voldemort or a long trek up an erupting volcano, I would run very quickly in the opposite direction) but until that crucial moment they act very much the way we do and at that crucial moment they act the way we ourselves would like to act.

If you can achieve this sense of reality in your book, my hat’s off to you. Your book will work. Unfortunately, that does not guarantee that your book will make tons of money, because for every rule listed above there are lots of books which violate it (or several) and have sold fairly well. Never underestimate the power of marketing and politics (both left and right) to make people experience lapses in taste or judgment and open up their wallets.

I don’t want to come across as an effete snob, though. If your writing is strong enough, you can probably safely violate one or more of the above rules and still create a book that works. Some of the books I like the most do. It all boils down to your skill as a writer, and your determination and perseverance to connect with your story, your craft, and your audience. Best of luck to you.

April 2010
Revised December 2010
Revised January 2015

Notes

*  Curiously, Rowling got mixed up about which platform she was describing, because platforms 9 and 10 are separated by two tracks, which means you couldn’t really put platform 9¾ between them. This is one of those nit-picking details that despite your best efforts as a writer, you can still get wrong. Never mind, though, she gets enough of the other details right that the whole thing still works. (Told you I’d get all nit-picky later.)

[workscited]

[book author=”King, Stephen” title=”On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” city=”New York” publisher=”Scribner” year=”2000″]

[/workscited]

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