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Understanding the young reader

Can you remember what it feels like to be a child? To live in a world filled with giants and confusing events, but full of of adventure and possibility too?

Try the following experiment:

Lie down on the floor. Imagine what it would be like if you were dependent on another person in order to move around (just as a small baby is). How do you feel? What kind of control do you have over where you are and what you can see?

Now kneel up. How much more of the room can you see? You might find that your eye line is now about tabletop height. Perhaps door handles and light switches still seem impossibly out of reach. Or if you are in the garden, you might find that many of the plants tower above you, insects buzz and chirp around you, and flowers meet your squarely in the face.

In what ways does the world look different from this perspective?

Finally stand up and walk around the room. Have your feelings changed?

Some of the best children’s writers seem always to have retained the ability to reach the child within. Michael Woods, a psychologist who analysed Enid Blyton through her books, wrote “She was a child, she thought like a child and she wrote as a child....”

While Paul Hodder-Williams, a publishing executive who had worked with Enid, noted “She really loved children and understood instinctively what would interest them. It was with children that her gift of sympathy had its greatest flowering... That is why they have loved and will continue to love the best of the books which she wrote for them and them alone...”

Writing effectively for children means not only writing about what a child is doing and thinking, but also seeing the world through the child’s eyes. There is an important difference here. In the first case, you are writing about the child’s world through adult eyes. This sometimes works but often it is too sentimental and appears unrealistic to the child reader. In the second case you are actually sharing the child’s world view and allowing the reader to share it too.

To begin to explore the child’s world view, try spending time with children, really listening to what they have to say. Try to remember how you felt and thought as a child. Reading old diaries, stories and school work can be a good trigger here, if you still have them.

You might find the following questions useful as a starting point:

· What was my favourite book when I was a child?
· What was my favourite television programme?
· What was the scariest thing that happened to me as a child?
· What made me happiest as a child?
· What did I most fear?
· Where did my monsters live? In the dark? Under the bed? In the cupboard?
· What made me feel most secure?
· What was my best school experience? What was my worst?
· Who was my best friend when I was growing up? Why did we get on so well?

You will also find it useful to begin studying the work of other children’s authors. Are they writing from an adult world view or that of a child? How do they speak to the child reader?

“Children are rewarding readers. They have an amazing ability to lose themselves in an imaginary world and will happily go along with the most extraordinary ideas in the books they read. They are also much less cynical and judgmental than older readers.”
Louise Reed, Literacy Teacher.

It is difficult to imagine a book for adult readers featuring a peach so large you can sit in it, or a child-sized dancing centipede, as in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. For children the world is still a mysterious and wonderful place, where anything is possible. As children’s writers, we are at our most successful when we can recapture that sense of wonder and possibility.

At the same time, children appreciate fiction that reflects the reality of their lives. Even in the most astounding of stories, young readers will find much that they can identify with on a personal level:

“... Everything is so deadly quiet, and the shadows are so long and black, and they keep turning into strange shapes that seem to move as you look at them, and the slightest snap of a twig makes you jump.

James felt exactly like that now. He stared straight ahead with large frightened eyes, hardly daring to breathe. ...

And then all at once, little shivers of excitement started to run over the skin on James's back.”

James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl.

What child would not recognise these feelings!

In order to write effectively for children you need a good awareness of the way children think and speak, and the way they live today. If you have regular contact with children - perhaps as a parent, grandparent, teacher or carer - this will be relatively easy. Otherwise, you will need to find some other way of learning about today’s children.

Films and television programmes written for children can be a good starting point. What you are looking for is an understanding of:

· The child’s world view - which is quite different from that of adults, and usually quite different from your own world view as a child (depending how much time has elapsed)!

· What is important to children - what do they worry about? What do they think about key issues (indeed, what do children see as key issues)? Research suggests that some of the issues children most often worry about include bullying, the environment, crime and violence, exams, friendships and pocket money.

· How do children use language? Each generation of children uses language in a slightly different way - they have their own favourite words. This is particularly true for adolescents. Nothing will date your work as much as getting the language wrong.

· What is the modern child’s life like?

One of the most common errors made by new children’s authors is to write stories of the sort they enjoyed as children, often an Enid Blyton-type adventure. Although Blyton’s work still sells extremely well and can be found in almost every bookshop, this is not the sort of story publishers want from today’s authors. They are looking for work, whether fiction or non-fiction, that reflects the reality of life for today’s children, which includes the following facts:

· Almost two in three married couples divorce, which means that many children have experience of living in a single parent family or a step-family.

· Over eighty percent of children live in an urban area - many of them have never visited the countryside and a substantial number have never seen a real cow, pig or chicken.

· Children live in a multicultural society and attend school with children from a wide range of other cultures and religions.

· Similarly, young readers may themselves be drawn from a wide range of cultures and religions, and stories should reflect this.

Publishers also like to see stories that deal with the issues children might face in everyday life - including going into hospital, bereavement, starting school or secondary school, relationships, living in a stepfamily.

Finally, writing successfully for children means writing for them as if writing for equals, not writing down to them.

by Liz Johnson,
Writing for Children Tutor – Learning Curve Home Study

  Diana Kimpton

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