So you're thinking of all those great books you liked to read when you were a kid, with kid heroes who snooped around and stopped criminal plots, or kids just like you who handled problems much like yours but in an interesting way. And you're remembering just how much you loved those kinds of books, or maybe you still do like reading them, and you'd really like to make one of your own.
Well, it's not easy, despite what people say, as kids can be just as picky as adults in what they like. But there are some basics to keep in mind.
Necessary TropesWell, you'd need a Kid Hero, unless you're going for historical fiction in which a kid merely witnesses famous events (which is what Dear America and Dear Canada are about). Kids tend to want characters their age who are active and more adventurous than they are.
If you're writing a Slice of Life story or drama about kid life, then you still should try to go for an active character who at least attempts to solve their problems. Much of fiction is not about what is, but what can be, or what you wish you could do. So whatever the genre, an active character is often what your audience wants.
Choices, ChoicesKid novels can be in any genre. But they're often divided into three basic types:
- Slice of Life stories, which are basically about everyday life stuff that happens. These stories are often more about the events that occur rather than an overarching plot. They're usually not drama, but can be either comedy, or just entertaining without necessarily being either funny or sad.
- Real life drama, which is about real life situations kids face, such as bullying, divorce, death of loved ones, and so on.
- Kid adventures, which in turn are divided into many subgenres such as fantasy, sci-fi, Kid Detective story, or just plain "adventure". These tend to involve Kid Heroes who get caught up in plots involving danger, peril, villains, or any number of things. They range from relatively realistic to fantastical.
If you're writing Slice of Life, or incorporating Slice of Life elements into your story, think about things that happened when you were a kid and consider whether they might resonate with readers today. If so, then consider adding the event into your work. Many authors of Slice of Life stories in fact draw from their own childhoods, adding situations to their stories that they know very well due to first-hand experience, and also which are often relevant even today.
If you're writing something adventure-themed, you might want to find what modern kids are interested in, as well as what would make a good story with plenty of possibilities for excitement. You might write the best story in the world about a kid who ends up transported back in time to ancient Norway and encounters ancient vikings, but if most kids aren't interested in vikings, they might not buy your book, even if they would love the adventure and danger the hero gets into. On the other hand, kids don't always know what they'll like until they're exposed to it. Consider whether you should Write What You Know, or instead it would be better to do the research and write what today's kids want.
PitfallsMany authors have difficulty portraying kid dialog realistically. This is because Most Writers Are Adults, and also because the way kids talk changes over time. Using modern slang can quickly date your story in only a few years, so try to avoid it, and instead concentrate on using the informal language that kids tend to use and the ways they talk to each other. THAT hasn't changed through the years, as reading the old Ramona Quimby books can attest to: their dialog is, for the most part, perfectly sound even here in the 21st century. Meanwhile, Junie B. Jones uses broken grammar as part of its unique humor and to portray how a kindergartner would try to speak.
Kids will quickly know that you didn't do your homework if you screw up the portrayal of their hobbies. For example, there have been many books using video games as a plot device written by people who obviously do not play them, often running into Pac Man Fever problems. You, reading this, probably do play them if you're under the age of 35, so you won't have that problem. But you still could easily get some other common childhood activity, especially a recent one, horribly wrong. Kids will notice immediately. They might shrug it off and just enjoy the story for what it is, they might be annoyed by your ignorance, or if it's a mistake that affects the entire plot, they might tell everyone at school how much your book sucked and what an idiot you are.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
Set Designer / Location Scout
Props DepartmentKids don't just have the one toy that they take everywhere, they have heaps of toys which they have varying levels of affection for. Girls will often have a collection of dolls and/or stuffed animals, and have a few favourites which they'll be unable to leave the house without - expect stress over which toy to take on camp.
But do keep in mind that there will be a few items that kids will have no interest in, and this is also a good way to flesh out your character. Why does your character not like this particular toy? Is it gendered? Is the character ok with that? Who gave it to them? What do they think about the gifter? Where do they keep it? Do they try to get rid of it?
Costume DesignerOutfit can be used to show personality. Some kids are eccentric and proud of their eccentricity, and their outfit shows it. What would you think about, say, a preteen who has bleached orange streaks in her dark hair and wears a choker? A description that mentions only those two things says a lot about the character.
Keep things like that in mind. Kids can be very expressive, and their choice in outfit says a lot about them. A simple description of a new outfit a character decides to wear can set a powerful visual image in the reader's mind and bring the character more to life.
Casting DirectorIt seems to be very common to write kid novels with a main character who has a close friend of the opposite sex. In fact, it's all over the place. Alternately, to write a main character whose friends are mostly of the same sex, but who gradually comes to befriend a member of the opposite sex. Kids are probably used to seeing this in fiction, even if most of them hang out primarily with same sex friends and can't relate to the fiction.
If you're going to do either of these, consider portrayal. How did these two kids come to meet? Why are a girl and a boy good friends? What do they have in common, and do gender roles create differences in how they perceive the same situation? Stories for younger kids don't bother with these issues much, as younger kids are more accepting of Flat Characters. Stories for older kids, however, try to give reasons for why this stuff happens, or at least hint in Backstory how these kids came together.
Pyrates, for instance, has a white male lead with a Token Black Friend and another friend who is "the coolest girl in sixth grade". He lives in New York City, which is pretty multiracial, so the Token Black Friend part comes in seamlessly. He appears to look up to his female friend, so we can guess that he might have sought her out. A crush, perhaps? It's not stated, but the setting and the subtle hint that he's impressed by her can drop enough hints that the reader can imagine the rest.
Ramona Quimby, being a series taking place over multiple years, uses a believable scenario that could be taken right out of real life. Ramona and Howie are neighbors, and their parents want them to play together. They actually antagonize each other at times in kindergarten and first grade, but become friendlier over time. However, in fourth grade, Ramona grows distant from Howie and befriends a girl her age. That's what happens over the course of several books, and that's also the sort of twists and turn real-life friendships take, making it very believable.
So, whatever mix of race and gender you use, just try to make it believable to your target audience by hinting at a possible history between the characters or something to show why they became good friends now, and most kids won't question it.
- Ramona Quimby is one of the greatest Slice of Life kids' books ever. It portrays the life of a kid whose age is anywhere from 5 to 10 depending on the book, and portrays it very accurately, with a perfect view of how kids view the world and how they act.
- My Teacher Is an Alien sold over a million copies in its time, and appeals somewhat more to boys despite being first-person from a female perspective. Its suspenseful theme is based on a strong permise: what would you do if you knew your teacher was secretly a space alien who planned on abducting several students in your class — possibly including you — and taking them back with him for study? The result is a lot of suspense and snooping and attempts to get proof of the teacher's true nature. Unfortunately, the second and third sequels totally change genre, but the original is still considered a classic.
- My Side of the Mountain. The story of a city kid who ran away and lived the life of a frontiersman, and enjoyed it. You probably read this one in school.
The Epic Fails
- The Ready, Freddy! series, depicting the Slice of Life of a first (later second) grader, is a Cliché Storm of Children's Literature tropes, including outdated and sexist ones, accompanied with rather boring writing. It is clearly inferior to its competitor Junie B. Jones as the result. Abby Klein may be or have been an elementary school teacher, but having the experience to base the stories on doesn't automatically make them good; writing skills are a necessity.