Poet John Ciardi describes writing for children as 'serious joy'. I read those words thumping my desk and saying yes, yes, yes, that's just it! In a perfect two-word combo he articulated how I felt. I still can't-or maybe won't- call writing my 'career'. It's my chosen profession and my passion. It's my (life's) work and play. I take it seriously. It might even be the basis of my-theological understanding: to begin again as a child.
Whenever I'm asked to offer advice or give tips about writing children's literature, (Whether plays, poetry, fiction or educational) I start with a qualifier. Even after twenty-five years, every time I sit down to write "for children" I learn something more about the art and the craft of writing period. I'll never know all there is to know about writing any more than I will ever know all there is to know about what it means to be human. It's an ongoing process of discovery: exhilarating at times, excruciating at others.
That's not very useful however, when I get letters or phone calls or facilitate writing workshops for folks who are aspiring children's writers. What follows are some scratch the surface fundamentals. Experience tells me it's necessary to revisit these maxims frequently in an ongoing striving for excellence in the field of literature I love most. I'd encourage everyone to develop his or her own.
1. Simple does not equal easy.
Standards of literary excellence don't droop and sag because children are the audience. They deserve nothing less than the best we can create. Writing for children is an art and a craft. (The mystical, the magical and the technical.) How do you determine excellence? That's extremely subjective but, in a word: READ! A study of what's been considered "the best" over the ages is a good place to begin. But trust your own preferences and wisdom. Try to pinpoint for yourself what you think excellence is and be prepared for that to evolve and change.
2. Think deeply (seriously and joyfully) about the nature of childhood.
As the never ending apprenticeship in craft and technique continues, there are philosophical questions to consider. Let's call it developing a "kinder centric vision." That's probably not a word that would make the OED but I'm referring to a child-centered frame of reference. Could you reach a light switch when you were five? Remember the child you once were. Not just stature wise of course. But not candy apple nostalgia, either. No looking over children's heads from your adult point of view and writing from that skewered place. Use the rich emotional experience of whatever ages you can connect with, add imagination and observe today's children in their worlds. Times change! There never has been, is, or will be, (I fervently hope) some universal child through which all children see or speak or feel or understand. The number of candles on the birthday cake is not a sure fire indicator into the exasperatingly unique characteristics of any one child. So how do you find an authentic child voice for your story or poem? (You don't talk baby talk or dumb down vocabulary, for starters. Maybe start with the meaning of the word authentic.)
3. Context matters.
Yes, so do form and content. A rural child is not an urban child. Cultural influences shape perspective; family situations differ and offer complexity. Historical fiction and non-fiction demand research and accurate detail. The genre in which you are writing will impose and/ or suggest certain boundaries or is it opportunities? As for setting? I hardly feel an expert on this. It's only the last five years my roots are beginning to show. Before that I always said I wrote in the country that is childhood, from the landscape of the imagination on the planet of WHAT IF.
But along with and after all that thinking?
Fugudabout "the rules!" And WRITE.
Tell the story you're burning to tell, write the book you need to write, or if poetry—listen to the music inside your body itching to get out that refuses to go away. C.S.Lewis said that he wrote for children because it was very simply the best art form to say what he had to say. Indeed!
Of all the sets of technical tools in the workbox a children's writer has, keep these ones near and dear.
Wander and wonder on sensory alert.
See, hear, sniff, taste and touch the world as if you've never seen it before. Become a puppy that frolics in the first snow or a child who learns the smell of roast beef and gravy spells Sunday. That's my way of explaining the old adage show don't tell. But caution here: "balance" is key. I confess to skipping pages myself when overwhelmed with just description no matter how masterfully done. Action ,dialogue, dramatic tension, resolution. Hey, if I want it all, so do the children! It's not just my opinion that the concrete word picture or image lingers longer for most readers than abstract language. Go further: criss-cross the senses and develop a synaesthetic perception. Need a dictionary? Great! Your other essential?
Words, Words, Words. Not puerile or bombastic, pretentious, precious, or unnecessarily mellifluous just because like me you can become obsessed with word music or sometimes think you need to show off vocabulary skills to prove your worth as a writer? The right word. The only word. The cadence of words. Become a logophile. Fall in love with every letter of the alphabet and see how they slide and swoosh together in words. It's not just what you do with words or what they do for you it's what words do for your readers.
Writing is sharing. A little part of you might end up in someone's home, a teacher's classroom or a librarian's story hour.
Serious, serious, joy.