Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Secrets of KidLit - Can I Do That?

It's no secret that a writer's imagination can get carried away.
An idea pieces itself together and rises as a skeleton from the swamp of creation, and it then becomes the author's job to give it muscles to make it powerful, nerves to make the reader feel, a brain to move the plot along, and so on.
When it comes to crafting stories for children and teens there is a common stumbling block. I've seen it look something like:
"Is this too dark?"
"Nope. Too heavy."
"I don't think this is appropriate for that age group."
"Don't you think that's a little complicated for ____ year olds?"

It's an easy mistake to make. Authors have to think about "will this book sell?", "will this book get me an agent?", "does this fall in line with my established brand?", and that critical mindset bleeds over into the art. They end up saying to themselves, and to others: "You can't do that."

Pause for a moment and reflect on the books of your childhood. 

- The boy whose dog was viciously mangled by a wild hog, and had to be stitched up without the aid of a veterinarian or anesthetic. The dog lived through the incident, but contracted a terrible disease and the boy had to shoot his furry best friend. (Old Yeller)

- The series where children involved in a covert war were forced to deal with intense paranoia, PTSD, and graphic violence on an almost daily basis. (Animorphs)

- The one where a child of extraordinary intelligence kidnapped and extorted a stranger so he could plunder the wealth of an entire culture. (Artemis Fowl)

- The story of the girl who discovered that her favorite toy was a communication tool for ghosts who were the victims of a grisly crime. (The Dollhouse Murders)

There are multitudes of these examples, but it all comes down to this - nothing is off limits. The trick is crafting your words in such a way as to not permanently traumatize yet still permanently influence the reader. That is where your artistry, your savvy critique partners, and beta readers all come in to play. 
Never be afraid to write the story in your heart. Never be afraid of a scene, a character, or an ending. Embrace those raw, emotional, sometimes frightening or dangerous things. If you're having powerful feelings then it's likely your reader will, too. 
It is my personal opinion that people who curl their lip at a story that is "too dark" or "too mature" for a certain audience have forgotten the endless curiosity, tenacity, and intellectual bravery of young readers. I think they have lost touch with who they were long ago and far away, and impose their very adult eyes on stories that are not crafted for them. 
I could say more, but I'll quote the one who said it best (and she didn't need a whole blog post to say it):

"You have to write the book that wants to be written. If the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then write it for children." - Madeleine L'Engle

In the end, it's the book that challenge us that change us.

- Colten Hibbs


  1. All valid points, but I wish that authors would talk to readers in their actual demographic to find out what they would LIKE to read. I could check out a lot more humorous book and books about sports of all kinds, especially with girls' teams. I know that books need to sell, but I wish that I could buy the stories for which my students ASK. Wrestling! Skateboarding! Kids having adventures.

  2. Authors talk to readers in their demographic all the time. Many MG authors are: parents of kids in their target demographic or former/current teachers and librarians. And when we attend book festivals and do school visits, we have time for extended conversations with young readers, their parents, educators, etc.

    What I notice more than anything, though, is the chasm between what readers select for themselves and how heavily a parent can guide a reader away from a certain gender author or topic. At events when kids are with parents, I have seen parents actively steer boy readers away from my table, and yet when I do events where the only adult present is a teacher that encourages students to choose their own books, I get all kinds of kids at my table -- curious about both of my books almost equally. Adults have a lot of unconscious biases that we need to examine -- I've been unpacking this for myself as a reader, too. Kids are surprisingly open and curious.

    In MG, the books that receive the surplus of marketing $$ do tend to be positioned as either bestsellers in a certain popular vein (i.e. like Wimpy Kid or like Rick Riordan, etc.) OR billed as the next literary masterpiece/Newbery contender, but there's a deep range of books to be found in mid-list and backlist.

  3. I don't think kids having adventures and dark subjects are mutually exclusive. THE LAND OF YESTERDAY by K.A. Rey (coming out in July) is a great example. It's a deeply imaginative and funny fantasy story in the vein of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. But the main character is a girl who is struggling with grief. Grief is the thing that drives her quest. I love when books -- even funny, sporty, adventurous books -- recognize that children's emotions are complex.

  4. Well, I can't speak for everyone, but as a teacher and author I communicate with my target demographic more than I communicate with adults. I teach literacy for 90 minutes a day, but I've learned far more about kids' reading wishes from author visits to schools, libraries, and tutoring centers because I meet a different community of kids each time.

    As for my classroom, my students are loving our current read aloud, SCAR ISLAND by Dan Gemeinhart. When I asked them what they liked best, they overwhelmingly responded that they are sick of books where everything is silly and happy because those books treat them like babies.

    I think authors can always do a better job listening to their target market, but so can teachers, whose individual students alone don't represent the market as a whole. They represent one single community, and only its most outspoken students at best.


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