Writing for Younger Readers
Young Middle Grade, early readers, chapter books – writing for emerging readers is a special privileged and responsibility.
“Chapter books are … where a love of independent reading is born.” ~ Caroline Abbey, senior editor at Random House
Reading ability at the younger age varies hugely – these versatile little books are for everyone, and have broad appeal:
- They make great ‘grown-up’ bed-time reading for young children (it’s next-level stuff, to pop a bookmark in and know that more is coming the following night.)
- They transition children smoothly from the cocoon of school levelled-reading to the glamourous world of true MG, where many an over-enthusiastic reader has floundered trying to read too much, too soon.
- And once a child becomes a confident reader, YMG can provide a break from the drama and complexity of a 300+ page novel, a safe place to return to – what adults might call a guilty pleasure, but without the guilt (also, adults love them too – I often pick up a Dahl, Dick King-Smith or Chris Riddell)
Easy Reading, Easy Writing?
In many professionals’ opinion, younger Middle Grade is the hardest category to write for:
“…you are writing for kids who are just learning to read on their own [and] it’s incredibly important to create a book that will encourage them.” ~ Abrams editor, Erica Finkel
It’s a tough balancing act – to write using a simpler narrative suitable for an emerging reader, whilst carrying three dimensional characters, convincing dialogue and a sophisticated and captivating plot. As we’ve seen, they need a wide appeal, while holding true to the core reader, and it can be all too easy to slip into the more complicated prose style of older MG.
My Tips for Writing for Younger Readers
- Focus on action and dialogue – these are the doors into your character for young readers who aren’t yet proficient in subtler indicators, like body language and emotion
- But, go easy on the dialogue! Too much will slow the pace, and pace is everything. Use dialogue tags so it’s clear who’s talking – don’t be shy of ‘he said, she said, they said – these tags slip into the subconscious but are important to keep the reader from becoming confused.
- Limit your number of characters and (like any book) they must be well rounded and believable
- Keep plots linear for simplicity, with no, or few subplots
- Young Reader books will usually be illustrated at some level. Consider the visuals – what will make great line drawings?
- Your words need to work hard, while remaining simple and concise – be mindful of word choice, but don’t talk down
“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.” – E.B.White
- Limit description. Younger children will fill in the gaps in with their imagination and description can, again, slow the pace. Young children are more likely to put a book down and do something else if they are not fully engaged.
- Keep in mind your audience. You will be read by children, but also adults to children
- Voice is (as always), key. Young Middle Grade books may be read aloud and need to sound exciting.
- You can tackle important themes, but make sure these are age appropriate, such as fitting in, making friends, dealing with change, growing up, conquering fear, accepting ‘otherness’. Never preach or be didactic
- Think about series potential and competition from series books
Show/Tell/What the Hell?
One thing I see people struggle with when writing for a young audience is the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule (as covered previously).
Telling is for novices. Right?
BUT then we read books (and this is especially true of Young MG) and cry, ‘But look at all the telling!’
How about if we think about show AND tell instead, understanding when to do what, and why?
Examples of appropriate telling in children’s literature for younger readers:
‘When Kit got to the library the next morning, Josh and Alita had been there for a while already.’ The Dragon in the Library
‘Demelza felt a wave of anger building up inside her … She couldn’t hold it down.’ Demelza and the Spectre Detectors
‘Coraline was bored.’ Coraline
Yes, we could show Josh and Alita deep in a pile of books, Demelza balling her hands into fists, or Coraline kicking a stone – but really, what purpose does that serve when the likelihood is that the coming scene is actually about something else. Something waaay more exciting.
So, why is the golden rule (guidelines) of SHOWING less shiny for Young Middle Grade readers? Why/when is it OK to tell? Here are some reasons you might want to lean on a bit of telling:
- Shorter word counts leave less room for showing
- Readers may not yet have the emotional maturity or vocabulary to understand the cues in showing
- In depth showing may tire a reader who hasn’t yet built up their reading stamina
The best way to learn to write for a younger audience, is to read lots of chapter books. Avoid trying to study the form, rather absorb the intention of the author. Get a feel for how they are appealing to the reader, be it adult or child. Notice where ‘telling’ moves the story on, rapidly, simply but affectively.
A task to finish:
You can practice finding a young reader show/tell balance by using visual prompts.
Try writing a short scene, describing this house using showing only.
And then telling only.
Then find a balance of both. As you do this, ask yourself, is my use of showing here too complicated, too obscure, or too wordy? Could I use telling and not lose reader engagement?
Next Topic: 1.9 Children’s Agents List
Emma was once a very sensible biologist. Now she uses her transferable talents such as attention to detail, patience and fine motor skills, to extract Lego from under the sofa. And of course to write children’s books.
Her favourite things in the world are: badges, Death On the Nile, hats, foxes, deserts, desserts and Buck Rogers. Her one regret in life is never having trained to be an astronaut.