When you write a book for a child…

There are only two qualifications necessary to write a book for a child:

  1. You have to have been a child.
  2. You have to be able to remember what it feels like.

Ok, so you probably have to be able to write, hold a pen/pencil, tap on a key board spell more or less; maybe you have to own a computer or at least a stock of paper. But I suggest that all the other stuff: clarity, focus and intent, characterisation, plotting, keeping it active, not littering the whole thing with lazy adverbs and (yawn yawn) showing not telling will all sort themselves out, eventually if…
You can empathise with children.
This is how my dictionary defines empathise:

To understand and share the feelings of another.

When my brother was doing his CSE English (1970’s GCSE equivalents – sort of) he left all his coursework till the last minute. It was an essay a night in the half hour after tea, before he went out motorbikin’ or whatever it was he did in 1978. Every night he’d say “Jan, can you give us an idea for …” and the one I remember is… “… living in someone else’s shoes.” I don’t remember the idea I gave him but I always remember that title when I’m trying to write a character. Can I be them? In my imagination, can I live their life, not respond to their challenges as me (middle aged middle class well meaning woman) but as them?
I can have rosy memories of what life was like when I was a child:I was never rude to adults, I was happy with sixpence a week to spend on a bag of lemon sherbert at the corner shop and I always kept my bedroom tidy. If I shrink a bit, step into some trainers, I can remember what it felt like when I saw the kid with the brand new chopper, when my mum told me off and it wasn’t my fault, how boring tidying up was when the rest of the world was out playing. Maybe the toys and sweets are different but inside, children are much the same as ever.

Tapping into those feelings, helps me understand why children do what they do (incidentally, it also helps me be a better parent). Feelings motivate what anyone does – guilt usually works for adult me for instance. If I can understand children’s motivations I should be able to write my characters actions more convincingly – plot, of course being character in action.

So: empathy (sharing and understanding feelings) leads to character responses (internal monologue of POV character, speech or body language of other characters) leads to character action leads to plot.

Being another person, living in their shoes is about physical feeling too. What if your child character is hungry, hot or cold, uncomfortable – has just being given a horrible scratchy jumper to wear, soggy sprouts and boiled potatoes to eat. Adults can be a lot better than children at coping with these things. If I can empathise with children I’ll notice details (ones that make a scene come alive) that might be off my adult radar, for instance bits in yoghurts, hard seams on the inside of a pair of knickers.

What’s on top will be different for them too – ‘what’s for tea?’ usually comes quite high up or where’s the toilet? When one of my children was about 4 years old I was explaining to her about distress flares at sea. I said it was for an emergency if your boat was sinking, perhaps; she  said… “ or if you really needed the toilet.” That was on top for her.

The Master of Fantasy

Children’s books are often fantastic works of the imagination – amazing worlds, exciting adventures, weird creatures. I’m in awe of all this invention. But I think what makes a children’s book truly great is the imagination the author uses to remember what it really felt like to be a child.


12 responses to “When you write a book for a child…

  1. Lovely post! Empathy for your characters? Absolutely. How else could we understand their actions, reactions and motives? I love your observations about bits in yogurt and seams in pants. Great stuff.

  2. what I find interesting about being an adult is how much more brutal and cruel I see children as now than then. Then I sort of got on with it, now it seems a miracle to emerge through the vile hierarchies (when you’re not an intrinsic part of them). Plus, now, I DO think it is worse for teens, for instance, in that they can never shut the door on their peers but be sought and available for teasing 24/7 – mobile phones, facebook etc.
    A thought-provoking blog, thanks

    • That’s a very interesting point about how we see children now rather than then. I think they could be just as horrible to each other then. I know I’ve blocked some of the stuff I experienced. You’re right about shutting the door, although it’s possible, it’s very hard to resist.

  3. Hi Jan,

    Thanks for this lovely post! I found you via the SCBWI-BI yahoo group. So glad I’ve found your blog. I’ll be reading from now on. 🙂

  4. Nice one, Jan. It is especially important to ditch those rose-tinted memories of childhood and go into the darker areas you may well wish to forget. Also your point about the physical awareness of children is important – and rather handy for writing.
    I would add that inventiveness and deeply felt imagination is very much part of a child’s experience – or is that me the weird day dreamy kid talking?

    • Thanks km :o)
      Sometimes they’re not necessarily darker, just more honest.
      Yep, absolutely re inventiveness and deeply felt imagination. Weird day dreamy kids are very interesting :o)

  5. Thought provoking blog, thanks Jan

  6. I’m late arriving at this particular post. But it’s a cracker – thanks so much. Barry Cunningham (chief bloke at Chicken House) advises writers for children to focus on food. Kids love reading about food, he says. And your observations seem to support this too! It’s the little things, I guess – like the bits in yoghurt.

    Thanks. Great post.

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