There are only two qualifications necessary to write a book for a child:
- You have to have been a child.
- 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.
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.