Attitudes and Beliefs

Some authors of children’s books, particularly beginning authors, “talk down” to their readers. An aura of condescension permeates the writing like nauseating medicine. This can be present in varying degrees and can creep into your work. Ask yourself what kind of conversation you would have with your readers. Would you listen as much as you talked? Would you ask them for ideas? Comments? Would you want to know what they thought? If your answers are yes, you probably don’t talk down to your readers and write in an honest and intimate way. It’s usually not obvious to writers when condescension chokes their work, but it’s obvious to readers, and they react to it. A psychologist once told me that lecturing was the worst form of abuse adults could inflict on a child.  We have a sense of what we want children to learn, but they like to come to their own conclusions from what we present, not be told what they must think. Our motivations may be pure, but the writing ineffective.

That attitude of lecturing creates a distance from our reader. One method of measuring whether we are too distant to from our audience is to get to know a group of children. We can offer to speak to a Brownie or Cub group or school class about writing, listen to the children discuss a topic. We can find a teacher friend who will allow us to sit in on the class for a day, or offer to help with a field trip. We can take a neighbor child to the movies. Do as I did and join the five- to seven-year-old roller blade hockey team in your back lane. Children are often very honest and will tell you what you need to know. ( “Marion, you is not the best skater, but you is the best goalie.”) We can change our views and our belief system by listening more closely to what they say.

We need to get to know as many children as you can, as well as we can. What do they want, fear, and expect? What do they do in their day? What is usual behavior for them and what is unusual? How much free time do they have? What do they eat? When and where do they eat? Do they have their own phone? Do they have pets?

It is perhaps more important to know a few children well than many children slightly. You may find more revelation about a child’s point of view from one child than from a group. As well, children differ so much in personality that what is important to one child may not be important to another.

Children do have some things in common. It may help your writing if you have a background in child psychology, but it isn’t necessary. Most parents read reams on what to expect from children at each age of their life, so a good book on parenting will probably give you much information and even ideas for plots. Theoretical knowledge is useful, but it isn’t a substitute for friendships with children.

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the changes that flash in and out of children’s lives so rapidly. Group interests change over the years and we can be out of touch with an age group very quickly. Dinosaurs give way to the Avengers. Birthday parties occurred at home one year and at the Light Tag Arena the next. A girl who rides horses might ride English style on bridle paths at one age, but a few years later girls of the same age ride western in gymkhanas, and a few years later in events just called “games.” A new world of paranormal and fantasy create new worlds for readers. But feelings remain understandable and universal.

We know we need to be connected to our readers. What matters to you? What do you think is important to your reader? I’m committed to showing readers protagonists who think for themselves, take chances, and are independent. As well, I want to show those characters as respected members of their families and communities. I want to convey the belief that individual children are valuable and important, and I want the readers to believe that about themselves. The readers’ beliefs are, of course, beyond my control, but I hope that in identifying with my protagonist, readers can, at least while reading the story, believe in their own worth.

If you haven’t already done this, you might want to examine what your attitudes are to your readers. I find it helps to imagine an individual reader. When I wrote Riding Scared, I imagined a 12-year-old girl sitting in a ferry lineup on her holiday in the back seat of the family car; ignoring her younger brothers, her parents talking in the front seat, and the comings and goings of the ferry terminal; concentrating because she was enthralled with the story of Gillian and Hawkeye. I thought about how such a reader would react to the story, and I wrote to her.

From Writing for Children and Young Adults  Self-Counsel Press