Writing for kids

I began an interesting project recently in writing a book series for my 9 year-old son.

So, for context – my son is at the age where he’s just starting to get into reading, and the books he’s into are the ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ books, the Minecraft-themed variation of the same (‘Diary of a Minecraft Zombie’), and things like the ‘Treehouse’ series by Andy Griffiths.

I read through a few of these books and… well, I wasn’t overly impressed.

A page from Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Of course, my opinion is largely irrelevant here – I’m clearly not the target market, and all of these books have sold millions of copies. The fact that I don’t think they’re that great is neither here nor there, but I do feel like we have more responsibility, as writers, to give our kids a bit more than one-liner jokes and random sequences of events which seem to be unplanned and directionless, and not indicative of literary structure in any way.

A sample from one of the Treehouse books

But, so the counter-argument goes, that’s what kids read. You need to spark their interest in books somehow, and if that means a few books worth of diary entries as narrative, then so be it. Publishers love it, readers love it, authors get paid, all good. Right?

Well, kind of.

My view here is that while this might get kids reading, it’s still maybe not the best approach.

I mean, my kids will eat McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner if I let them, but it’s my responsibility to teach them healthy eating habits. Kids might read crude jokes, but it’s not really demonstrating what literature can provide.

And while I do realize that there are better options out there for kids, which do address such concerns, I wondered whether I could do it – could I create an engaging, immersive narrative for my son, which would also showcase more literary sensibilities, along with ties to real-world concerns?

It’s pretty ambitious, but here’s how I approached it.

First, I leaned on my understanding of the Disney story structure. Having two young kids, I’ve obviously got pretty recent memory of all the latest kids movies, and I know, from reading Christopher Vogler, a former story consultant at Disney, how Disney, in particular, applies the principles of The Hero’s Journey to its films. Having that basic understanding is fairly informative, as the same basic elements apply to every screenplay aimed at younger audiences. So I understand the progression, and the emphasis on pace that’s required to hook and hold younger audiences. Applying it is another thing, but seems like a reasonable starting point.

Next, I read a heap of kids’ books. Some just in sections to get the voice and pace, some in full, to understand the whole scope. It’s a crash course, I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in kids lit by any stretch, but again, it’s just to get an idea, a flow. A sense of the presentation style that appeals.

I then mapped out a story over three books. Most kids’ book series go for longer, but I felt like three was a good starting point. 20k words per book, three parts, that’ll test my capacity to hold his interest.

Then I set out to write.

The story – which I think probably reads better than I’ll describe it – is about a young boy who discovers that his mother and absent father are shapeshifters, which is actually part of human evolution that humans have moved away from over time. The concept is that humans evolved from fish, then settled into human form – but actually, we were supposed to keep evolving and develop the capacity to shapeshift as required, which would then better connect us to the wider world and everything within it. Some humans retained this capacity, but they’ve had to hide it due to fear of being targeted, captured, experimented on, etc. The main character’s mother didn’t want those concerns for her son, so she left his father and ran away, and she never told her son about it. But now the boy’s father has tracked them down, which is where the story begins.

It’s been interesting to note my son’s reception to the story. The first book seemed to go pretty well – he was excited to have a story written just for him, and he was engaged, and able to reiterate the scenes and key elements back to me. So it was a success, at least in early implementation.

The second book didn’t go as well. With the next one, I tried to add a bit more complexity, utilizing abstract thought and character self-reflection. I think I might have tried to be a bit too clever, because when I asked if he’d read it, he started avoiding an answer, before eventually admitting that he got bored with it and stopped. Which is annoying, and cutting, even from a child, but as I say, I think I tried to get a bit more in-depth and slowed the pace down a little too much.

The third book introduces internal reflection by the characters, integrated directly into the narrative, but I’ve tried to maintain the pace, and focus on movement more specifically. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m confident that this one will hold his attention.

But who knows? I guess this is one of the challenges of writing for a younger audience, no one knows for sure what will work – which, by extension, probably means that when you do figure out what engages them, it’s best to keep doing that

Maybe that’s why we have so many snackable books for kids, and maybe the ends do justify the means, in the sense that they’re at least getting kids reading.

It’s interesting to consider, and I wonder what the longer-term reading habits are for kids who start on these types of books.

But, essentially, what I’m saying is kids are tough, and writing for them is a skill within itself. Also, they’re mean – they’ll tell you what they think straight up.

If you’re interested, here’s the first book in the series (below) which you can download and read for yourself. Yeah, I’m not sure about the title either – you’ll note that all my novels have one-word titles. It’s not my strong suit.

Hopefully, the third book will hit the mark with my son.

The Next Evolution – Part I

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