How to Write a Children's BookDec 26, 2021
From the desk of Polly Ho-Yen.
‘Twas the day after Christmas when all through the house, old memories are stirring we simply can’t douse…
Over the festive period, it’s near impossible not to think back to our childhood Christmases. Those memories are so much closer to the surface. I was plain ridiculous as a kid at Christmastime; I remember desperately wishing for snow, really feeling the wonder of it all by looking long and hard at the Christmas tree, totally giddy at the prospect of visiting the local shopping centre’s Christmas display. Our family tradition was to drive to a local deer park and see if we could spot the reindeer on Christmas Eve. If we caught a glimpse of their antlers, I felt buzzed with nothing less than pure joy. But if we didn’t spot them, my parents would tell my sister and I that the reindeer were simply getting ready for their upcoming sleigh ride; I was never able to hide my disappointment.
At Christmas, we are, I feel, particularly close to our past selves – especially that child who hung up a stocking and felt they really were close to magic as they looked at a grotto covered in fake snow next to an animatronic elf at a garden centre. As a writer for children, I often get asked: how do you convincingly write a child character?
As a writer for children, I often get asked: how do you convincingly write a child character?
As you might have guessed from my memories of Christmas, I have to confess I don’t feel oh so far away from my inner child, it’s alive and kicking inside me, probably a little too much. ‘Because I still feel like I’m five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve…’ is the answer. These past selves are still so close to me that it doesn’t feel difficult to tap into. Should I admit this in adult company? Well, what the hell, I’ve built my writing career out of it and in fact, I value it. If you are looking to write convincing child characters, connecting with your inner child is, I believe, vital.
If you are looking to write convincing child characters, connecting with your inner child is, I believe, vital.
How to connect with your younger self to write a child character
Here are some practical suggestions that may help you get back in touch with the magic:
- Reminisce with people who knew you way back when
- Deep dive into childhood photos
- Read your own writing
- Visit places you knew when you were a kid
- Start a Memory Journal
Reminisce with people who knew you way back when
The stories we tell ourselves about our lives make us who we are and there’s no better way to take a trip down memory lane than to do it in the company of someone who was also there at the time. If possible, a good natter with a sibling or friend about time spent together when you were younger will tell you a lot. Perhaps it will turn to hysterics as you remember together the odd rituals you once gave so much importance. Maybe you’ll be bowled over remembering a place that’s been long forgotten, or an uncomplicated feeling of safety and warmth. The memories might not always be rosy, of course – in fact they can painful and may bring up other points of view that are not part of your personal narrative. Whatever comes up, accepting where these conversations lead you and being curious in the emotions they stir within is, I feel, the key to starting to step into the shoes of a child character and embracing the full range of feelings they are living through in your own fiction.
Deep dive into childhood photos
For more inspiration, dig out those dusty albums, if you can. Which photo appeal to you and stand out? Do you have favourites – and why do you think you’ve chosen those particular images? Can you recollect where it was, how you were feeling and the energy of that day? Do you feel connected or disconnected to your own small face in the photo? If you don’t feel that it matches your memory of that moment, why is that?
Read your own writing
Some people have a wealth of material they wrote as a child (to which I was always a little jealous), but of course we’re not all in that position. If you can lay your hands on anything you wrote when you were younger, I’d urge you to take a little look.
In the last few years, two things I wrote (for pleasure) as a kid have been found during clear-outs which left me with both mixed feelings and a sense of acceptance.
The first was a holiday journal in which I’d taken score of every table tennis game I played against my sister, documenting my growing feelings of resentment towards her as I lost each and every game. On one page I tried to ‘fix’ the score before scribbling it out, then added a postscript that my sister had seen the made-up score and we’d fallen out about it. My handwriting is cramped and close together, my frustration, sense of injustice and boiling rage skips off the page.
The other is a LETTER TO THE FAIRIES inviting them to visit me with the promise that I wouldn’t hurt them. It might sound sweet if I’d been younger but, unfortunately, I dated it. I was twelve years old! Surely I couldn’t have believed in fairies when I was twelve years old! But the proof is pretty damning. Mixed feelings, you see! But reading my own words takes me fully back to that gawky, emotional kid I know I still completely am.
Visit places you knew when you were a kid
Walking into any primary school transports me so quickly to my own primary school days that it’s astonishing. I think it’s because it’s an assault on the senses; the school dinners, the paint and pencils, the beanbags … I could go on. Visiting any place from your childhood will tap you into your younger days. School’s a good one because we all spent so much of our young lives there, but we each carry our own special places that are rooted to our childhoods.
Some of those places you might have only been to once – an unforgettable holiday or a trip – but I think it’s important to tap into the ordinary everyday of your childhood too, the truthful and unglamorous side. Perhaps it’s impossible for you to go back to those places, so you might need to find counterpart places that still jolt those memories.
Start a Memory Journal
Lastly, don’t depend on any other stimulus but simply free-write your way into your memories.
Use prompts to think back on any childhood memory and set yourself a challenge of writing non-stop about it for ten minutes. If you feel stuck then just write ‘I am ten years old, I am ten years old’ (or however old you were) on repeat until the memory takes over.
Here are some things to think about:
- How did you mostly travel to school?
- What was your bedroom like, growing up?
- What things did you like to eat?
- What did you love about Christmas, what did you hate about it?
- Give yourself a question starter and let your mind, and pen, wander.
Writing characters for young, modern readers
It’s essential we start with ourselves when writing a child character, and we need to give ourselves the empathy of understanding our younger selves in order to do this. But to create truly authentic characters for young modern readers, we must connect to children today.
It was no accident that I was working in a primary school as a teacher when I wrote my first book for children. Now that I’m not teaching I visit as many schools as possible running writing workshops as a touring author.
To create truly authentic characters for young modern readers, we must connect to children today.
When I wrote my first book, not only was I transported back to my own childhood by just being in that primary school, but I was also blown away by the pure sparkiness of the kids I was working with. In ‘The Science of Storytelling’ Will Storr writes that there are no richer characters than real people, and his whole (excellent) book focuses on how writers can make up characters that do justice to the complexity of real people walking the streets.
I certainly was holding that in my mind as I wrote my first children’s book: how could I write characters and so the kids I was teaching would feel that it really could be them who were in this book? How could they feel like they were the heroes of the story?
Here are some ideas to ensure your child characters do the same:
- Spend time with children
- Really spend time with children
- Digest what they’re digesting
- Does your story reflect a modern child’s reality?
- Ask an expert
Spend time with children
If possible, regularly spend time with children. Being part of a team that works with children is fantastic so you can see the full glorious gamut of them. But of course there are many other options. You could babysit for a friend, volunteer at a library to run a code club, offer reading support at a local school.
Of course, when spending time with children you should not have in your mind that you’re doing it only because you want to write convincing child characters! You should be doing it because it interests and engages you – it’s merely an added bonus that your brain will be storing away connections and experiences that may come out to play in a story one day. In fact, if the thought of doing this really doesn’t appeal to you, I’d suggest that writing for children might not be for you.
Really spend time with children
When you do spend time with children, then truly be in the moment with them. This means: don’t take charge and let them direct what’s happening – if they have the confidence to do that. If they don’t, go gentle until they open up to you. Be willing to listen to what’s really going on for them and what’s on their minds. It’s all too easy to take over as the adult but if you do, any meaningful connection will not come.
Digest what they're digesting
I felt very silly the other day running a workshop in a school when a child had drawn a figure on an idea doodle and told me it was ‘a mungus’. What a fascinating, original idea! I thought. What exactly is a mungus? There were so many possibilities. I asked more questions before discovering that what he was talking about was a computer game called ‘Among Us’! The boy’s face lit up as he told me why he liked it so much. I’d heard of it before but seeing his enthusiasm, I had to research it a little more, to see what had captured his imagination.
Take a look at what kids today are really doing and enjoying. What books are the ones they actually love, what food do they like, what computer games are they playing, what do they want for Christmas?
I don’t mean you have to follow up on every little thing that a child you know has a passing fancy to – but it’s worth following up on a few and perhaps really immersing yourself if you’re feeling quite out of touch. Don’t approach it by asking yourself whether you like it or not, but with the simple thought of what is it about it that you think makes Tahir/Eishar/Adesoye/Robyn like it?
Does your story reflect a modern child's reality?
Think about where you’re setting the book and what that world is like – what cross-section of heritages might you meet? There’s a continued lack of representation in children’s books which is slowly being addressed, although there is still much work to be done.
Go to a primary or secondary you think might be representative of the kind of school your main character would go to and watch them spilling out at home-time. Does your character cast reflect what you are seeing? We owe it to young readers that they are seeing their realities reflected in the stories they read.
Ask an expert
If you’re lucky enough to know a teacher or a school librarian, or anyone else who works with young people over a sustained period of time, then listen to what they have to say. It’ll be far better to hear it from the horse’s (foal’s?) mouth – but any conversation about the gorgeous complexity of children and the relationships they build with their peers and adults will not be wasted.
Deciding on an age group
This can be tricky and, as with everything in writing, it’s a personal choice that might change and evolve. I think it boils down to two main questions:
- What does the story demand?
- What age reader would you like to connect to?
What does the story demand?
Is it important for the child character to be a certain age to make the story work?
I like the ten- to eleven-year-old age group because I like writing child characters who still retain a degree of innocence and are shielded from some adult issues, but have enough independence to be able to do things themselves with agency. My middle-grade books all feature main characters in that age group for this reason. I’m currently writing something with a seven-year-old main character and, because this story has much more magic and wonder within it, this age feels more fitting.
What age reader would you like to connect to?
Do you find the exuberance of a class of ten-year-olds energising, or are you more interested in the quiet angst of a group of fifteen-year-olds? And is there a particular past self you are writing for?
Meg Rosoff, in a series of masterclasses she recently held for us at The Novelry, talked about writing for her teen self. She was drawn to that time because she remembered questioning everything.
What time in your childhood really speaks to you? How old were you when your memories feel particularly vivid and you felt you were seeking answers?
It is through specificity that we build characters and we owe it to ourselves and to any young reader who might engage with our work to commit to complex, rich characters.
The individuality of characters of course means that one ten-year-old will be very different to another; one twelve-year-old might believe in fairies (!) while many others will be far from this – and I hope that talking broadly about ages is not being viewed as shorthand for writing in broad strokes. It is through specificity that we build characters and we owe it to ourselves and to any young reader who might engage with our work to commit to complex, rich characters.
A guide to whether you’re on the right track is whether you’re enjoying it. Writing through the lens of a child is fun, freeing and tests our empathy.
What would they know about the adult world? What are the emotions running through them in that moment?
Writing for our inner child, I believe, brings us closer to knowing ourselves as well as driving us to write a cracking story our younger self would want to read and not put down. And hopefully, more young readers will join us on that journey, too – and what a joy and privilege that is.
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