Why secrets of the heart matter when writing for children
I'll never forget the first time I read Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.
I was captivated.
The idea of a clock striking thirteen in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar house was enthralling; the realisation that the thirteenth stroke meant Tom and his surroundings had slipped back in time, irresistible.
'Hurry! Hurry! the house seemed to whisper round him. The hour is passing... passing...
'Tom turned from the clock to feel for the electric-light switch. Where had it been? His fingers swept the walls in vain: nowhere...
'Hurry! whispered the house; and the grandfather clock at the heart of it beat an anxious tick, tick.'*
I loved The Owl Service by Alan Garner too. It was creepy; but the kind of creepiness I wanted in my life. Weird patterns that moved on china plates and strange scrabbling sounds in the attic. Pure adrenalin for the imagination.
If a book led me completely to another place as a child, I gave my heart to it. Lost my heart in it.
And it's the books that stole my heart that made me want to write books myself.
Is your idea a heart-stealer?
If you want to write for children, you probably already have a good, clear idea why.
But do you have an equally good and clear idea of your prospective audience? I don't just mean the age group you're aiming at. I mean what’s going on deep inside. Do you understand, for example...
- What enthuses them?
- What challenges them?
- What makes them laugh?
- What fires their imaginations?
- What fuels their creativity?
- What disappoints them?
- What scares them?
- What gives them nightmares?
- What they hate?
- What makes them angry?
- What they love?
- What puts a huge, sparkling smile on their faces?
Imagine yourself as a bookish detective and see how far you can delve into the child's inner world. And when the puzzle begins to feel more complete, ask yourself:
What is it about what YOU want to write that will make children lose their hearts to your story?
You can only really answer that question when you know and understand your readers.
So, even if right now you have an idea in your head; or a stash of scribbled notes; or even a plan, character sketches and a timeline – before you go any further, try this...
Remember the stories you read as a child that excited you. Then think about how they made you feel and how they succeeded in making you feel that way. Was it:
- The setting?
- The time period?
- The characters (or perhaps one character in particular)?
- The atmosphere?
- The unfolding adventure?
- The shocks and twists?
- The laughs?
- The first paragraph or even just the very first line?
What was it the author got so right? What did they succeed in tapping into in you, their reader?
Do you understand your audience well enough to be able to tap into those things too?
Being around children helps certainly. If you have your own and they’re currently in the age bracket you want to write for, you've a built-in resource well. When your life is immersed in their chatter and play, likes and dislikes, giggles and tears – not to mention their books – you're going to get a pretty fair insight into how a child 'works'.
But you don't have to have your own children, or be constantly around them, to get to know your prospective audience. Don't forget your own childhood days. You were there once, growing up too, in the thick of it.
Use those books you loved so much to remind yourself of how the world looked to you through your child eyes: how you felt, how you thought, what excited you, what you did with those excitements – and what disappointed you and hurt you too.
Then, take yourself off to a quiet nook somewhere – and read. Often.
You’ll have heard it before – and it sounds so obvious – but steeping yourself in whatever genre you want to pen is always invaluable advice for writers. Not just the 'would-be's either. Keeping up-to-date with trends and styles is vital CPD for the author.
And what better way to continually rediscover both the essence of what makes an engrossing children's story, and the spirit of children themselves than by reading other writers' perspectives on the childhood state?
It's certainly not a hardship. What a delight to find yourself compelled to read children's books, from revisiting the classics to discovering the new-borns!
What are children reading?
Whilst the classics have the potential to whisk you back to your own growing-up years, the new-borns are essential for keeping up-to-date with reading trends. These are what publishers are choosing to publish; the books they're willing to take a chance on in a vastly competitive market because children, their parents, their grandparents and more than likely their teachers are buying them.
In fact – hopping back into bookish detective mode for a moment – it's always worth chatting to the adults in children's lives. They're likely to be an excellent source of information on the books of the moment that children love.
And whilst you obviously don't want to copy what someone else may have already written very successfully, grasping the themes and issues that matter to young readers is crucial.
The BBC's 500 Words story-writing competition is an eye-opener when it comes to revealing what's on children's minds. Yes, it produces the stories you might expect from young writers – fantastical tales, other worlds and heroes from the animal kingdom.
But what it also displays is that children are acutely aware of the realities of 21st century existence. In 2017, many of the story entries were concerned with refugees. This year, whilst the plight of refugees still figured, it was apparently the huge problems facing the environment that were a major preoccupation.
Children aren’t detached from reality. They know what’s going on. These days it’s hard to escape it.
So, taking time to root around in the consciousnesses of today's children before putting fingers to the keyboard (or pen to paper if you prefer a more touchy-feely approach) is essential to producing stories that children will want to read.
That's not to say there isn't room for innovation. Presumably each reading trend begins with one successful book; a fresh idea or a fresh take on a pre-existing concept. Add to that the fantastic breadth of story, tone and content in children's books and you can see how writing is less about subject and plot constraints, and more about the point where writers' imaginations and those of their readers magically intersect.
Your heart matters too
There’s no point forcing yourself to write what you don’t want to write. If a trend leaves you cold, my advice would be to steer well clear.
Why push yourself to write science fiction because it’s popular when you’re far more suited to writing something firmly based in reality? Or torture yourself trying to come up with a story that’s funny when you’d much rather explore one that’s thought-provoking?
You see, it’s not just the reader’s heart that matters. It’s the author’s heart too.
In the midst of all the wordiness out there, authors shouldn’t be afraid to let their own individual voices be heard; to write in a distinctive signature style. Genuinely – from the heart. Your voice is something you might instinctively be in touch with. Or, finding it may be a matter of trial and error; discovering what works in your writing and what simply doesn’t.
Reaching a deep awareness of your potential young reader – a real sense of what it's like to be a child right now – is clearly vital, not only to winning your audience at the outset, but to holding on to them; to nurturing and growing them.
But if you’ve worked hard to uncover the heart of your audience – don’t be afraid to expose your own in your writing too.
Being genuine is a gift to your readers. And they’ll love you for it.
*Philippa Pearce: Tom’s Midnight Garden, Oxford University Press, first published 1958
Children’s author, Alexa Tewkesbury, is also a copy editor and proofreader offering an editorial service to independent authors and publishers. She trained in proofreading through The Publishing Training Centre and is a professional member of The Society for Editors and Proofreaders.
Why not get in touch to see if she can help you with your writing project?
To keep up to date with news and useful tweets on writing, editing and proofreading, you can also follow Alexa on Twitter @AlexaTewkesbury