How to write for children and young adults

Guest author and blogger Philip Womackis the author of two critically acclaimed novels, The Other Book and The Liberators. The Liberators was a Children’s Book of the Year for 2010 in The Times and The Daily Telegraph. He is a Contributing Editor to Literary Review and Port as well as contributing to numerous newspapers and magazines. Find his blog at philipwomack.blogspot.com

If you’re reading this, then the chances are that you want to write a children’s book – or, a label that has become increasingly popular in the last few years, what is known as YA, or Young Adult fiction. I’ve never been one for categorising, but you still need to bear in mind a few things if what you are setting out to write is going to be (effectively) a children’s book.

Is your idea any good?

Learn the fundamentals of writing

Remember it’s crowded

Don’t let this deter you, but go into any bookshop with a decent children’s section and you’ll see. You’re battling against E Nesbit, Roald Dahl, any of the classics that you remember from your childhood, as well as the latest multi-million selling series (and I don’t just mean everyone’s favourite wizard boy). This means that even at submission stage your manuscript really has to stand out. So how can you do this?

Tick all the boxes, but don’t tick all the boxes

This is a tricky one. Your manuscript must have the recognisable elements of a children’s book – depending on the genre, good vs. evil, emotional journey, and so on – but it’s how you play with these elements that makes it stand out. On the face of it, Harry Potter is extremely derivative (wizard school, mythology, dark lords and so on) – and yet J.K. Rowling’s originality and magic lay in how she mixed up all those things. So, effectively, you must tick all the boxes – but I suppose a useful analogy would be to say, cross all the boxes instead.

Don’t talk down

Children hate being patronised – this is something even children’s editors forget. There is a strange feeling amongst (even grown-up) editors that things always need to be explained – i.e. complex words, or references. But part of the joy of being a child is that you can work it out for yourself. Obviously the tone and style of your book must be suited to its age group – there’s no point calling a woman “kallipygous” in a book aimed at over eights – but avoid a hectoring, professorial and didactic style. Aim for clarity of expression, anchored in the sensual experience of being a child, and you’re half way there.

Be inventive

Children like nothing more than strange, silly situations, so play with ideas and characters. Try to be surprising – it’s much more fun for a child if the hero wizard turns out to be a slightly spotty adolescent with asthma.

Is your idea any good?

Learn the fundamentals of writing

Have a plot as hooking as an eagle’s claws

I can’t emphasise this enough – remember what it was like to be a child and absolutely, desperately needing to know what happens next. Children are highly attuned to the shape of stories. A lot of them will say things like “why can’t the baddies win sometimes?” as they are so used to seeing the good guys “win” – but really, if they did read a story in which the bad guys won, they wouldn’t be very happy. Your plot needs to be like an eagle’s claws, with the child being an unsuspecting hare that has been swooped upon.

Write what is true

Ultimately, this is the most important point of all. What you write comes from a very deep place inside your mind, rising up through all the layers of adult experience that have accumulated over the years, crushing it down to make a rich layer of oil that you can tap. Don’t be afraid to use your own memories – children find the world a very bewildering place, outside of their known paths, and half the battle about writing a children’s book is making the safe, known world seem strange and unknown. Children’s books, after all, perform two functions – one, as simple entertainment; but two, and more pertinently perhaps, as preparation for the adult world into which we get thrown without ceremony.

So bear in mind all those things – and, with any luck, your manuscript will come alive.