The Serious Art of Writing Kidlit

When I was in elementary school, I decided I was going to become a bestselling writer who would make millions and live in a New York City penthouse. Years passed and I realized that although there are a few writers who have the luxury of bestsellers and millions, most of them have actual day-to-day paying jobs, so I got one of those and focused my extra time on being a Serious Writer. Although I loved genre fiction, I viewed it as an entertaining pastime and instead focused on being Serious, which meant penning a fanciful work of literary genius. Something like “Crime and Punishment,” only written in the 21st century and by a mild-mannered Southern Filipino girl instead of a long-bearded Russian.

Alas, I never finished any such work and instead decided to hone my writing skills with short stories. As I wrote more of those, I noticed an interesting trend: Many of them featured main characters between the ages of ten and thirteen. Hmm, I thought. Does this mean something? The more I delved, the more I realized that the reason I loved writing from the perspective of children is because I find them far more interesting than adults. I decided to take it a step further – the next time I went to the Calcasieu Parish Central Library I wandered into the juvenile fiction section and picked up an armload of books, and I found something that I didn’t completely expect: Serious books.

After operating in the world of young adult and middle-grade fiction I can tell you that writing for children is no less serious than writing for adults, hence why I cringe any time someone suggests that children’s literature is somehow less serious than adult fiction. Readers pick up a picture book with twenty-five words and think, ‘Big deal. I could write this.’ They dismiss J.K. Rowling as being on a lower scale than John Irving. This categorizing of Serious and Non-Serious works of literature have permeated all levels of books – it’s the same reason why some of Stephen King’s peers refused to applaud when the master of horror received the National Book Award, something they smugly believed that should only be given to “real writers.”

I recently talked with D.B. Grady, a writer for the Atlantic, in which he asked me for my definition of young adult fiction and what I believed to be the greatest misconceptions about it. I told him that it’s ironic that anyone – especially other writers – would ever suggest that writing for kids is easy, especially when you consider the shift in tone, voice and setting that’s required to adequately do it.

Consider what writing middle-grade and young-adult fiction means. It means being an adult who is able to remember what it was like before household bills, spouses, and full-time jobs and recall, with emotional gravity, how real teenage issues felt before the “real world.” And it means being able to write in a tone and voice that connects to younger readers in a way in which they actually believe they are reading the story of one of their peers. It means being able to convince readers of any age that they can travel through time in a wall, fight off pirates, traipse through the land of the Wild Things  or board Platform 9¾ in London. More than that, though, it means relating to young readers in a way that tells them they are not alone, that someone understands what compels them – even if that someone hasn’t been a kid since the 1980s.

Sounds pretty serious to me.

0 Replies to “The Serious Art of Writing Kidlit”

  1. Great post, Erin! I recently read The Book Thief, more “serious” and poignant than “adult” fiction I’ve read for a long time.

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