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Ask a Writer: How to Write Children's Stories

Ask a Writer: How to Write Children's Stories

At Storywriting School, each online class includes a live Q&A session with Filipino children’s author, Dr. Joem Antonio. Here are some questions that students submitted for the course How to Write Children’s Stories, along with Dr. Joem’s responses.

How do you write for a specific age group?

If you’re going to write for a specific age group, you have to find out what the specific age group can already do, what they already know, and what they need. Only then can you write a story that will address their needs while keeping the narrative within their knowledge and capabilities.

There’s a lot of debate around this because kids grow up really fast and have all sorts of knowledge and ability milestones that we must consider. To play safe, it's good to look at how bookstores group their children's books. Here are the usual age ranges that I find in bookstores, along with my recommendations for each bracket.

0-4 years: This age group learns the fastest, but that is because they are still building the foundations of their learning. Not only do they need to learn how to read, but they also need to learn how to enjoy reading—enjoy sentences, words, sounds, and patterns. As the joy of reading is kindled, they can also be introduced to counting, colors, shapes, and other basic observable things that can later serve as the foundation for more complex concepts like math and health. Some excellent examples are Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Sandra Boynton's Horns to Toes and in Between.

4-8 years: Children of this age group are expected to know the basics of reading words, sentences, and paragraphs, and are ready to be introduced to concepts based on what they have been able to observe so far. For example, because they already know the members of the family and people in the neighborhood, the concept of stranger danger can be introduced. Since they’re aware of the concept of time, e.g. what late and early means, then we can introduce them to the concept of punctuality and patience. At this point, however, there are certain concepts such as abuse or drugs that would require sensitivity to discuss. Without a mastery of language and of the topic, it would be better to not write stories about them for this age group. Instead, it’s better that the kids are first introduced to the “what is” and “what should be,” rather than “what isn’t” and “what shouldn’t be.” My favorite examples of books appropriate for this age are Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggie books as well as Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books.

8-12: At this age, kids should already be quite comfortable reading on their own. They also become more conscious of the cracks in life, of how the adults in their life aren't perfect, or that the world can be quite harsh. They have to learn to deal with the effects of these discoveries. After learning about “what is” and “what should be” while they were at the 4-8 age group, they become increasingly aware of “what shouldn’t be.” They begin to realize that the world is not really perfect. What kind of stories do they need, then? They need stories that reassure them that they’re not alone in what they observe. More importantly, they need stories that reassure them that the world can still be a good place, despite the disillusionment. A few examples of these are Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw, Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, and Rhandee Garlitos' Chenelyn! Chenelyn!

Young adult: This age group is the most challenging, in the sense that the transition to adulthood is most blurry here. Adults can no longer impose on the young adult as the latter can already think for themselves. But, at the same time, the young adult is still dependent on the adult for many matters. Furthermore, it's around this time that they discover themselves increasing in strength, ability, and intelligence, while the adults in their lives are at a decline. This partially explains the angst the young adult has. Stories targeted towards this age group are there to help the young adult empathize and cope. A few materials to consider here are novels like Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls.

How do you know your language is simple enough for children to read? How do we write dialogue for children's stories? 

For the age group 0 to 8, most of the words should have two syllables, and then three syllables from time to time. The average sentence length shouldn’t go beyond 16 words. If you’re dealing with age 4 and below, the words should be more concrete than abstract. It’s not that you're not allowed to use words like “hope,” but you have to make sure they are backed by examples.

For the age group 8 to young adult, the recommended reading level is something a 7th grader can handle. While the language may be challenging for an 8-year old, the readability will not be impossible to handle. For readers above the 7th grade, the readability will be easy enough to breeze through but complex enough to not sound condescending.

If this tip is too vague, here’s a more concrete and practical approach: read your story out loud. If you find a sentence that sounds awkward, it probably is, and you should revise it. If it feels good to the ear, the eyes, and the mouth, then you’re on the right track. 

As for the dialogue, don’t try to mimic how children speak. Don’t stylize it, as you might sound condescending to the child reader. Just be straight to the point. Talk like you would talk. Best case scenario: they will relate. Worst case scenario: they will forget what you said. 

But, again, as a practical advice, if you want the dialogue to sound good, read aloud what you have written thus far. You’ll hear what needs to be improved.

How long should a children's story be?

The story’s length depends on the age range. For example, for older children, you can do chapter books. For children 0-4, around 200 words is okay.

You should also pay attention to the lesson that the book is presenting, and think about the age range it is ideally targeting. Some lessons can be taught within a single short story. Other lessons, because of the complexity and nuances, require the length of a chapter book or a novel.

Don’t stretch short story material into a novel and don’t compress novel material into a short story. How do you know if your story’s for a short story or a novel? Consider the number of characters and the events your story will need to cover. That will usually indicate how long your story has to run.

What if you want to make a much longer book, like Harry Potter? How do you plan it out?

Let’s look at JK Rowling’s trick. She has a “big” story through 7 books; each book is a story, and each chapter in the book is a story. If we look at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it’s a set-up for the showdown with Voldemort, and then the book itself is about protecting the philosopher’s stone, and then in each chapter, there is a small story about class, broom-riding, etc.

There are two ways to go about it, then: One way is that you can start by conceptualizing the main story, work on the smaller stories that will comprise the main story, and then break the smaller stories down into even smaller stories. The other way is that you can just work on a series of small stories featuring the same set of characters in the same world while considering the consequences of the previous stories as you write the current one.

Do you have any advice about writing children's stories that are narrative nonfiction? Do you have any advice about writing children's stories that feature local culture and history? 

Narrative nonfiction will still follow the basic structure of the story: having a beginning, middle, and end. There should be a premise, and what happens at the end should be drawn from what the beginning sets up and what happens in the middle. The difference, of course, is that instead of making up events, we have to adhere to what actually happened or what the historical sources dictate.

In addition, part of our duty as writers is learning how to curate. Look at how the details fit into specific arcs. Even if it happened in history, it might not be important to the story you’re telling. We will have to discern which details to include and exclude, depending on what the details contribute to the story. Ask yourself, does an event, character, or description contribute to the lesson you want to impart? If they don’t, no matter how interesting they seem to be, remove them. They are distractions to your story. Never go out of your story’s way just to introduce a detail you are personally attached to.

What tip can you give to make a children's story more Pinoy?

The easiest way is to use Pinoy names for both places and characters in your story. If the story allows it, you can also make references to Pinoy culture. By Pinoy culture, don’t limit yourself to the bahay kubo and carabao. Rather, little details like the jeepney, the tricycle, and the noontime show you hear in the sari-sari store may already provide some Pinoy flavor. Conversational ticks like “Psst!”, “Hoy!”, and “Naku!” also help when it’s natural for characters to say so.

Observe your neighborhood. Watch the news. You’ll eventually notice a Pinoy pattern that might work its way into your story.

Given that children’s books are to introduce them to the world, are there certain topics that should never be the subject of those books even if they’re written about in a child-friendly manner?

For one, don’t bring in politics until after the age of 8 or 9 (or even later). Politics is highly conceptual, and kids have little to no cultural scaffolding at their early age. All these concepts are based on other concepts. Should we, for example, drag the children into the issues and complexities of the Occupy Movement?

The other general rule we need to consider is the basic writer’s ethic that we should never leave our readers worse than before they read our work. By worse, I mean that their aesthetic experience, moral perception, and knowledge should not deteriorate because of what we write. We may mean well by trying to discuss sensitive topics, such as child abuse, pornography, or drug use; but realize that, if we are unable to account for our different readers (consider that our readers might actually be victims of these cases), we can harm the readers, rather than help. Or, we might inadvertently raise unhealthy curiosity among our readers, pushing them to explore exactly what we’re telling them not to explore.

You need to account for the various possible consequences to the reader. If you haven’t accounted or cannot account for all the possible consequences, don’t discuss that topic.

A published children's book author, Dr. Joem Antonio has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from UP Diliman and is an eight-time Palanca Award winner. He's also the Director of the MA Humanities Program at the University of Asia and the Pacific. For more information on his writing workshops, please visit https://www.storywritingschool.com.

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