Thursday, November 21, 2013

Write Smart For Kids

Adam Sear is a full-time primary school teacher and part-time writer. He is currently working on a sci-fi series for 8-11 year-olds. He lives in Northamptonshire, England with his wife, two kids and a cat called Monty.

Write Smart For Kids

We have all done it: walked around the local book shop or library perusing the children’s fiction, wondering how in blazes some of this stuff made it to publication.

Or maybe it’s just me.

I write for kids, I have two children of my own and I teach 9 and 10 year-olds, so I care about what youngsters read. Sometimes I glance across the tables at reading time in my classroom, and try to work out what made a child choose a particular book. Humour, excitement, escapism, information – we all read for different reasons at different times, and - of course -there is nothing wrong with that. There are some absolutely cracking books for children out there, and kids have a bigger and better choice of reading matter than ever before.

However, there are two kinds of book that make me roll my eyes – maybe even despair a little bit. The first are those that seem determined to talk down to kids, to reinforce the idea that the pinnacle of literary ambition should be jokes about farting and other toilet-related matters. The second are those that seem to have been dreamt-up in a marketing meeting, you know the ones, they have titles like Mutant Vampire Meerkat School, or Zombie Pirate Ninja Babysitters of Doom. As a teacher I know that children write in response to what they read. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the kids who read beyond the lavatorial and the crushingly formulaic tend to be better writers. They seem to care about what they are committing to paper, and expresses themselves more clearly.

Children are smart, too. Much smarter than some of these titles seem to suggest. It’s weird isn’t it? I’m sure that your average publisher knows this full-well. We are talking down to you, thanks for your money. Well, it’s a business isn’t it? Why should children be immune from being patronized? We are all treated like dummies on a daily basis – take a look the newspapers and TV, listen to a pop-music station for half an hour – it’s amazing anything gets done at all since we are – apparently - so collectively dim-witted. But, you know what? Children should be immune from being patronized.

Children should be challenged, inspired and perhaps even a little perplexed by what they read. Yes, of course, we all like an easy read from time to time, and reluctant readers (including children with special educational needs) need to have access to books which will open the door to reading for them. As a teacher I actively approve of this, and know that there are many different kinds of readers with differing levels of skill. Opening the door to reading is crucial and this can be done through comics, picture books, and chapter books with a small amount of text per page (for example Andy Stanton’s excellently surreal Mr. Gum series).

But… think of all those times you have reached for a dictionary whilst reading and learned a new word, or encountered a new idea that led you to an encyclopedia or a web search – children need to develop those skills too. I recently read Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom to my class, and almost every page features a word that many of them did not know the meaning of. We build word-power through reading.

I was once taken to task by a literary agent over the use of the word granola in a book I wrote for 7 year-olds. I was told that they wouldn’t know what it was… but how are you ever going to know what something is without reading about it for the first time? (I admit that knowing the word granola is maybe not that useful… but the point still stands.)

The same agent – an expert in children’s literature - advised me to include more fart gags in my manuscript. This worries me, the tendency towards low humour. Don’t misunderstand me, I love a good bodily-function joke as much as the next 43 year-old man, but they are seemingly everywhere. Farts, poos, stinky nappies, underpants, missing underpants… In an infinitely large and expanding cosmos, can’t we come up with something else? To aspiring writers I say this: if your story does not demand more farts, then hold them in. Give your reader some credit: she is a smart kid with a dictionary and access to Wikipedia. She can look stuff up.

There is a danger here that I might appear to be a po-faced killjoy, and if you think I am then I can live with that. However, the greater and more urgent danger is that what I am saying might be construed as a recipe for dull-but-worthy fiction for children. I am not in any way advocating this. Writing for children should be worthy – sure – why not?; a little bit educational; engaging; fun; but most of all thrilling.

Resist the farts and the formulas; instead take note of the successes of Michael Morpurgo, Phillip Pullman, Eoin Colfer, and good old J K Rowling. Remember that today’s children still tackle Tolkein, and C S Lewis quite happily. Find high quality models of literature to inspire you as a writer, and challenge yourself to take your reader on a voyage of discovery. Books should open windows on the world, not show the reader what they already know. Farts are funny. OK. Time to move on.

No comments:

Post a Comment