WRITING FOR KIDS
This is a long post, so here’s the tldr (Too Long so Didn’t Read) version;
Writing for kids is the same as writing for adults (requiring the same skills, plot structures, and character depth etc.) and only differs in that it requires the writer to place hope at the heart of their story telling. I write specifically for my own kids (who are autistic and have special needs) and the parents of kids like mine. All kids benefit from good stories, but autistic kids get some really important benefits from reading radio plays and taking on roles within them. What follows unpacks this in some detail.
KID’S DRAMA DOESN’T EXIST
Kid’s drama is an especially relevant topic for me because writing for kids is what I do with every play I put a pen to. The thing is, though, while every play I have written has been written with my own kids as the primary audience, I’ve never once written a children’s play – not even my version of Rapunzel (written for schools).
If that seems a little confusing, then let me explain (or at least attempt to). I’ve been reading kids books all my life… ever since I was a kid myself. When I was a kid I read lots of adult fiction too. And as an adult I read lots of kid’s fiction. Why? Because the classification of child and adult as it applies to stories, doesn’t mean a lot to me. I just like stories, and a good story aimed at kids is as good a story (if well told) as a good story aimed at adults.
I actually think it is a mistake to try to create a “children’s” story as if it is a special kind of story, different from all others. When it comes to writing for children all that is really required is that you create a “good” story and make it accessible to children.
THE AUDIENCE OF CHILDREN’S DRAMA
Another thing I’m deeply aware of is that children are only part of the audience for children’s stories.
When I prepare a story, I have some specific kids in mind as the audience; my sons. And I recommend that anyone writing for children should have some real life children in mind when they write. But I am also aware that I will be reading the stories I prepare to and with them. I want the stories I give my kids to be stories I want to read and enjoy. All children’s fiction writers need to be aware of this secondary audience for their materials; parents. Pixar cottoned on to this for their movies. Children don’t go to movies on their own. If you want to make money producing a kids’ film, you don’t create a film that parents won’t enjoy. This is just as true for writing. If there is a household where the kids are avid readers, then there is a strong chance it is because the parents are reading with and to them. Materials that bore adults to tears are not going to get onto a child’s reading list easily.
So, I write my plays for my sons, but I also write them (perhaps primarily) for people like me; people who want to read plays with their kids and enjoy a good story in the process – and that means I don’t write “just” for my kids. Instead I write the best story I can, one that I, and adults like me, are going to enjoy, but I make the story, in terms of language, and themes, as accessible to kids as possible.
THE STYLE OF KID’S DRAMA
And when I say I make my stories accessible to children, I absolutely don’t mean that I talk down to kids. I use whatever vocabulary I think is necessary and I trust my story to be compelling enough that kids will use the context (and a dictionary, if necessary) to ferret out the meaning and keep following along.
Of course, I may not be typical in this. When my kids were babies I would read them whatever I happened to be interested in at the time. My wife came home one day to find me with my three month old youngest son lying on my chest as I read to him from Alexander De Toqueville’s, Democracy in America. 😀
But by and large, it is a good idea to keep the ages and stages of child development in mind – not slavishly, but in mind nonetheless. Again, this is not a hard and fast rule. Good stories are things kids will come back to over and over again. The story that goes over a child’s head today (in terms of the concepts and themes it contains), if it is compelling enough to maintain their interest in spite of those elements, will become very accessible tomorrow (and will reward that later reading by seeming fresh all over again). Sometimes a writer simply has to trust the story.
I remember being entranced by The Wizard of Oz as a kid (btw not a great book to read out loud to your kids as an adult – the sentences are frequently too long to read easily out loud). Baum has his little girl protagonist wandering around assassinating witches and otherwise doing some pretty hard-core things. The comedian Rick Polito described the plot this way; “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”
The violent nature of the story wasn’t lost on its initial audience either. Frank L Baum received lots of complaints. In subsequent stories no-one ever died and the childrens’ speech became increasingly stylized and, well, dumb. Needless to say, the later stories never had the same appeal as the first.
I’ll talk a bit more about self-censorship later, but I want to emphasise that I always aim to tell the story I want to tell (even when it is the story of a dentist taking a grisly revenge upon a drunk driver who killed his daughter). But I do so, in a way that is accessible and entertaining for my kids (now and, hopefully, later on as well).
On that score, I’m a strong believer in content warnings. Content warnings aren’t censorship. They don’t “limit” your audience. The make it possible for your audience to find you and make an informed decision about what they want to expose themselves and, in the case of children’s fiction, what they expose their children to. I get annoyed when material doesn’t come with a suitable content warning. Personally, I love creepy stories with supernatural themes. I like fantasy and horror. I find action and fight scenes exciting. But, I don’t like gratuitous swearing, overt sexuality, and acts of sadism, in the stories I listen to. I’m always grateful when the producers give me a head’s up before I waste my time on something that I’m not going to enjoy.
DO CHILDREN NEED CHILD CHARACTERS TO RELATE TO?
The short answer is no. Children are used to living in a world where they don’t have child characters to relate to. In fact children will relate to anything – frogs, pigs, spiders, you name it. Kids love superheroes, Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, Gandalf, etc. Every once in a while studio execs go “wouldn’t it be better if we provided some adventures with characters closer to the age of the kids in our audience so that they’ve got someone to identify with?” The question itself fails to recognise something fairly obvious about stories.
Characters must serve the story. When they are invented for another purpose (to serve as a point of identification for a demographic for example) they invariably fail. It’s been tried, way to often, and, as an experiment, has been shown over and over to be a bad idea.
Readers don’t ask “is this character my age?” Instead they want to know “is this character asking the kind of questions of his/her world that I am asking?”
Kids identify with old people, young people, men, women, and magical talking frogs, all on the basis of whether the character is asking the questions they want answers to. The character who does this can be a peer or a Titan. It’s not the physical wrapping that counts so much as the questions, hopes, and fears inside the character that are being revealed.
HOW DO CHILDREN SEE THE WORLD?
It’s often forgotten that life just happens to children. They are brought into the world without being consulted and carried from place to place by their parents. They are sent to school, fed whatever their parents can afford to provide and told where and when they can use the bathroom and go to sleep. Children are the most powerless and vulnerable people in our society (though my own experience of parenting tells me that children fight for power in that powerlessness tooth and nail). They experience life more than they assert control over it.
My father died when I was eleven, he had been sick with cancer for nearly seven years before he finally lost the fight. I didn’t question this, ask why, or rail against the fates that left my family on the bread-line, struggling to get by, as a result of his extended illness. Life was simply what happened to us. Childhood allows us to accept the bad with the good in a way that an adult can’t truly approach or get inside, precisely because, when we are children, we are powerless in everything.
But life is also full of wonder. We forget, with age, just how much the early part of our lives was a non-stop stream of firsts. Every day was fresh and new. Enjoying sunshine and flowers and tasting the rain, and feeling the wind in our faces was “wonder”-ful. It evoked a sense of wonder. We would discover earthworms, and bugs, and caves in the hedgerow, and forts made of boxes and so-on (and yes, I had a suburban upbringing with parks nearby for playing etc.). It was far easier to imagine and believe in things (like heroism, and goodness, and magic, and monsters) in the years before political scandals, and greedy pharmaceutical companies, and rapacious insurance companies, and bullies, and dishonest bosses, and self-centered teachers, and famines, and terrorist bombings, and self-serving opportunistic governments chipped all that optimism away.
Despite the wonder, children see the world quite clearly. They haven’t learned to filter things and will state what they think with honesty and enthusiasm. They are cruel and selfish, utterly impulsive, often lack conscience about a lot of things, have little fear of consequences, and will take enormous and foolish risks without counting the cost.
Adults come in two flavours, friendly adults (those you trust) and dangerous adults (those that threaten or hurt you in some way or are strangers). Likewise, they see other children the same way. The world is very binary. Of course a lot of people never quite grow out of seeing the world in terms of “black and white”, us and them, friends and enemies. Shades of gray are hard for adults and very tricky for kids. Friendship tends to be all or nothing (hence the panic of parents who see their kids falling in with the “wrong” crowd).
Adults, when they stray into the kids’ space, are oddly stupid. A kid is being bullied on the street corner and an adult yells “Hey, leave that kid alone”. The kids go around the corner, but the adult never follows to see that the victim isn’t bothered further and the bullying continues not five feet away. It’s as if the world of children is an alien country when viewed from a different height, rather than the same world we all share. It’s a writer’s job to overcome this artificial demarcation.
DOES THERE HAVE TO BE A MORAL?
A common mistake people make when writing a story for kids is that they think it needs to have an overt moral to it. Now it is true that Kid’s fiction isn’t morally neutral – it does have moral implications (and I’ve written elsewhere about how I think all writing has moral implications). But beating kids over the head with a moral lesson is an act of propaganda rather than story telling. The act of embedding moral lessons in kids’ stories is as old as aesop’s fables, but that doesn’t mean I particularly like it. So what am I saying? All stories are moral stories. Characters act in stories and those actions are subject to our moral judgments. Kids are capable of judging Voldemort’s behaviour vs. the behaviour of Sirius Black vs. the behaviour of Severus Snape. Complexity, moral ambiguity, and shades of black and white and gray, exist in all stories. We don’t have to shout “THIS PERSON IS GOOD” and “THIS PERSON IS BAD” and “YOU SHOULD TRY TO BE LIKE THIS” and “YOU SHOULD TRY NOT TO BE LIKE THAT” in order to make a moral point – and we really shouldn’t. It’s both patronizing and insulting to children to do this.
WHAT’S THE ESSENCE OF WRITING FOR KIDS?
If there’s one solid conclusion I’ve come to about writing for kids, it is this. It is actually no different than writing for adults (except with regard to some thematic issues – see later). All the writing fundamentals are the same. You still have to pay attention to plot, character, conflict and tension. Plots need to be just as carefully structured, characters need to be just as carefully developed, and the world requires just as much conflict and tension in it to be interesting. Children’s stories are adult stories where a little more concern is shown towards the audience. Most of us know where the boundaries lie – in that most children’s writers will think twice before writing a graphic scene (for example, where a baby is boiled to death) for children. But otherwise, it takes the same craft, effort, and sense of story to produce a piece of literature (play, prose, whatever) for children.
There are numerous experiences that children know intimately. They understand powerlessness, cruelty, shame, and fear from the inside. It is part and parcel of their existence that the adult world and their peers can render them powerless, can inflict (and can have inflicted upon them) great acts of cruelty, and can fill them with embarrassment and shame. To the inhabitants of such a world, stories of resilience, kindness, friendship, love, and courage are especially significant, but the way they are approached is also important.
Fiction that is suitable for kids needs to be, in my opinion and for want of a better word, ennobling. While stories for adults can be gratuitously cruel, violent, sexual, or horrific, I think it’s safe to say that this cannot be the case when preparing stories for children. That doesn’t mean stories can’t deal with adult concepts and topics, but they can’t be presented in all their stark hopelessness. In works for children, at least as applies to my own writing, while evil is real, it has to be faced with courage and compassion, and where evil carries the day, it must still be overcome in the personality and psychology of the protagonists. In the end, if children are your audience, hope and healing is essential, even if your protagonists face the worst that world can dish out.
WHAT DRAMA DOES FOR KIDS
Drama and literature have a special purpose when it comes to kids. They help children to appreciate the past, to critique and think critically about the present, and to take warning and inspiration for the future. Even where the stories are highly speculative they can give kids insight into life and human nature. Honesty is therefore an essential element of writing kids fiction and drama.
DRAMA AND KIDS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
I’ve mentioned before that I have two sons who are autistic. Both of them were born with brains that are far from normal. They have a lot of trouble interpreting social situations and people. The rules of social interaction, personal space, what’s polite and what isn’t; these things don’t come naturally to autistic kids. Where a neuro-typical kid absorbs social rules without effort, an autistic child has to be taught them explicitly. Understanding the “otherness” of the external world and other people is really hard for autistic kids. As such, empathy is not an easy skill for them to pick up.
When my kids were young it occurred to me that drama might be a way to help them recognise the separateness of other people and develop empathy by putting themselves in other people’s shoes. I started reading Peter Pan (the play) with my kids, getting them to take on the characters’ roles. From there we quickly graduated to other plays but quickly discovered that there aren’t an abundance of plays around that are written for, or interesting to, kids. It was the thing that prompted me to start writing them for myself.
Audio drama is particularly good, because it doesn’t require props or other visual cues. We could read them together at bedtime, without the need to prepare anything in advance, and it was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I’m not the fastest writer in the world and I started looking around for audio drama scripts. Numerous people in the audio-drama community helped me out by supplying scripts that I could read with the kids – in particular I owe a huge debt to generous folks like Gregg Taylor of Decoder Ring Theatre and Pete Lutz of the Narada Theatre Company. Reading radio drama, taking on roles, and talking about the characters and their motivations etc. has made a huge difference to my kids. My youngest, who struggled the most in terms of social development, changed markedly as we read plays together. At school, a new child arrived and he introduced himself, and showed the boy around. The boy’s mother came to us (almost crying) to thank us that Ben had been so kind. Ben said he “thought the boy would be very lonely at a new school and needed someone to help him out”. To say this is not typical of autistic kids is putting it mildly. When the psychologist noted the progress he was making and asked us what we had been doing with Ben, we explained about the play reading. He thought about it for a minute and then responded, “yep, that would account for it”.
It turns out that reading plays (specifically adopting roles within plays) helps autistic kids create new connections in the brain, helps them develop insight into the psychology of those around them, promotes empathy, models social skills for them, improves their social intelligence, and helps autistic children imagine themselves from the outside (as other people might see them).
While people can buy the plays I write (and I’m always happy if they do because it helps me to pay for the website, and professional editing, and artwork etc.), I give them away for free to people, and the families of people, with children on the autism spectrum. As much as I love audio drama in and of itself (and have done since I was a kid) my primary motivation in writing audio-drama is my kids and the way audio drama can be used to help them with their social and brain development.
And there you have it; some musings, and possible insights, on writing for kids from someone who has been groping around in the dark trying to do just that. I’d love to hear what you agree with, disagree with, and just think in general about writing for kids.