“Childhood is another country.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Even if you haven’t been a child for decades, if you want to write for middle grade and YA readers, you need to find a way to see the world through your child characters’ eyes, minds, and hearts. You need to remember what it’s like to be a kid, to find a passport to that other country.
Children like to read about people who are their age or slightly older. If you are writing a story for 9- to 12-year-olds, your main character will probably be 12 or 13. If you are writing for teenagers, your main character will usually be 15 or older.
How does an adult writer create realistic child and teenage characters? Here are six ways of thinking like a kid – plus some exercises to help you practice.
Wonder why and ask what if.
“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.”
Kids are curious. They don’t know as much as adults, but they desperately want to know about and understand the world, and because they don’t come with preconceived notions, they are much more able to question, imagine things differently, and see other possibilities.
A child might ask “Why does it get dark at night?” An adult would explain that it’s about the earth spinning. The child might then think, but what if it didn’t? Or what if the earth slowed down? Sped up?
A child might ask, “Why is there gravity?” An adult would explain that it’s because of the pull of the moon. The child might then think, what if something shifts, and there’s much less gravity? Or much more?
- Play your own “what if?” game. Make up 10 what if… questions and think about possible outcomes.
- Next time you’re with a kid, listen to his or her questions. What do they wonder about? What do they imagine? How do they see things differently?
Read, watch, play.
Though many aspects of childhood are the same as they were when you were a kid, and even when your grandma was a kid, a lot of things are different. To understand the world of children today, immerse yourself in their culture. Read the books they are reading, watch the shows they’re watching, play the games they’re playing.
- Talk to at least three kids about their favorite books, TV shows, games.
- Read the books, watch the shows, play the games – preferably with the kids.
Understanding today’s kids is important, but if you are to really get inside your child characters, you also want to remember your own childhood. You were there once yourself. You passed through every age of childhood, and there are probably a lot more memories of those days buried in your subconscious mind than you realize. Here are some methods for bringing those memories to the surface:
Look at old photographs and home movies.
Talk to people you knew back in the day, reliving old times.
Reread old letters, journals, diaries, school projects.
Research what was going on in the world when you were a child – politics, local news, culture.
Listen to the music you listened to back then.
Ruminate – think about past life events in a relaxed and meditative state.
- Ask yourself: What was one thing you really wanted when you were a child that you couldn’t have?
- What is the worst fight you ever had? Who was it with? What about?
- What was the thing that scared you the most as a child? Did you get over this fear? How?
- What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done? What was the meanest? Of what are you most proud? Most ashamed?
- What is the best holiday or birthday you can remember? What is the saddest? Why?
- Can you remember the first time you were away from home overnight? What was it like?
- Do you remember the first time you realized someone had lied to you? Who was it? Why did they lie? How did you feel? What did you do?
See, hear, smell, taste, feel.
As the great children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom said, “We must remember that children are new, and the whole world is new to them.”
We learn about the world through our senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Children are still learning. They see and understand everything about the world through their senses. If you want your story to be accessible to kids, if you want to capture and hold their attention, you will need to create scenes that engage the senses.
Fiction is told in scenes because scenes that utilize all the senses help us feel that we are actually there with the characters, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling what they see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. We actually live the scene vicariously along with the main character. This is how fiction derives its emotional power and also why it is so good at teaching emotional truths and helping readers understand others and themselves.
Choose one of the following:
Dawn breaking over a lake
A beach on a foggy day
A sweltering classroom
A school Halloween party
A dark night in the countryside
A snowy afternoon in the city
Any place you love
Write one of the following scenes as if it was happening in that place:
- A child/teen meets his/her cousin for the first time.
- Two students who don’t like each other are stuck in this place for a day. Write a scene in which they come to respect or like each other.
- A child says goodbye to someone he or she loves.
- Use your own characters and situation.
Talk the talk.
In the past, most kids’ books – in fact, most books in general – used an omniscient point of view, in which the story is told by a voice that is separate from the characters and outside the story, and also knows everything about the characters and the events of the story. While picture books are still often told in an omniscient voice, books for older kids and YA audiences usually use either a first-person or a third-person limited (non-omniscient) point of view.
Whether you choose to tell your story in first-person or in third-person limited POV, you will be telling the story in the voice of one of your characters, usually (but not always) the main character. An advantage of these POVs is that they create a sense of connection to the narrator, and hence, a direct and intimate connection between reader and writer. Readers, especially older kids and YA readers, are then able to identify strongly with the main character and to care deeply about what will happen to him or her.
In order to use a first-person or third-person limited POV successfully, it’s important to find the voice of your character. If your character doesn’t sound like a real kid, readers won’t feel that sense of connection and will put the story down.
The key to creating a convincing voice is understanding your character as a real human (or alien, animal, futuristic robot, or whatever form your character takes – they are all stand-ins for humans), complete with flaws, loveable qualities, quirks, and biases.
Listening to the way kids talk, watching the way they interact, working to understand their goals and problems will enable you to see the world through your character’s eyes, mind, and heart, and to create a unique and believable voice that will speak to kids and allow them to identify.
- Create a character who is 16 years of age or younger. Include age, physical appearance, personality traits, family, pets, friends, occupation, hobbies, pet peeves, favorite foods, books, movies, sports, TV shows, etc.
Give your character a problem.
Have your character write you a letter telling you about the problem.
- Write a dialogue in which every exchange is only two words or less.
This is a phone conversation between two kids discussing homework.
“Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination. But just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales in later years if he ceases to exercise it.”
What is it about a child’s mind that can turn a bathtub into an ocean, a cardboard box into a rocket ship, an empty cabinet into a hideout full of hidden treasures? How can adult writers recapture that ability to make connections, to find new worlds around every corner and wonder in the everyday?
One problem we adults have is that we’ve been told again and again that our imaginings are not reality and, therefore, have no validity. As when an older sibling says, “Uh, actually, that’s not an ocean. It’s just a bathtub.” Or a teacher says, “No, the Thanksgiving turkey did not get up and fly away from your grandmother’s dining room table,” and marks an F on your “How I Spent My Thanksgiving” essay.
To a child, the boundaries between reality and fantasy are porous, not solid as they are to adults. It’s so much easier to slip between the worlds. Of course, as we grow, we have to be able to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t. But this doesn’t mean we have to relinquish the ability to imagine.
As Brenda Ueland, in her classic and affirming book If You Want to Write assures us, “Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.” She explains that “the imagination needs noodling – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” Like a child at play.
The following techniques can help tap into your subconscious and stimulate your creative imagination:
Free writing: Give yourself 10 to 20 minutes, pick up your pen or sit down at your computer, and begin writing. Write whatever comes to mind, and don’t lift your pen from paper or stop typing for the allotted time. If you can’t think what to write, write your last word over and over. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or anything but putting words on paper. You can focus on a particular topic or project, or just write about anything that comes to mind.
Clustering: Write the name of your project, character, subject, or scene in the middle of a piece of paper. Draw a circle around it and then draw spokes radiating out from the circle and write related words on the spokes, and connect those to other related words.
Questioning: Write down questions that you need to answer regarding the project. Don’t worry about answering them yet, but begin to think about strategies for answering them. Will you need to do research, interviews, imaginative work, plotting?
Meditation: Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, repeat a mantra or concentrate on your breathing and relax for 10 to 20 minutes before you begin to write. This will clear your mind, refresh, and energize you for the work ahead.
Visualization: Before writing a scene, close your eyes and picture it in your mind. Let the scene play out before you as if you were watching a movie. Then simply write down what you see in your imagination. This may require some practice but can be tremendously helpful for writing fiction or creative nonfiction.
So before you write, practice being a kid. It will help your writing, and more than that, it will keep you young. As playwright Tom Stoppard said, “If you carry your childhood with you, you’ll never grow old.”
—Margaret Meacham has written 11 books for children and young adults, including Oyster Moon and A Fairy’s Guide to Understanding Humans. She teaches Children’s Book Writing at Gotham Writers’ Workshop.