What was your childhood reading list? Orphaned Bears or Teen Detectives? Do you remember discovering that perfect book?
They say you should write what you love to read. This is never truer than when it comes to children’s fiction. When writing for children, it’s a good idea to think back to what excited you about books when you were growing up.
Of course, it’s important to know what each age group, genre, or publisher in the market is looking for – but to tap into the emotions and expectations of a young audience, you must try to remember what made you fall in love with books.
[If you want to learn how to write for children, join our kids etc. course in Johannesburg.]
Six ways to find your children’s story
- Did your parents or grandparents read to you at bedtime? I remember I had two ivory-bound volumes of fairy-tales next to my bed and my mother or aunt would often read to me from these. One I remember, East of the Sun, West of the Moon, involved a bear who asks for a poor peasant’s daughter’s hand in marriage in exchange for riches. Of course, the bear is really a prince under a witch’s spell. So many stories from the classics involved similar themes – a poor man forced to give up one of his daughters, a wicked woman, a spell and a magical transformation. These were essentially love stories and kids (especially girls) love them.
- What TV shows captured your imagination as a child? I was a child of the 70s so I grew up with a lot of TV. One of my favourite shows was Paddington Bear – an orphan bear found at a railway station who finds a new home where he has to learn all sorts of polite rules. Its charm has never left me. Stories about orphans always strike a chord with children – losing your mom or dad as a child is your primary fear. And kids love stories about dolls, toys, and comfort objects – like a teddy bear – coming to life in a heart-warming way.
- What books did you first read and love as a child? I only really loved one Enid Blyton series as a child – the stories about Amelia Jane, a big country doll who wreaks havoc on the city toys in the playroom with her schemes of pure naughtiness. I still love her. She would devise plans to poke fun or get revenge on the snooty city toys. However, she always got her comeuppance and learned her lesson with lashings of tears and humiliation. She always promised to be a good girl … until the next story. Kids love Roald Dahl for the same reason. Kids are taught to behave – so if they can live out their rebellion vicariously through a story, they’re hooked.
- What books opened the world to you as a young child? Some of my favourite books as a child were not storybooks. I used to collect picture books that taught me about the world – my favourite one was on the Seven Wonders of the World. To this day, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon haunts my imagination. Others told of the Wild West and Cowboys. Another that spooked and intrigued me was one that showed the weird creatures that lived deep under the sea – the very same creatures we saw in Finding Nemo. The world is a fascinating and explored adventure for children – bring it to life with a book.
- What did your teacher read to you? We had a wonderful English teacher in Grade 4, who would let us rest our heads on our desks while she read to us at the end of a period. We loved Charlie and the Chocolate factory. We could hardly breathe waiting to find out if Charlie found a golden ticket. Another that I’ll never forget was I am David, about a young boy who escapes a labour camp to find his mother. Every week we’d listen raptly to see if he survived his ordeal. Kids love stories with suspense and anticipation – the more action, the better.
- What books were you hooked on as a tween? I remember getting a Hardy Boys book for just about every birthday – and I loved them. It was like meeting up with old friends when Joe and Frank had a case to solve. If I think back now, the short chapters and cliff-hangers at the end of each made them the James Patterson novels of their day. Kids love a series because the continuity of characters makes the world familiar, trusted and in a way, safe.
Why not answer these questions in a sense-memory exercise before you start to write a children’s book? Don’t over think it – just latch on to the first memory that comes to mind. The things you loved as a child will pretty much be the same things new young readers will embrace.
If you want to learn how to write for children, join our kids etc. course in Johannesburg.