Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Guest Post: Olive O'Brien - Writing for Kids

I often wondered how would it be to write for this audience. It sounds really interesting and challenging. However, since I know absolutely zip about it, I've invited the author of no less than two picture books -- Perry the Playful Polar Bear and Perry the Polar Bear Goes Green -- to explain things a bit.

Please meet Randomities' first honorable guest, Olive O'Brien. :)
Olive O'Brien is a children’s writer based in Cork, Ireland. You can find out more about her at Silver Angel Publishing or at her blogs, where she spends most of her time, at Write Olive and Movie News First.

If you’re like me and thought one day, I’d like to write a children’s book, it’s important to look at the differences between writing for adults and writing for children.

First, I guess it’s important to remember that children are intelligent creatures! One of the more common mistakes that children’s writers make is they think that they can throw a story at a young reader and expect them to like it.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Trust me, I’ve learned that lesson. So, in that sense, writing for children isn’t a whole lot different than writing for adults.

You still have a main character with whom readers can identify with. And you have a plot which faces that character with a situation, which he or she will have to struggle to resolve.

But, there are other significant differences between writing for children and writing for adults.

1. One of the things I love about children’s writing is that the characters can be as crazy and as fantastical as you want them to be. For example, animals who talk, sing, dance and do everything that humans do, is a fairly common occurrence in children’s books. And it’s such fun!

2. Most children’s books are pretty short. I’m not talking about teen fiction, which can often run to hundreds of pages in small print or indeed middle-grade fiction. I’m a picture-book author and most stories in that genre do not run over 1,500 words. But, sometimes it’s harder than it seems to try and write and condense a story down to 1,000 words, which is the average picture-book length.

3. Many books for adults involve long descriptive passages. Try this in a kid’s book and they will quickly tire of the “padding.” For picture-books in particular, sentences need to be short, easy to understand and you also have to bear in mind that each page will be accompanied by an illustration.

4. If you don’t grab a child’s attention within the first paragraph, you can forget about it. I’m sure we all have ploughed through a book or two, in the hope that it will somehow grab our imagination halfway through. This isn’t the case with children. The very first sentence must capture young readers immediately.

5. Children’s stories usually end on a positive note. There are books and poetry out there that have dark themes, however most end on an encouraging message which gives children hope.

6. Children like to read stories about characters and themes that they can relate to. As a children’s writer, you need to focus on themes that children often experience in everyday life, such as being afraid of the dark, adjusting to the arrival of a new sibling, their first day at school or moving home.

7. Children love heroes! When you look at many popular children’s books, they involve characters saving the day, the world even.

8. Most children’s books involve child characters or animals. Books with characters based on inanimate objects aren’t as successful. There are some quirky exceptions though.

Overall, writing for children is so enjoyable and entertaining and you can allow your mind to wander to some amazing places. But maybe some day I’ll start writing again for “big people.”


  1. Thank you Olive, for being here at Randomities and sharing your knowledge.

    Your creative writing students are very fortunate, considering how didactic you are! :)

  2. The only children's book I ever wrote was written when I was in the 6th grade! And it's tough stuff. A difficult business to break into, but also difficult to do, I think. I really admire those who can do it and do it well. What a great post! As a mom of 2 (one who is currently a toddler), I love to see the behind the scenes mindset that goes into writing a picture book.

  3. A lovely interesting post, Olive, and I took note as somewhere in the back of my mind, I would like to write a children's book some day.
    A certain skill seems to be involved, thanks for all the info.

  4. What a great post. I actually started off writing for kids, but now that writing is limited to scattered poems. It's much harder than one would think. There are a lot of good reminders here.

  5. @Mari; Thanks so much for the invitation, it was a fun post to write!

    @Carolina; Thanks Carolina for your comment. I think it is a little harder to write for kids for sure. Sometimes, I think the best stuff I wrote for children, was when I was a child in the 6th grade, lol.

    @Brigid; thanks for your kind comment and I think you most certainly could turn your skills to writing for children, no problem!

    @Laurita; Thanks Laurita, I usually don't write poems for kids as I think it's one of the hardest things to do, so kudos to you for writing them. Maybe you could give me some tips:)

  6. It's interesting how there are parallels on the abstract level, between children's and adult books. Heroes, relatable themes, everyday life angles. But the technicalities of the writing process really distinguishes the two genres.

  7. Yes, it always comes down to having a good story to capture and enthrall the audience, whether for adults or children.

    Very helpful to learn about the techniques to follow when writing for children.

    Thank you, Olive, for this information.

    And, Mari-girl, congrats on your first guest blogger!

  8. Very interesting, Olive, to hear these differences. Especially about catching their attention in the 1st paragraph - not unlike a query letter - and having heros.

    Great topic, Mariana!!

  9. Thanks for posting Olive's interview. Great stuff!

  10. Love this. All so true. I write MG and YA but most of this still applies (other than word count).

    And I think it's a universal requirement that something about the first sentence needs to draw readers in.

  11. @Joanne; you're dead right, I think there are a lot of similarities, but it's the few differences that make it such a different genre.

    @Marisa; Thanks for your kind comments:)

    @Julie; thanks for commenting on my blog and for visiting Mariana's!

    @Ollymae; Thanks Ollymae. And you're right I think it definitely applies to MG and YA.

  12. Hi everyone!

    When I was reading Olive's post and your great comments, several additional questions sprang to life in my mind, so I thought I'd share with you. :)

    For instance:

    --What makes is so hard to write for kids? This would be such a challenge for me, because I feel it's crucial not only to pay close attention to the story itself, the message it passes, but also the kind of language you use.

    --I'm also curious about the technicalities that Joanne mentioned. Could you guys, who have written both for adults and for kids, elaborate this a bit?

    --Olleymae: Would you mind telling us what would be the difference, in your view, to write MG and YA from picture books? Well, apart for the simpler language, which seems rather obvious to me, heh.

    Hey Olive, of course we'd value much your input in any of these questions. ;D

    I love this topic! heh

  13. I believe you're right that it has to be well done or a kid will give up. Adults will give a book more of a chance than a child. And all of those same elements (relatable character, plot) are important to kids too. I'm in awe of people who write picture books. I've tried a few, and they're hard!

  14. Really interesting to read about the differences between writing books for the older and younger generation - I loved the part you wrote about the freedom in terms of imagination and writing about talking and singing animals! It was also interesting to read that you have to immediately capturet the child's imagination and attention in order to have them stick with the book :)
    One thing that I wasn't aware of was the fact that books with characters based on inanimate objects are less successful!

    Great post!

  15. Thanks for the great summary of the differences between writing for children and adults. I've been translating the folktales of the Ainu (Japan's indigenous people) with the Western picture book market in mind, and have finally come to realize that even simplified translations just won't do. They have to be re-written from the very first line with small children in mind-- just like Olive said.

    The Ainu oral tradition is chanted to an audience of all ages, using stylized language, and, obviously, it doesn't come with illustrations.

    I am working with a great illustrator, but I don't know why it took me so long to realize I'd have to rewrite (not just translate) these stories to suit the picture book readers I'm trying to target.

    I've been reading a lot on the subject, and this post was really helpful. Thanks!

  16. This is a great post. Thanks for doing this and for your awesome thoughts Olive. Bookmarked it. :)

  17. What a great post. Olive makes good points about the similarities and differences in children's vs adults writing.

    I found this interesting, "animals who talk, sing, dance and do everything that humans do, is a fairly common occurrence in children’s books."

    There is actually a genre for adults that have all this crazy fantastical animal talking characters and situations, it's called Bizarro. Although, Bizarro often has grossness to it that I've never experienced before (so I try to avoid those books and obviously not write of that nature) I never thought about how similiar it is to children's stories. Inner child coming out, I guess. ;-)

    I am curious what Olive thinks about Grimm's fairy tales. Most of today's messages to our children end on as what you say is hope, but in Grimm's work (in which thousands of children grew up on) it's often quite a gruesome ending. I'd love to hear Olivia's thoughts on that.

  18. That's a very interesting point that Jodi makes about the Grimm Brother fairytales. I think we all grew up listening to the tales of Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel and other such stories. The latter was one of my favourites. I think although at least one of the characters met a rather gruesome fate, they still often ended on a happier note, like Rapunzel living happily ever after with the prince, or Hansel and Gretel escaping from the witch and living "happily ever after." Although the Grimm fairytales are more "hard-hitting" than modern tales, I think they still stick to the tradition of ending on a positive note. Great point Jodi!

  19. @dosankodebbie; your translation of the Ainu folktales sounds fascinating. I love many Japanese folktales and the morals/messages they convey.

    @Mariana; on why it's so hard to write for kids; for me I have to remember not to "talk down" to kids or be preachy. It can be a little difficult at times, particularly if you're writing books on environmental themes. For example my book on global warming circles around and is through the eyes of a polar bear cub, so as to engage with children. But yet I had to try and explain what global warming was. I really wrestled with that part of the story and re-wrote it dozens of times. Also, if you're writing picture-books which have an average word length of 1,000 words; every word counts and has to convey a feeling/contain action..which can be tricky. Particularly for us writers who like to pad the script up a bit!

  20. Thanks for this info and insight into writing for children. I haven't looked into it yet, but am very interested.

    Thanks Olive and Mariana - very good points!

  21. Jodi's point on fairy tales started elsewhere -- I couldn't find the discussion -- with a hard core red hood flash fiction. (for adults, obviously) I tend to agree with her that maybe the examples you gave, Olive, were some of the most light spirited ones?

    All this brought me to mind Neil Gaiman's children books. If you read Coraline and The Graveyard Book, you may have noticed that they're really scary, much like the old fairy tales.

    On the other hand, they're not as heavy as some of the Grimm tales, and they do have the positive note you mentioned being important. Yet, much controversy arouse with these two books. For instance, The Graveyard Book starts with the assassination of a whole family. The first line has a knife in a head. Wow.

    The children's mind working is something I'm most curious about. Putting children in contact with scary things, like Coraline and The Graveyard Book, helps teaching them how to deal with many things in life.

    That's why I think your comment illustrates what seems to be the greatest difficulty in writing for kids, Olive. It's hard to teach important life lessons without sounding like an adult, lol.

    I'm in awe of you, Debbie (dosankodebbie) and all who can write good books for children. One day I might be up to this challenge? heh :)

  22. Ah, on a side note, writing an interesting story with less than 1000 words is a regular thing for the #FridayFlash folks, heh.

    I think children stories would be a spectacular addition to the community and an interesting exercise for children book writers. ;)

  23. You both make excellent points. It sort of depends on which fairy tale you read which ends happily ever after. Most authors really water down the gruesomeness of Grimm Brother's. But I agree with Olive, that they make good points children grasp.

    Mari, you are thinking of the interview I had with Pulp Metal Magazine. Little Red Writing hood was my lifeline as a child. It taught me to look for signs of the wolf. And you bring up great examples with Neil Gaiman books.

    I can't imagine the difficulties of writing a book about enviromental issues while making it a story and not a 'lesson'. My hat off to you Olive.

  24. @Mariana & @Jodi; that's a great idea about the Friday flash fiction for children's stories.
    And I love Neil Gaiman's books, particularly Coraline. There was a very interesting article in the Guardian last November about children's stories and saying that they should have some scary elements in them. It was prompted by the film release of Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

  25. We'll have children stories in #FridayFlash? Absolutely fantastic! :D

    In case someone is curious, here's Jodi's interview at the Pulp Magazine (thanks for the reminder ;) and here is a direct link to Olive's link on scary children stories. (excellent article)

  26. Lovely article, Olive. Thank you for sharing. I also love how many realms of unrealism children's fiction allows an author to broach. I've written a few children's stories (even for #fridayflash), but mostly like stealing their tropes and adapting them into abdusrdism for adults.

  27. I've never really thought about writing a children's book, though my brother has. He's never submitted it anywhere though. I wish he would. I tell him about these tips.

    One thing I am curious about: when doing a children's book does the author just need to worry about the writing, and assume the publisher will supply an illustrator, or should the author work up the necessary art work as well? Thanks.

  28. @Jon; Good point Jon. It depends. If the writer can also draw, it's a good idea to draw up illustrations; particularly when it comes to a picture-book which will have full colour illustrations. My problem is I cannot! So I sourced my own illustrator.
    However, most publishers prefer to match up a writer with the publishers own supply of illustrators.

  29. Olive, complementing Jon's excellent remark, I'm curious to know also about the illustration's costs.

    In my view it should be the publisher to bear such costs, but I wonder if the technique used is too expensive, or the illustrator charges a high fee, how do the publishers usually deal with this?

  30. In the moving, a very insightful comment made by Olive, in response to my question, was left behind, so I'm reposting it here. Almost done with the unpacking, heh.

    That's true about the publisher bearing the illustrator's costs. The only thing is; the writer doesn't have a choice as to which illustrator the publisher chooses and could end up hating the illustrations!
    To be honest, I'm not aware as to how publishers deal with illustrator fees; but I would imagine that as they use the same illustrators all the time and have a panel, that an illustrator is probably bound into a contract as to a fee structure.


Recent Popular Posts