Saturday, August 14, 2010

Some insights on the Slush Pile

Here is an excerpt from an interesting article about what writers should avoid when writing for small children.

Subjects that do NOT interest small children:
1. How cute small children are. Adults think children are cute and sweet and darling and innocent and all those sentimental things. Kids think they're people meeting challenges, accomplishing goals, all the things we think of ourselves.
2. What cute things small children say. Young readers can find an interesting approach or way of looking at things interesting, but they don't think of them as "cute." As soon as you feel an "awwww" about what you wrote, there's a good chance you're approaching it in a way a child won't like.
3. How much grandparents love small children -- especially specific small children. Kids are very interested in their own personal grandparents. Everyone else's grandparents are just old people. Kids are not overly interested in old people and how stray old people feel about kids.
4. How much moms and/or dads love small children -- especially specific small children. Kids are interested in their own person parents. They are interested in other people's parents only if they do really unique interesting things.
5. How much small children need to love/respect/appreciate parents and grandparents - children don't learn morality from stories, they learn it from the people in their lives who are important to them. Stories can subtly reinforce what a child is already learning, but that's about it. And it best be doing it while really entertaining the reader.
6. How to have nice manners. Whenever the main point of your story is a lesson, you're probably in deep trouble.
One side note on the "love" issue. There are many pictures books targeting adults, found in the children's section that are basically about how much adults love kids. There are some read-aloud stories in young children's magazines that are basically about how much adults love kids. The target audience for both is the adult, so you might want to decide if you're a children's writer or a writer for adults - unless you have something to say in a way that is totally going to sweep the reader away more than any other love story out there.
Now, a side note on "manners." You can possible get a really funny manners story through the pipeline. But know, one reason why editors are edgy about them is that adults are beginning to catch on that children don't learn manners from stories -- but that stories illustrating bad manners are great sources for ideas on how to freak out adults. However, a light look at etiquette can be of interest to tween girls, if the voice and approach is handled correctly. To date, virtually no boy has ever looked for a story on how to have nice manners -- at any age.
Subjects that give small children something new to worry about:
1. Anthropomophic animals that die at the end of the story in ways that seem funny to adults and teens. No matter how funny the talking mouse dies, a small child will cry when it happens - they relate to the mouse, not the killer.
2. Stories where children die in the story -- usually after a long illness. Most kids don't worry that getting sick will kill them. Editors prefer not to give them something new to worry about.
3. Stories where siblings die in the story. Generally a story that is going to make a young child cry aren't something magazine editors are desperate for because if you make a child cry or give it nightmares, somewhere a parent is going to unsubscribe from the magazine.
4. Stories where parents die in the story. Same reason.
5. Stories where grandparents die in the story.
6. Stories where children disobey their parents and die as a result. I know, some of the old folktales are full of characters who disobey authority and die as a result. Today, editors aren't looking for those kinds of fear-based morality tales.
7. Stories where children don't take good care of a pet, so it dies. Honest, this is not the correct way to teach kids to be responsible pet owners. I read one of these when I was a kid and I still remember how horrified I was. I probably fed my hamster to obesity as a result.
Are you seeing a trend here? Children who have experienced death can benefit from stories that help them deal with experience. But children who have not experienced death in their family or close sphere, don't tend to worry about death unless something comes along and injects the idea into their lives -- like a story. As a result, for ANY magazine story, your main character really needs to survive -- really. Editors won't buy stories that freak out children and encourage their parents to unsubscribe from the magazine. There are BOOKS for children that are designed to help them deal with death -- they are usually published by specialized publishers and even then, the main character is not the one who dies. 

May 13, 2010 by Jan Fields
"The Write Words to Read"
The Institute of Children's Literature

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