I recently took Marjetta Geerling’s SCBWI Workshop, How to Appeal to Children and Adults When Writing Children’s Books, and can't wait to share the fantastic info with you!
Children are like us, but inexperienced. You don’t dumb down or talk down to them. Never condescend, oversimplify, think the audience is ignorant, or take conscious superiority. Kids immediately realize this! Children and teachers don’t want a book that screams ‘here’s something you should know.’
When you write a children’s book, you must first appeal to an adult audience. Children won’t be the first people to read your book. There are often over ten layers of adult readers…critique groups or writing mentors, agents, editors, marketing people, art directors—and this is all before the book goes into print! Then, there are reviewers, award committees, booksellers, and then parents, teachers, and librarians that we hope will be so excited by the books we write, they’ll want to share it with all the children in their lives.
Many writers think they need to find a way to get by the ‘gatekeepers’ but in reality, they’re just as much a part of the children’s literature audience as the children themselves. Think about this…if a child falls in love with a book and asks to hear it every single night—who is doing the reading?
How do we appeal to children and engage our adult audience at the same time? Marjetta read the book PARTS by Ted Arnold. I have to admit that I smiled the second I saw it. My daughters and I absolutely LOVED that book, even after reading it together a zillion times. In fact…I still have most of it memorized!
I remember the humor and fun illustrations the most. It takes a few reads to get past the humor so we can analyze it and see all the brilliant layers. It has some amazing lessons about life for kids and adults…in a way that doesn’t feel preachy at all.
· When digging deeper, you can see that both children and adults can relate to the theme—nervousness. It definitely has universal appeal!
· It talks about normal things we don’t always think about. Kids experience things in a new way that we often take for granted. (Adults do this in different ways—we don’t worry about stuffing falling out, because we know it won’t happen…but if we notice a new spot on our skin, our minds start racing with the ‘what ifs’ and we could worry that it’s cancer—and then we need to find a way to cope with that fear.)
· When she reads PARTS to kids, they usually don’t see the book ‘Parenting for Beginners’ but adults really get it!
The end is a funny joke (we all laughed and groaned when she read it) but…at first it seems like the adults solve the problem, even though we all know the child is supposed to solve it on his or her own. But the problem isn’t the lack of info. It’s that he’s been passive and never actively sought out info to help him solve his problem…how to cope with anxiety. And now, instead of freaking out, he shows in the last scene that he does reach out and immediately ask for the answer.
So this book is profound, complex…yet completely accessible to kids and adults!
What about novels? Middle grade readers are often independent (but may still read with a parent or teacher). A great book to analyze is WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead. It has so much kid appeal and engages adult readers as well. And if you read A WRINKLE IN TIME, you can see a whole other layer…but it stands on its own, too. (I loved WHEN YOU REACH ME, even before it won the Newbery Medal.)
Even though parents often don’t play a big part in choosing YA books for their children, these books still need to appeal to adults. Kids will outgrow the typical age of these characters…but librarians don’t! It’s great to have teachers and media specialists introduce great young adult novels to a whole new audience. A fantastic book to analyze is SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson. (I had to smile when I heard this title, too—SPEAK was one of the first books that had a huge impact on me as a writer.)
Marjetta asked us to break into small groups to discuss one of our favorite children’s books, and gave us an amazing list of questions to consider. And guess what…she gave me permission to share the entire list with you! Thanks so much, Marjetta!
1. Main Character: How is the main character unique? How is he/she like a kid? Like an adult?
2. Theme: Why can children relate to the theme? What resonates for adults?
3. Illustrations: What’s delightful for children to find? What can an adult appreciate?
4. Language: What’s happening on the surface? What else is going on that would only come out in repeated readings?
5. Story: What is surprising or not surprising about how the story unfolds? What does it teach the reader about storytelling? About life?
I chose THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins because I love that book so much, it haunted me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and their story. I once talked to an agent about how to make a character more likeable, and she asked what my favorite book was…and we tried to figure out why I cared so much about Katniss and her story. Most of the time, authors use internals to help readers feel the emotions of their characters, but I didn’t find very many in there. The agent had asked what I liked about Katniss, and I realized that if I had to be in the games, I’d want her by my side, or as my sister, ready to take my place in a heartbeat. I trust that she’d put her own life at risk, trying to save me.
Marjetta joined our small group discussion. We chatted about question one--that Katniss was supposed to follow a lot of rules, like a kid, but also had to protect and provide for her family. She was forced to grow up too quickly, and denied her childhood (which unfortunately happens to many children).
There were so many gems Marjetta gave me at the workshop, but the one I’m most grateful for (in addition to this list to help me analyze popular books) is why she thinks we feel so emotional about Katniss. It’s all about the language. Every line…especially the description, advances the characterization or plotting. There’s never any downtime in this novel. Every sentence moves us forward. For example, reading the cat description in the beginning shows us just how desperate a world Katniss lives in. There are so many layers, that this book is truly a monument to craft.
A huge thank you to Marjetta for a fabulous workshop! She’s leading the Novel Intensive at the FL SCBWI Mid-Year Workshop in Orlando on Friday. I know it’ll be an amazing day! The last I heard, there were two spots left…if you want to join Marjetta, Kathleen Duey (who gave so many fantastic gems in Miami and Orlando), and editor Michele Burke from Knopf BFYR. There’s also room in our Illustrators’ Intensive (one of the faculty members is an associate art director at Simon and Schuster!), and it’s also not too late to sign up for the amazing workshop tracks on Saturday!
Marjetta is also teaching a fall class—KidLit: The World of Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult Fiction at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts. It's going to be on Wednesdays from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at MDC's Wolfson campus from Sept 19 to Nov 7. Registration isn't open yet, but you’ll find it on this site closer to the class.
I love having new tools to help improve my writing! And I can’t wait to look at my favorite stories again, and dig deeper to figure out why I think they’re so amazing, and what the author did that helped make them so popular.
I’m off to get ready for the Orlando Mid-Year Workshop and Picture Book Intensive, and can’t wait to share the info with you when I come back. I’ll also try to link to at least one blog about the Novel Intensive (I really wish I could take both!)