Teach Write: The Dual Audiences of Children’s Literature

September 17, 2019

Welcome to Teach Write! This column draws on my 20 years’ experience teaching writing to kids, university students, and adult learners. It includes ideas and exercises that teachers can use in the classroom, and creative writers can use to level up their process.

Last time, we discussed the special, double audience that we have to consider when writing a class assignment for a teacher. Hopefully that advice will help all the students that have now gone back to school! The audience* for today’s column is totally different: children’s writers. We are going to talk about the dual audiences that we need to be aware of when writing children’s literature.

The first thing children’s writers need to recognize is that, much like students, we are ALWAYS writing for two audiences:

  • our young reader
  • the adult gatekeepers surrounding that young reader

If you’re a parent, you know all about adult gatekeepers, because you are one. So are teachers and librarians (and going back even earlier in the road to publication, editors and reviewers). The younger the child you’re writing for, the more say the adults in that child’s life will have over the material they are exposed to.

This creates an interesting tension between the scary, silly, gross, mature things kids like, and what adults think kids SHOULD like: a tension between what kids think is interesting and what adults think is appropriate.

One obvious example of this is language. The use of curse words is basically a no-no unless writing for teens, even though you’ve probably heard much younger kids using them in real life.** However, concern over language may also apply to official terminology for human anatomy – just ask Susan Patron about the uproar over her use of the word “scrotum” on the first page of The Higher Power of Lucky.***

Content and theme can also be tricky areas to negotiate in children’s literature. When I worked in the children’s section at Chapters, I was always astonished by adults that had no concerns about violence in kid lit, but drew a hard line at other forms of human contact.**** Serious or “heavy” themes also spark flurries of concern, as debate over whether YA has gotten “too dark” pops up online every six months or so.

In part, these concerns arise from a genuine desire to protect kids from the harsher realities of life. And I definitely understand that. But I also think that, when we become adults, we forget what being a kid was actually like. We forget the things that we, as kids, experienced and endured–or watched those we love experience and endure. To paraphrase Canadian author Alma Fullerton, kids experience things every day that adults won’t let them read about.

So how do we, as writers, proceed? First, we do our homework. Don’t worry, it’s the best kind of homework–reading! We have to read a ton of recently-published work for our intended audience to get a sense for where the boundaries lie. As a bonus, this helps us figure out how our overall book idea compares to what’s already out there.

Second, we trust. We trust our instincts and our memories of childhood. We trust the story we are trying to tell, and our ability to be honest and authentic in the telling. And we trust our editors to help us navigate the grey areas as they arise.

Next time, we’ll wrap up our discussion of audience in writing with a closer look at different age categories in kid lit, and how almost any idea can be written for any age. Stay tuned!

Hey, did you know I teach writing workshops? It’s true – I work with adult writers, teachers, and students of all ages. Contact me to learn more.


*See what I did there? πŸ™‚

**Ask my dad about the time his precocious 2-year-old daughter repeated one of his choicer phrases. He probably shouldn’t have used one with such appealing rhyme and rhythm!

***Which is an amazing, amazing book for 8-12 year olds, if you haven’t read it yet.

****To quote Fred Savage in The Princess Bride, “Is this a kissing book?”

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