by Suzanne Henshon
In his bestselling book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Tom Foster writes about how professors read books—and what we can learn from analytical readings of texts. Foster takes readers on a wonderful time trip and demonstrates that reading about characters, plots, and themes can give us a greater appreciation of classic texts. Wouldn’t it be helpful to use these same techniques with children’s books? And, by extension, wouldn’t it be useful to use books as a springboard for (re)learning how to think like a kid?
Since it isn’t possible to return to an earlier time in our lives we have to take other steps to adopt the mindset of a modern children. We can start by revisiting the playground where we hung out, flipping through an old yearbook, or calling an old friend. But to think like today’s kids, you need to know some of your audience—the people you are writing for. You need to understand the technology they use, the places where they gather, and the books they are currently reading. Begin by taking stock of your contacts. Do you know any kids? It’s difficult to write for children if you haven’t spent much time with them and don’t understand their perspective. But if you aren’t a parent, teacher, coach, or librarian, you may find that meeting children is difficult. Here are a few ideas:
Form a writing group for kids. If you are friends with several parents, you may help start a book club or writing group. Or ask your local librarian if you can organize one for your community. While you offer your expertise to young kids, you will gain valuable insights about where young people are coming from. Try to be more of a group facilitator than a leader. If you let kids take charge of the discussions, you’ll have more opportunity to get their candid opinions on their books, and the conversation will overflow into other areas of their lives.
(Also check out Alison Lurie’s book, Don’t Tell the Grownups. This book is a wonderful read about the elements of children’s literature that have been consistent since the publication of Alice in Wonderland in 1863. An undercurrent of subversiveness tends to permeate children’s books with staying power. You’ll discover that kids of all ages love a rebel—and that by understanding the psyche of childhood, you may just create the next Peter Pan or Tom Sawyer.) Observe kids. Whether you are at a bookstore or library, observe children the same age as the audience for your book. Talk to librarians about what these kids read. Find out what makes them “tick.” When you watch kids, you may be surprised at how sophisticated, funny, and knowledgeable they are.
Consider doing a focus group for your manuscript. Do you have an idea for a plot? Or even a book series? In many other industries (i.e. toys), marketers do extensive testing with focus groups before bringing a product to market. Why not do the same thing with your children’s books? Before putting a lot of time into something, describe your project to several children you know and see if the basic premise is appealing to them, and if they find the characters believable and compelling. Don’t make the mistake of writing outside your protagonist’s perspective. There’s nothing more fatal than having a young protagonist refer to his “little friend” in a narrative; kids will immediately be reminded that an adult is writing this story, and their willingness to suspend disbelief and enter the world of the characters will be shattered.
Laugh like a kid. Notice what makes kids chuckle at different ages. Younger children love silly, visual comedy that is portrayed through the illustrations. Kids in second and third grades laugh at puns and wordplay. Older children appreciate humor that is situational, characters that act against expectations, and dialogue with a humorous subtext. Now, think like a kid. Wait impatiently for the school bell to ring. Step outside without a hat on in the middle of winter. Walk through the mall and take note of what a five-year-old would see from his younger, shorter viewpoint. And think about how you can’t wait to grow up. Now, transfer all that angst, that frustration, and that perspective to the page.