Think Writing for Kids is Easy? Think Again!
I just finished writing a book about George Washington Carver for first and second graders. The whole project – including main text, sidebars and fact boxes – was 650 words.
I know what you’re thinking: Well, that couldn’t have been too difficult.
The truth is, writing low-level biographies is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I’ve tackled some tough projects. I’ve written annual reports for financial institutions and penned an entire book about a band that hadn’t yet released an album. I’ve interviewed the families of murder victims and created consumer-friendly prose about complicated insurance and medical topics.
Writing for beginning readers is a whole different kind of difficult for a number of reasons:
Challenge Number 1: Context
Six- and seven-year-olds can be very bright, but their knowledge of the world, politics, science and history tends to be fairly limited. When I wrote about Carver, for instance, I mentioned his parents were slaves. I then had to explain what slavery was and that it was legal in the United States until 1865.
Challenge Number 2: Making it Matter
Johannes Gutenberg invented a way of printing books using movable type. Cool, but why does something that happened 600 years ago matter to today’s elementary school students? As a writer, it’s my job to explain that this invention made it much easier and faster to print books. If the movable press was never invented, every single word you read would be handwritten or carved. Whether it’s a book about an inventor or a scientific concept, it’s vital that students understand why the information should matter to them. They need to understand how it relates to their lives.
Challenge Number 3: Economy of Words
Adult nonfiction books often contain upward of 100,000 words. That’s roughly 99,350 words more than I got for my Carver book. When writing for children you must tell your story in fewer, more impactful – but still grade appropriate — words. Adverbs get the ax. Why have a character “walk quickly” (two words) when you can instead say they “jogged” (one word)? Every word matters A LOT when you write for children.
Challenge Number 4: Doing Your Topic Justice
I put the same time and effort into researching a low-level biography that I do writing a 5,000-word magazine profile or a young adult book. You can’t skim the surface – even if you only get 650 words to tell the story. I hunt down primary sources and spend a lot of time taking notes and prioritizing facts. Words limits mandate that many details will have to be left out. I want to make sure I’m including the most important facts in the most interesting ways.
Challenge Number 5: Surprising Readers
Nonfiction has a bad rap as being boring. I strive to create books that are factual and informative but also relatable. My goal is always to write the kind of copy that makes a young reader go, “Wow.” I want something a child learned from my book to be the thing they rush home to tell their parent about. That’s not easy stuff, but when it happens, it’s amazing.
So, you’re correct. Writing 650 words is not difficult. Making them matter to a young reader is an enormous – but rewarding – challenge. If you write something that matters, something that really speaks to a child, your work could have an effect that lasts a lifetime.