Sep 18 2009
Tom first addressed how to write for readers aged 8-13 here. Here are more suggestions.
1. Don’t make your language more complicated than necessary. I don’t think that you need to dumb down your vocabulary, but your book must be easy to read. If your readers struggle with twisting sentences and flowery language, they will probably put down the book. That’s particularly important if your book is meant to be read as entertainment (read: not assigned in classes).
2. Relatability is key. This does not mean that your protagonist has to be a 8-13 year old student facing typical school issues. But something about the character and his struggles has to resonate with readers. Hopefully there are at least some parallels between what your characters are facing that will make it feel familiar to your audience. For example, Luke Skywalker argued with his uncle about argued with his uncle over where he’d go to school and what he’d study. I think that relatability is always important, but it’s particularly tricky for authors writing for young readers because the readers don’t have as many life experiences to relate things to– they’ve never had a job and they’ve only seen one side of family life, for example. So, if the characters are removed from a school-like environment, the relationships are probably critical. For example, kids can’t relate to the life of a superhero per se, but The Incredibles and (to some extent) Fantastic Four tried to make it relatable by focusing on the family angle.
3. Realism is generally not as important. Young readers are generally better than adults at suspending their disbelief. In particular, kids will cut you a lot of slack if you mess around with reality to make it more kid-centric. For example, if you’re writing a story like Spy Kids, you don’t have to worry about kids complaining about how implausible it is that kids would be taken on as secret agents. Hell, kids will buy mutant turtles as ninjas. Another great time to eschew realism is when it would entail a lot of boring details. For example, if you’re writing about a cop or something, you should probably give a simplified version of his job rather than covering the paperwork and other details that kids are not familiar with. They are familiar with the interrogations, the questioning, and of course the shootouts and whatever else they’ve seen on TV.
4. Plot clarity is critical. Kids aren’t quite as good at following plots. As a result, kids’ stories tend to be simpler, feature less misinformation and more explanation. In particular, I’d recommend looking at a Sherlock-and-Watson setup where one character explains what is going on for the benefit of the audience. Some examples: Hermione-and-Harry, lab-tech-and-cop, seasoned-student-and-new-kid, mentor-and-pupil. Just be careful– the know-it-all character will probably lose some likability, particularly if he lectures or nags. The less knowledgable character is usually the protagonist.