Writing for children sounds straightforward, until you look at a primary school and realise it’s populated with children from wobbling 4-year-olds to 6-foot teenagers. Writing for one is not like writing for the other. Although sometimes it is.
When switching from one age group to another, as I did when moving into my current robot-lost-in-the-city ‘Boot’ series, the trick was figuring out how the story needed shaping for a younger reader – and where it should be left alone.
It starts, as always, with the idea. And no matter what age you’re writing for, it is clear that it needs to speak to you before you worry about any reader.
Sure, you can write stories packaged for children and read by children. You may eventually find yourself in classrooms and libraries lepping about in embarrassing dad fashion before groups of young readers and the teachers who will have to calm them down afterwards. But when you sit down to write a story, it’s good to start off being quite selfish.
It feels like a story you need to tell. It matters to you. The character feels like it wants to jump free from the confines of your imagination and go off on an adventure across the pages you lay out for it.
You write the story that feels right, in the voice that feels authentic to you and the characters. You write characters who should connect with any reader. You write twists that emerge from the story and you throw in the jokes that are funny to you and hope they’ll be funny to everyone else.
And somewhere along the line – maybe early on, maybe in the edits – you start to write specifically for a reader of a certain age.
The monsters and reluctant heroes series Darkmouth for, notionally, 8-12 year olds. Boot for, again notionally, 6-9 year olds.
Yes, I have notions to add the ‘notionally’, but only because I’ve learned over the years that readers come in all sorts of varieties. Age is a big factor, but I’ve had very young readers pick up the sometimes foreboding covers of Darkmouth and also found teenagers who adored the bright and bouncy Boot.
Yet, writing Boot for an age group younger than the average Darkmouth reader has been fascinating.
What’s different? Well, length of the stories for a start. The Darkmouth books were each 65,000 words plus change. That means a heck of a lot more plates to spin. The characters’ journeys weave on windier paths. The pace of the plot requires several gear changes. And you are so much more likely to lose the fight against a flabby middle-section.
I wrote each using a 7-act structure, each pitching to certain turning point, with some maybe more of a plot-shock than others. Post-Harry Potter, that length was standard enough, and the big challenge was to keep each book to the same length. There is always the temptation to write long, longer and longer again as characters and backstory pile up like debris across the books.
There was room to roam, though. In Darkmouth I would wander off course into mini-stories of “legend hunters” from history, clearly ripping from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy approach. Then again, Douglas Adams did his thing without needing 65,000 words to get there. That’s a lesson I missed until it was too late…
When writing for younger readers again, the Boot stories are tighter, 3-act affairs. The story must stay on course. No wandering. Few side-adventures. And I find it useful to get to the heart of the story within a few pages. If I can do it in the opening paragraph, all the better. The writing needs to be more efficient, the character building too.
All of which, I hope, has sharpened me as a writer. Those I admire – especially Kate DiCamillo and Cormac McCarty – have an extraordinary ability to sketch out an entire character in a line of dialogue. It seems to me to the zenith of this art.
Yet, what I love most about writing for young readers is that it doesn’t matter too much how small the readers are, you can still write BIG ideas. Boot is about a toy robot waking up in a grinder with only two-and-a-half memories and setting out to find its owner, and follows the knockabout adventures of that robot and various pals found along the way.
It is, though, about so much more. It’s about growing up, and the cruelties and kindnesses of the world. It is about memory and grief and family and love. It’s about how easily we throw things away and the pointless yearning for shiny new stuff. It’s about the challenges of getting dog poo on your robot feet.
The third in the series Boot: The Creaky Creatures is out this week and it follows Boot into the last park in the city, an oasis of life under threat. It has environmental themes, and a character dealing with past trauma.
Or it’s about a madcap adventure featuring a half-crazed robot unicorn, a bear that says “hee-haw” and an octopus with a toilet brush where a tentacle should be.
And that is the joy of writing for young readers. Sure, it’s good to know the shape of the book you’re writing, but the limits on your imagination are few.
(c) Shane Hegarty
About Boot: The Creaky Creatures
This is a thrill-ride of an adventure, with illustrations by Ben Mantle bringing Boot’s world to life. Fans of Toy Story and Charlie Changes into a Chicken will love this hilarious, warm-hearted story about a small robot on a big adventure: full of fun, friendship, and a large number of malfunctioning robot pets.
‘Fast, funny and furious. These are definitely my favourite robots.’ Eoin Colfer
Boot was once a toy robot, but it has come a long way since it was scrapped and woke back up with only two-and-a-half glitchy memories. When Boot catches sight of a robot pet it used to know – Mr Piggles – our hero and pals follow it to a beautiful green square in the city of skyscrapers.
Here they find not just real nature, but also a haven for broken and rejected pets. They also meet the children who look after the pets, and for whom this green space is a sanctuary too. But Boot is distracted by its emotions, swinging from happy to sad … maybe Boot is broken? Can it work out what is wrong, with the help of its friends?
Illustrated throughout in glorious black and white by the award-winning Ben Mantle, this is an unforgettable tale of resilience and hope.
Order your copy online here.