Each year I judge the manuscripts for children entered in the international writing competition sponsored by Writers-Editors.com, and each year I enjoy seeing the fresh approaches poets and writers come up with as they address kid-favored subjects. I try to acknowledge those outstanding moments in personal Post-A-Notes to the winners or in a brief blurb by each title on the webpage that announces the winning entries. Hopefully, each poet and writer who visits the site will not only find out who won but why.
What I don’t mention is why an entry doesn’t receive an award or honorable mention since that would seem like, well, a dishonorable mention. Such information has no place on an announcement page, but I thought you might want to know what does not work well in writing for children, so I’ll discuss that in the next few postings. I also thought you might want to know that I’ve made these mistakes myself and, therefore, noticed them often in the works of others.
One big reason (perhaps, the biggest) a poem, story, article, or book chapter does not win a writing contest is because it will not win the attention of an editor or, more importantly, win over a child. In reading our own manuscripts, this can be hard to see but is obvious in reading the “blind” entries that I not only did not write but have no clue who did.
Being able to distance ourselves from our work proves useful in revising because familiarity breeds affection more often than contempt. We get fond of our own words and phrases and stories. Nevertheless, we can know if a manuscript is kid-friendly by letting it sit until we don’t remember what it says. When we come back to that first draft, we’ll have the distance needed to be more objective. If not, a professional evaluation and the immediate feedback of our target age group will certainly help.
We can also ask ourselves such questions as, “Why would a child who does not know me even care what I say?” and “Will children really relate to this?” Frankly they might not, but that works both ways. i.e., Some manuscripts seem as though children were an insignificant after-thought and not really considered at all.
In considering your special group of young readers, investigate their most likely interests, vocabulary, and level of maturity. What worries them, scares them, or makes them mad, makes them laugh, makes them burst into tears? Here’s where you can especially draw on your own feelings and emotional memories.
Kids today feel the same as we did. The difference is that their emotions have different triggers. For example, I never worried about the next meal, but some children live in poverty, live in the street. During thunderstorms, I hid under the covers, but children today might hide from bullies, child predators, abusive relatives, drug dealers, or dysfunctional families. Fantasy for me mainly meant Cinderella, not outer space trips or time travels, but I worried about my dad coming home safely from work and a war, and so does my grandchild.
Finding connections between us and our children takes time but makes good use of prior knowledge, understanding, and maturity, thereby helping young readers to sort through a similar experience and make some sense of it. If we can remember what made us giggle at their age, great! If we can observe them, interact with them, and listen to what makes them laugh, feel, and hope, so very much the better.
(c) 2010, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.