“People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children’s story,” said Martin Amis in an infamous Radio 4 interview. “If I had a serious brain injury I might well write for children, but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story at is anathema to me… I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write.”
Needless to say, children’s authors across the globe responded with righteous fury to Amis’ patronising, arrogant and disgustingly able-ist remarks. My favourite riposte was John Dougherty who contented himself with the put-down: “Don’t worry Martin. We can’t all be imaginative and versatile.”
I suspect Amis is not alone in thinking that writing for a younger audience requires a degree of ‘dumbing down’, that it is inherently less skilful than producing prose for an adult readership. But as an author who has written adult, teen, YA and Middle Grade fiction, and − more importantly − through my experience as a teacher, I am keenly aware that writing for young people requires not less skill – but more. And any writer who approaches a work of children’s fiction with the opposite assumption is bound to fail. Because my experience in the classroom has taught me forcibly that young readers are far more discerning, more demanding, more uncompromising than their adult counterparts. As author Lucy Coats observed. “Children are astute observers of tone – they loathe adults who patronise them with a passion, adults who somehow assume they are not sentient beings because they are children.”
Thus the author writing for children faces unique challenges. There’s word count for a start. I am in awe of picture book writers who compress powerful narrative, believable characters, convincing world-building with poetic concision into just a few pages. As a Middle Grade author I don’t have the luxury of a sprawling 120,000 words to convey my tale. I have 40 – 50K tops. So if I want to make an impact, I have to weigh every word, every episode, every chapter with care. I spend a lot of time ‘cutting my darlings’, pruning, shaping – removing extraneous words, descriptions – distilling everything down to its purest, simplest form. And I think I write better as a result.
But that doesn’t mean that writing for children is about missing things out or censoring your work. You don’t have an inner voice saying, ‘Oh, but you’re writing for children – you mustn’t say this, or – oh goodness, certainly not that!’ My novels for young people have dealt with topics including terrorism, suicide bombers and Islamophobia (‘We Can be Heroes’) war, the refugee crisis and the asylum process (‘No Ballet Shoes in Syria’) #blacklivesmatter (‘I Predict a Riot’) child trafficking and sweat shops (‘Another Twist in the Tale’ ) etc. And when I write about those topics for a young audience I have a unique responsibility. My story may be the first time a child encounters some of the difficult realities of our world. Reading is fundamental to many young people’s coming-of-age, opening their eyes, widening their horizons, making them ask questions about themselves, our world and their role within it. And that is both a privilege and a responsibility.
The joy of writing for children is that they come to books with far fewer preconceptions. Indeed, in my experience young readers are far more open to new ideas, to new points of view and alternative perspectives than many adult readers. Their outlook on the world is not yet set in stone and they are gloriously open to be challenged. So you don’t censor. You don’t shy away from harsh realities. You just tell the story in a different way.
You encourage children to ask questions, rather than telling them what to think. You can rock their world view, confront them with difficult truths, challenge their preconceptions about pretty much everything but you need to provide them with powerfully believable characters alongside whom they can experience that. And you need to do so in a story so gripping and page-turningly brilliant that they are swept along with it – questioning, learning, querying along the way – but fundamentally caught up in the joy of a story well told.
I also believe you need to offer a spark of hope to lighten the dark. As the writer Alan Gibbons says, ‘I never enter a dark room unless I can light the way out.’ That doesn’t mean offering glib solutions to global problems, neatly wrapping up every ethical dilemma in a sugar-coated happy ending. You can offer a desperately sad ending but still retain an element of hope. Because hope is what empowers young readers to feel that the problems you confront them with can be tackled. It lends your reader agency, the chance to make their own choices about who they want to be, their role in the world around them, their response to the challenge the story poses. G. K. Chesterton put it well when he said: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
Martin Amis’ big mistake is to see children as somehow not people! Young readers demand the same as their adult counterparts – great plot, compelling characters, glorious writing, powerful themes. It’s just that when writing for young readers you are helping shape the next generation, and thus shaping the world they will go on to create.
No pressure then!
Catherine Bruton is the multi-award-winning author of books for children and young people, including: No Ballet Shoes in Syria, winner of the #BooksAreMyBag Award for Children’s Fiction and nominated for the Carnegie Medal; and We Can be Heroes, now a feature film starring Alison Steadman. As her alter-ego Cate Shearwater, she is also author of the much-loved Somersaults and Dreams series. Her latest novel Another Twist in the Tale has already been short-listed for several major book awards.