Updated: Mar 3, 2020
As a kid, I couldn’t get my hands on enough books. I’m guilty of hiding under my covers, after bedtime, with a flashlight and a good book. Today, I go through about a book a week. I’m also a writer. I write kidlit, mostly picture books, but I’m currently querying a middle grade. I love books.
My son Tyler, on the other hand, not so much. My 9-year-old is a smart kid. He loves math and he’s a well-behaved, and an outstanding athlete. He’s a great kid. Now, it’s not that he isn’t good at reading, he consistently scores well in reading comprehensions, it just that he doesn’t like it. My son is (gasp) a non-reader.
I have tried everything. I have spent hours in libraries and bookstores looking for books that would interest him. We’ve tried graphic novels. We have taken online personality quizzes to find suitable books. I’ve grilled him, his teachers, and his friends on what books might work for him. At one point, I even gave up on the books entirely and tried sports magazines instead. No dice.
For a long time, I didn’t know what to do with that. I still don’t most of the time, but the silver lining is that this experience has changed me as a writer. There is a lesson here.
Having a son like Tyler has forced me away from popular books. It’s gotten me to read things besides best sellers, things that are written in different ways, and things that I never would have picked up if I hadn’t been so desperate. I’ve learned that there are a few things to look for in good writing. It’s helped me hone a few skills along the way.
Voice Voice is important for most writing. Anyone in publishing will tell you that voice is critical to kids. But the right voice can have an important lasting impact for the non-reader. The best success I have ever had in getting my son reading was the JUNIE B. JONES series and the reason was that he just loved Junie B. She is quirky and weird and hilarious (see below). She has a big personality that really sticks with the reader. While Tyler didn’t really want to read, he was always interested to know what kind of crazy situation Junie B. got into next. There isn’t a Junie B. on television or in the movies. The only way to find out more about Junie B. was to read her stories. I honestly think we read all of these books. I wish there were more – we would have followed Junie B. all of the way to college if we could have.
As a writer, this reinforces the power of voice for me like nothing else could. I know now that my characters have to be excellent. They need to be people you would think about when you aren’t reading. They need to be one-of-a-kind. For me, character studies then become critical. You can find character study worksheets online and in industry books to help you do this. You need to know every single thing about your character so that you can be sure they are always acting accordingly. Breaking character is an easy way to ruin voice. For example, I recently watched a TV show that I thought was brilliant, but at one point in the show the mom did something (to advance the plot) that her character would never have done, and it ruined the show for me forever. That’s the key. If you create a unique character, you must make sure they always act according to their personality. When you make a character like that, you create someone that kids can remember and want to continue to go on adventures with.
Relatability Which leads us to relatability. If you ask Tyler today, what his favorite book is, he will tell you CHARLIE JOE JACKSON’S GUIDE TO NOT READING. Suitable huh? But he loves Charlie Joe because he gets him. Charlie Joe spends more energy getting out of reading than he would just doing the assignments. Tyler finds this perfectly logical. In the end, Charlie Joe figures out that he has to read and it turns out, reading isn’t so bad. Tyler knew that before he read the book, but he really liked the story of a kid who was just like him.
This is a really important factor in writing for children. Kids need to feel like the stories they read are about kids like them – even fantasy and science fiction stories have characters like them, relationships they are familiar with, and feelings they understand. It’s important that kids see themselves in stories, which is why representation is such an important movement. If kids can’t see themselves in your stories, they’re not going to like them. Part of the fun of reading a book is joining the characters on an adventure, make sure your readers feel like they can.
If you’re looking for the secret to relatability, here it is: go hang out with some kids. I have the good fortune of being a volunteer both in my son’s classroom and for his sports teams. That means I get to spend a lot of time with kids his age. Let me tell you, the things they find hilarious are not the same things I do. Same for things they find boring and things they find disgusting (it’s very few things, honestly, they’re so gross). I wouldn’t know that if I didn’t get to overhear conversations about conflicts at recess, annoying homework assignments, or exciting weekend plans.
Genre All readers (and non-readers) have genres they prefer. There are kids who love mysteries, kids who love dragons, for Tyler, it’s humor. Humor goes a long way in getting Tyler to stick to a book. This is interesting since he is such a sports guy. For a long time I thought if I found books about the big game or the team MVP, he’d be hooked, but (once again) I was wrong. It’s humor that will keep him interested. That means that humor has to be done right.
No matter what genre you write, make sure you do your research so that you do it well. Step one is to read, read, read, read and then read some more. If you are going to write magical realism, read as much of as it as you. If you’re going to write humor, read it like crazy. Understand your genre so you can do it well.
I’m not sure Tyler will ever be a reader. I know he will never be a reader like me, and that’s okay, because he is wonderful in countless ways. I’m grateful to the writers who have been able to reach him, and I hope that one day I’m able to do the same. Like all things in life, this experience has taught me a great deal and I hope it is helpful to you too. Happy writing!
About the Author: Katie Evans is a children's author from Southern California, where she lives with her family. Katie has participated with Writer's Workout as a Games and Team participant, a 500 participant and a 500 judge. Katie can be found at authorkatieevans.com or on Twitter @kruark.