Monday, March 23, 2015

On Authenticity in Children’s Fiction

I've come across some manuscripts recently that read quite well on the surface—the concept is intriguing, the voice is compelling, and the craft seems to all there. And yet. There’s just something missing, and I see this most often in my Middle Grade and Young Adult submissions. It just doesn’t feel… authentic. So I sat down today and thought about what it means to write authentic fiction for children. Here goes:

1. Be in the moment. And don’t be preachy.

The best children’s fiction conveys a sense of immediacy that’s so palpable, that when you read it, you forget that you’re an adult. You feel as though you’re in a world where there’s a subtle but potent thread of urgency weaving through every decision, feeling, and emotion. It should be relatable to your target audience—your readers shouldn’t feel as though they’re being talked down to at all. I’ve read manuscripts where it’s very clear that the author is projecting their adult sensibilities over what kids should or should not be feeling. This usually makes the writing feel moralizing, and it’s an absolute no-no. Know your audience! Lessons are all well and good, but kids are not going to respond to stories that are too didactic.

2. Timelessness ≠ Nostalgia

As a general rule, you should leave any sentimental reflections on the following things out of your manuscript: (a) being young, (b) being in the moment, or (c) knowing these good times are never going to come back. (I call it The Wonder Years effect.)

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There’s really little to no room for fond reminiscence in children’s fiction—unless, of course, the fact that the protagonist misses something (or someone) has some direct relevance to the story. It’s all about being in the moment, after all (see point 1.)

This is not to say that children’s fiction should not evoke a sense of nostalgia for youth. That’s absolutely fine, and can often be a powerful way to draw your older readers in. Just avoid writing stories where your characters are aware that their youth is transient.

3. (a) Children are smarter than you think they are…

Kids are not always entirely innocent. Or immature. Or gullible. Or faultless. Mix it up! Give them flaws. Make them more self-aware, show us how they introspect and think through things. It’ll make them more layered and memorable characters.

(b)… but they’re not that smart.

At the end of the day, kids are kids. They’re navigating complicated situations for the very first time, with little to no experience. They can’t possibly handle themselves as maturely as a (very mature) adult can. Quirky, precocious protagonists are always fun, but don’t forget to show us their vulnerabilities, especially the kind that feel particularly insurmountable at a young age.

At the end of the day, don’t underestimate or overestimate your young characters’ intelligence or emotional maturity. Strike a believable balance.

4. Give them more agency. They can handle it.

An external inciting event can kick start the action of the story, but it shouldn’t feel as though the protagonist is always reacting to obstacles that appear unexpectedly. I see this most often in Middle Grade, especially in stories set in magical worlds where witches and gnomes materialize out of nowhere and create havoc. As in any kind of fiction, you shouldn’t be afraid of giving kids the opportunity to make poor choices and suffer the consequences. Isn’t that what growing pains are all about?

What are some other things you’ve come across that can make books written for young readers feel more or less authentic?

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