Have you ever wanted to jump genres, just because?
When my son was in third grade, I had the hare-brained idea to pen a kid’s book. It would based on one of my favorite Japanese fairy tales, but set in contemporary San Diego. I didn’t let the fact I hadn’t written for kids before stop me. Nor had I written fantasy since approximately sixth grade. A fantasy book it had to be, though.
In the adult fiction world, there tends to be a perception that writing kid lit must be easy, because the books are generally shorter. And some purveyors of “serious lit” say that adults shouldn’t be reading kids’ books  at all, much less, one would imagine, actually writing them. ( I’m here to say that both are utterly and completely false. If you have a problem with that, you can meet me in the sawdust pit at dawn to settle our differences). *
First I wanted to settle the small matter of the plot. I’d grown up a fan of all the usual suspects, your Narnias and your Prydains and your Meg Murrays and so on and so forth. Had I read widely in my kids’ more contemporary libraries? Of course, but there’s something about the books you read when you were a child that stick with your soul. I tried to remake my book into a model of one of those books from my childhood.
After a few drafts, I got it into what seemed like reasonable shape and showed it to my agent. There were interesting moments, yes, and some solid relationships. My agent sent it out to a few places and it got rejected. One place actually said it reminded her too much like A Wrinkle in Time. Another opined that it began too slowly (kids’ books these days are faster paced). And the final rejection from my ultimate dream editor, which was like a splintered chopstick in my heart, said she loved Japanese tales but she’d been hoping for more humor and action.
I thought about it and decided this editor was correct. I asked my agent to take it off submission and went back to work. I revamped the plot entirely. I took out characters. I rewrote it a few times. I got a new agent and asked him to read it alongside the adult book he was selling. He said its voice was all wrong, that kids’ lit was hard and a fantasy kid lit even harder. Maybe I should try realistic fiction, he said.
I thought about what he said and, somewhat bitterly, decided he was right—about its problems. This story didn’t want to be realistic fiction, but I didn’t know how to make it better. Something, I hoped, would occur to me. Someday.
I worked on the kids’ book off and on, between other manuscripts. You know how you need a break between revisions? I called it my “palate cleanser” between my drafts of my adult fiction. Working on it put me in a new mindset each time, I also read more YA and kids’ books, things my children loved, things that they didn’t.
It also helped that my son was getting older and I was able to study him and his friends at length. At last,I nailed down my character, a mini, nerdy Ferris Bueller. His voice: easy, breezy, beautiful. And one day, the inciting incident finally occurred to me, and then all the plot events after. And I finally got the manuscript into good enough shape that my agent enthusiastically agreed to send it out for me,.
Here’s what I learned about writing for children over the course of those three years:
- Kids love humor, especially gross humor. Push the taste envelope as far as you think it’ll go. I remember my husband, the former soldier, clutching his figurative pearls over a joke I told. “Isn’t that too far?” he asked. Then I knew I’d succeeded.
- If you don’t have kids, you have to remember what it was like to be a kid in the most no-holds-barred way possible. Don’t edit yourself. Be emotional and dramatic.
- Challenge yourself. Put your characters into impossible situations, then get them out. I mean, so impossible that it might take you weeks to think of solutions. The risk should be great to have exciting payoff.
- Figure out which audience your story is best suited for. Middle grade fiction is about finding one’s place in the world. YA is about rebelling against it.
- Know that there are gatekeepers. Children’s fiction is more difficult than adult because the “gatekeepers” must approve of it—the people who actually have the money for the kids to purchase the books.
- But write for the kids, not the gatekeepers. I mean, if the gatekeepers really ran everything, do you think we’d have Captain Underpants?
- Throw yourself into world-building. It’s important for fantasy (how does that magic work? What are its rules?) but also important for realistic fiction (every world has its pecking order, no?). Do this before you write anything, and keep it on hand to refer to.
- Bend gender roles for characters. As I was writing the female character, I thought of how societal expectations of girls (sugar and spice, etc) is just at plain odds with the reality of actual females. I thought of my adult books with their “difficult” female characters. And so I made my girl the most difficult character of all. Girls are red of fang and claw, as any mother of a pre-teen and up girl will tell you. Don’t shy away from your experience, thinking that you have to write only Pollyannas to be accepted.
- Likewise, my male main character frequently finds himself trying not to cry, to not miss his parent, to “man-up.” But it’s his sensitivity that turns out to be an asset.
- Have diverse characters. Your default settings don’t need to be on white and straight. Go to any public school and you’ll see that’s true.
And my best, final piece of advice: Keep at it. Three short years after my first draft, after probably two dozen revisions at least, my agent sold the book to Disney-Hyperion.
To the editor who rightfully rejected that first iteration (and who hopefully has no memory of that manuscript).
Over to you: Have you ever wanted to jump genres, just because?
*a sawdust pit is used in some military facilities for hand-to-hand combat training and also for when people disagree about important stuff, like who should be reading what.