As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I work with a lot of writers whose ambition is to write for young people. In doing so, I see the same misconceptions occuring over and over again. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to highlight one of the absolute classics. I call it dancing at your daughter’s party.
The way this mistake manifests itself is that the author makes the adult characters much more interesting than the child characters. Now why on earth would someone who supposedly wants to be a children’s author do this? The answer is simple: they’re really writing about themselves. The story is only masquerading as a children’s book. Actually it’s nothing more than an enactment of the author’s fantasy of recognition.
I’ve read stories about parents with wonderful secrets that are gradually discovered by their children, whose function in the story is mostly to draw back the curtain on their parents’ hidden abilities and gasp with wonder. I’ve seen novels, apparently about a child whose mother has tragically died, but which turn out to be all about how his or her father bravely copes with the loss of his wife and then fortuitously finds himself another woman. I’ve read about magical dads, gifted mums, eccentric uncles, even wonderfully enlightened and (I shudder to say) sexy teachers.
Frankly, it’s embarrassing. So let’s get this straight. If you’re writing a children’s book, then the central emotional journey should be the child’s. Obviously, as with any general rule, there can be exceptions to this. Animals are child-substitutes. So are magical, or fairy-tale creatures, like hobbits. And there are a few (but only a few) examples of books about adults that were specifically written for children. On the whole, however, it’s a golden rule that a children’s book should be about children.
Of course adults will almost certainly have to appear in the stories and when they do so, they should be properly rounded characters with histories that stretch back beyond the beginning of the book and futures that extend beyond its climax. But they shouldn’t be the stars of the show and the child characters should not exist just to facilitate their narrative. Otherwise you’re like a dad at a Christmas party dancing in front of his teenage children and their friends. And believe me, that’s not cool.