entertainment

8 rules I didn’t know about writing for kids

Kate

by KATE HUNTER

Have you ever wondered why authors thank their editors? I know I did. Until I wrote a book – or rather, I wrote some stories. An editor and a publisher turned them into books. Even now, I’m not quite sure how they did it, and there are three books in the world with my name on the spine. Who could have imagined?

The Mosquito Advertising series is about a bunch of kids who start their own advertising agency. Katie (really stretched myself there) and her mates are 13, argumentative, resourceful and largely unsupervised. They watch too much TV, are addicted to Barbecue Shapes and will wag school if business demands it. Their parents and teachers are peripheral characters in their lives.

One reviewer described Mosquito Advertising as, ‘The Famous Five Meets Gruen Transfer.’ I was chuffed. I love Enid Blyton and Wil Anderson equally. Interestingly, they’re both a bit fucked up, with little regard for rules. I wonder if there’s something in that?

Since I became a children’s author (a title I dislike – I prefer ‘writer’) I’ve started going to courses and seminars and reading books about writing. Nothing like a publishing deadline to make you realize how little you know.

So only recently have I learned there are RULES for writing children’s fiction.

And, oops, I broke almost every one.

Kids are into fantasy, vampires and science fiction. This is true, of course. Lots of kids love these genres. But, not ALL kids. I didn’t. My 11 year old son doesn’t. And why would anyone try to write another one when the shelves are already so crowded? Zig when others zag, that’s my motto. Of course, JK Rowling is the richest woman in Britain – richer than the Queen. In contrast, I’m still comparing prices on laundry liquid.

In a children’s book, the main character must be in every scene. Bugger. Didn’t know that one. I wrote my books like movies. Action happens in boardrooms, in factories, at school, in the first class cabins of jumbo jets. Sometimes Katie’s there, sometimes she’s not. Readers seem to work it out. Kids like being flies on adult walls.

Write what you know. I stuck to this rule, mainly I’m lazy, and advertising is something I know. But what would life be like if authors didn’t create worlds, delve into history, mix up eras and ask ‘What if?’ Surely you don’t have to be a murderer to write a murder mystery.

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• Bums, burps, spew and farts are sure-fire ways to get kids reading. Maybe, but it gets boring fast. And Andy Griffiths and Andrew Daddo do it so well; does anyone else need to add to the chorus of flatulence?

• If you want to sell LOTS of books, make your main character a boy. I heard this at a seminar for authors of children’s and young adult fiction, and it caused outrage among the (largely female) audience. Apparently boys will read about boys, girls will read about boys, but boys won’t read about girls. The speaker was a marketing expert and asked the question, ‘Would Harriet Potter have done as well as Harry?’ Probably not. Anyway, it was too late for me to change my story. I don’t think I could have. It would have seemed false and affected. But maybe it would have sold more? I’ll never know.

The best novels for kids and teenagers explore issues like divorce, racism, bullying, death … Perhaps. But I like to think the main job of a book is to entertain. You can’t save souls in an empty church.

Avoid brand names, and slang. This is tricky. No one wants their novel to be an ad for McDonalds. But kids say they’re, ‘hanging out for a Big Mac’, not ‘craving a hamburger.’ They listen to iPods, not MP3, devices and they rarely use the Queen’s English. Kids work out what’s appropriate and what’s not. I loved To Kill A Mockingbird as a teenager, but knew not to use the word, ‘nigger.’

Make your characters familiar, relatable. I had few barneys with my editor, but we had words over the name of Katie’s best friend, Lorraine. He said no one under age 50 is called Lorraine. That was kind of my point and a big part of her personality, so I dug my heels in. The world has enough Jessicas and Imogens in my opinion.

You can win one of two sets of the three Mosquito Advertising novels, signed by Kate. This competition is now closed. Winners will be notified by email.

Kate Hunter is an advertising copywriter with over 20 years experience and one Gruen Transfer appearance to her name. Kate is also the author of the Mosquito Advertising series of novels – The Parfizz Pitch, The Blade Brief and The Crunch Campaign, which see a bunch of Australian kids start their own advertising agency. You can buy them here. The stories surrounding ads are often more interesting than the ads themselves and as soon as Kate thinks she’s seen it all, she sees something more dazzling or more dire than has ever been done before.

What was your favourite book as a kid?

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