Yes, it’s been a while. That’s the trouble with writing – you’re often too busy doing it to write about doing it. Anyway, I’m back with the second in my series of short homilies on writing for children and this time I’d like to explore subject matter. It’s obviously crucial to get this right – there’s no point writing about something that does not resonate with your intended readership. Where adult writers often fall down is in failing to identify the things that really interest children: not just the bigger themes that provoke universal hopes and fears in young people but the day to day minutiae that can matter just as much.
Try asking a child to recount his or her day. Chances are that they will come up with a series of events that bear little comparison to an adult’s viewpoint. When I ask after my seven year old daughter’s day at school she usually claims to remember nothing, leaving me to wonder if there is some kind of Mafiosi style pact between children and teachers. When pressed, however, she will tell me about some game in which she became intensely involved or recall a fragment of a lesson which grabbed her attention. It is those same magnetic moments that we writers need to interweave through our work alongside the larger plot points.
Children are attracted and held by tiny peculiarities, by the eccentricities of life that appeal to their innate sense of the absurd. No-one understood this better than Roald Dahl, a master at using the ridiculous to tickle a child’s imagination while expanding upon an underlying seriousness of plot. When I recently went in to my daughter’s classroom to talk to her schoolmates about writing, it was his name that came up time and again as a favourite author. Dahl has the same grip today as he did twenty years ago and it is his skill at identifying with children and what really appeals that wannabe children’s authors would do well to emulate.