Writing Excuses 15.22: Writing For Children, with Shannon and Dean Hale
Key Points: Children like formulas, the same thing again and again. Often this is the same beats, just like any genre. Sometimes it takes them a long time to make the connection, to figure out what is happening. They need to realize it themselves. Write what you wish you had as a kid. The thing a child loves may not be what you would have guessed. Don’t try to simplify an adult story for children, put yourself in the child’s place and write the story that way. Don’t try to streamline or simplify. Do make sure context is clear, and repeat things three times. Focus on what matters to a person at that age. Humor, comedy is hard. It’s surprise, unexpected twists. Non sequiturs are hilarious for kids. Physical humor. Callbacks and echoing. Kids want you to tell them the truth. Middle grade, especially, lacks adult figures. Kids don’t have a lot of control of their lives, so giving them control scares them. Having adults in the story changes the dynamic, makes it hard for the kids to be the protagonists.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 22.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writing For Children.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Shannon] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we once again have Dean and Shannon Hale here as our guests. Thank you so much for being on the podcast.
[Yay! Wow! Garbled I love you]
[Brandon] So we talked about writing about children. Let’s talk about writing for children. One of the things I’ve noticed that kind of blew my mind and having children was how much they wanted to hear the same thing again and again and again.
[Brandon] This is kind of antithetical to what I enjoy in storytelling and fiction. Yet some of the great children’s series, I’ve noticed, will often just keep to a strict format on purpose. Is this something that informs when you’re writing for children, particularly the younger age?
[Dean] To some degree, I think it does, yeah.
[Shannon] To some degree.
[Dean] I mean, you know, there was… Like, with The Princess in Black, that’s the one that I feel like…
[Shannon] That’s the one the most where…
[Dean] Is formulaic, but I feel like part of the formula is subverting expectations.
[Dean] So that allows you to work within… Work some sort of… It doesn’t become…
[Shannon] Every book we’re trying to think, “Okay, what are the expectations for this book, and how can we kind of flip it?” But we do have, like, the same kind of repeat…
[Shannon] Where there’s going to be a superhero moment.
[Dean] The same kind of beats.
[Dean] Well, just like any genre, really. I mean, you go to see a science fiction movie or a horror movie or a movie at all, and you kind of have certain… Like, there’s this kind of social contract between you and the filmmakers that you’re expecting…
[Brandon] Right. Well, you get to cheer for certain moments. Being able to anticipate what’s going to happen in a story is really fun. It’s, I think, deeply ingrained into us as adults. As children, it’s not there yet. So when you start to be able to make that connection, when you can say, “Oh, this is happening.” Like with my children, I distinctly tell the age where they figured out that people always get in trouble in movies, but then it turns out all right in the end.
[Brandon] That took way longer than I would expect it. Like, I think, oh, you watch two or three movies, you get this. But it’s usually right around 10 or something. 8 to 10 where they’re like, “Oh, wait. Things go wrong and then they get better. Things are going wrong. The story’s going to get better by the end, and they’ll be okay.” That was really revelatory to me that it took that long, but it’s just because they hadn’t seen as much media.
[Shannon] It means more to them that they came up to that conclusion on their own rather than… It wouldn’t have been the same if you told them that that’s what’s going to happen. They have to just have that experience. I talked to a psychologist once about that very thing you are talking about. Kids want to… For example, wanting to reread the same book over and over again. They said that they’re going through something, that that book is giving them comfort or understanding. As soon as their brains have developed in that one little part where they need to, they click, and then they move on. They go to something else. So in terms of being a writer, I wouldn’t worry too much about what do kids need to hear over and over again. I would say just write the story that’s calling to you, write what you wish you had when you were a kid.
[Shannon] And don’t worry about what formula do I need to design for a child.
[Dan] Yeah. Definitely. Often the thing that the child loves is not what you would have guessed, anyway.
[Dan] With Zero G, I was talking to an adult just last week, like, who had listened to the audiobook, loved it. What was your favorite part? Oh, it was when he goes outside of the ship and I was so tense and so scared and I thought something awful was going to happen. There was a five-year-old. I said, “What was your favorite part?” “He ate a cheeseburger in zero gravity.” I’m like, “Oh. Okay. There we go.”
[Dean] But don’t leave out either of those. I just remember… Because so often when you’re writing for children, they’re actually not reading it. The parent is reading it to them. As a parent, I feel your pain reading some of those books over and over and over again…
[Dean] That just aren’t that good. But are great for the kid. But as a writer, you’re like, “How can I make this not terrible for the parents?”
[Shannon] So you mean like picture books and the younger stuff?
[Dean] Yes, yes yes yes.
[Shannon] Yeah, absolutely. I think the bigger mistake that writers make when writing for children, though, is writing for children. Because they think what that means is child means less or less intelligent adult. Therefore, I will take this adult story and simplify it so the child may understand. That’s not how it works. That’s not the math that works. You have to actually just put yourself into the position of the child, and write the story that way. You can’t start from the position of the adult trying to write down to a child. You have to be inside the shoes and then write forward.
[Dean] I always think of those books, like those old… Those Renaissance paintings of babies…
[Dean] That are just like… They have adult man faces.
[Brandon] So this is something that comes up a lot, and I think it’s very important to talk about, because it is kind of the central element of writing about children… Or writing for children, is not writing down to them. But how… You do, to some extent, also have to simplify your language depending on the age that you’re targeting, and you have to be more streamlined in your story. So where’s the balance between writing down to them and streamlining, simplifying, or writing age-appropriate?
[Shannon] I totally don’t even think about it that way. So, for example, we write Princess in Black, which is for like four through four… Yeah…
[Shannon] 4 to 8-year-olds. We don’t simplify the language. We are aware that if this is a big chunkier word that might be new to them, we make sure the context around it is clear and we will do the rule of three. We repeat it three times. For our middle grade and young adult books, we never simplify the language. We never… The whole lexicon is open to you. We know they’ll keep reading past it if they don’t know. Maybe it’s an opportunity to learn something new, which is great. What I focus on instead, and I don’t think about simplifying the story, either. I focus on what matters to the person at this age. What matters to them is going to be different than what matters to an adult. It’s going to be different than what matters to a different person of that same age. So it’s all about character. Where they are in their life, what matters to them, what’s interesting to them. Then write that story. Then, likely other people that age who are going through similar experiences and have similar life perspectives are going to be interested in it.
[Brandon] So, one of the hardest things when I wrote my middle grade series, and the place where I misfired the most, which I think has been the biggest holdback of that series is I got the humor wrong. The feedback I’ve gotten consistently is that younger kids love the plot but are not interested in the humor. Older kids like the humor, but feel that the plot is too kiddy. So the books did not land. Basically, the conclusion we came to is they’re YA humor in a middle grade book. Which tends to grab a very narrow select audience of middle grade readers whose sense of humors has matured. Do you have any advice on writing humor for younger children? Kind of to preface this, like, I put a lot of sarcasm in, and it was too subtle. They just thought people were being mean to each other. Rather than thinking… Getting the joke. The older kids got the joke. Oh, this is sarcasm. Ha, ha, ha. But the younger kids, like, it turned them off. They’re like, “Oo, they’re all just so mean to each other.”
[Shannon] Sarcasm’s really hard in middle grade.
[Dean] Yeah, it definitely is.
[Shannon] For sure. We’ve done a lot of comedies. We’ve probably done at least half of our… Let’s see, I’ve done 30+ books, and I would say at least half of them are comedies.
[Dean] Squirrel Girl was a comedy.
[Shannon] Yeah. For sure.
[Dean] So is Princess in Black.
[Shannon] Princess in Black, I would consider a comedy. So, first of all, just about comedy in general, it’s the hardest thing to write. Nothing’s harder than comedy. Everything would be funny if we were all good enough to write comedy all the time.
[Shannon] It would be funny, because why wouldn’t we want to laugh all the time. It’s really, really hard to write. Part of the… One reason why it’s harder, hard to write comedy, is everybody has a different sense of humor. So it’s just not going to hit on everybody. I think there’s a natural… I think there’s an instinct to it. I think that the people I know who write comedy for younger readers are just that way naturally. That’s just where their brains are.
[Dean] That’s where their headspace is. I think one of the things that works… I feel like comedy, at its root, is like fear. I mean, it’s like being surprised by something. It’s like, “Oh!” Like that.
[Dean] It’s an unexpected kind of bam. Whether it’s… sometimes it’s a little more cerebral, or sometimes it can be slapstick, but I think when you approach it as doing something that is unexpected… I think we get… It’s easier, sometimes, in Princess in Black, because were coming to it with what would be surprising here. If everybody thinks it’s going to be a bunny and it’s a frog. It’s just that kind of…
[Shannon] I mean, I think the bunnies are going to be cute, and actually they’re…
[Dean] They’re evil. Right, right.
[Dan] In a lot of kids… Go ahead. I’ll just say a lot of kids think that non sequiturs are humor. They think that’s what humor is, because you tell them a joke that has some kind of wordplay in it, and they won’t get that, but they’ll think it’s hilarious that the ending makes no sense.
[Dean] Yes. Absurd, yeah.
[Dan] When a four-year-old or a six-year-old tells you a joke, the humor is usually look how much this is ridiculous. There’s no connection between the setup and the punchline. Isn’t that funny?
[Mary Robinette] What I found when we were… Because we had to write shows that had layers. We had to have humor that was for adults, and humor for kids. The nice thing about doing a live show is that you know where the joke is landing because you can tell who’s laughing. So what we found was the kids would respond to physical humor and the sound of words. Like, the word petunia was hilarious…
[Mary Robinette] To them. Tube. I don’t… oo sounds were very funny for unknown reasons. But the other thing is humor is contextual. This is true for adults, as well. The problem is that kids don’t have as much context. So doing verbal humor is much, much harder for them than… Because they don’t have the experiential thing to understand why that juxtaposition is off. Whereas physical humor, they do understand the juxtaposition. It’s very easy to see. This isn’t the thing. They’ve got a lot more experience with that. So we found that like… That’s one of the reasons fart jokes work really well with kids. Toilet humor…
[Mary Robinette] It’s a context… Relatable…
[Mary Robinette] It’s a context that they understand.
[Shannon] But it’s also constantly changing. So the humor that we would use in Princess in Black for these younger readers is different than what we use in middle grade is different than what we use in young adults. Sadly, there’s not a lot of humor in young adults.
[Shannon] People think that the teens aren’t allowed to laugh [garbled]
[Dean] They probably didn’t think they’re allowed, either.
[Shannon] But in addition to surprise, so unexpected twisting it, also callbacks are really, really great. So actually, they’re waiting for that moment when they know that person’s going to say that line.
[Shannon] Then, when they do, that’s funny too. So there’s a lot of echoing. Hum… Comedy just takes so much revision.
[Shannon] You go through it… I mean, dozens of times just to make sure that you’re… Every key moment, if I say this here, how can I make it funny later if I echo it in a slightly different way?
[Dean] Then, after the 100th revision, you’re like, “Is this funny?”
[Dean] “Was this ever funny?”
[Shannon] [garbled If we’re not?] still laughing, then we cut it. Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] There’s a puppeteer who did a show that he called The Hello Show. He got tired of… There’s a phenomenon, you walk a puppet on stage and some child in the audience is going to go, “Hello, puppet.” Just like every show. He got… He snapped.
[Mary Robinette] So he had his own small theater. So he just brought every puppet he owned and said, “It’s the Hello Show.” He was like, “I’m going to do this show one time and it’ll tank, but it’ll just get it out of my system.” He just walked puppets out on the stage one at a time, sometimes to a time. “Hello!” “Hello!” “Hello.” That was the only word in the show. Kids said hello back. The puppets said hello to each other. The big laugh of the show was when a puppet came out and said, “Hey!”
[Brandon] I’ve been actually…
[Shannon] I laughed.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Brandon] Writing a book with my 10-year-old.
[Brandon] More because his brother, 12-year-old, had to write a story for class and I helped him with it, and the 10-year-old saw that. He was like, “I wanna write a book. But I want you to type it because that’s the hard part.”
[Brandon] “If I could type, then I’d be totally able…”
[Shannon] Oh, that’s all it takes.
[Brandon] So, it’s been teaching me a lot about his humor as a 10-year-old. His individual humor. Because he’ll sit down and be like, “All right. We’re going to do this.” Anything… A mistake happens, like we type it… Something accidentally or something, he laughs, leaves it in, and does it four more times. Right? Any time he’s like… We’re like, “All right, what’s the name of this chapter, chapter 12?” His brother’s like, “You want a banana?” He’s like, “Chapter You Want a Banana.”
[Brandon] And then laughs. Then, the next one’s like, “Chapter You Want an Apple.” Like, he wants to keep the joke running, like the callbacks that you said. Any time he’s gotten even a chuckle from himself, it ends up going over and over again. I will reinforce the whole non sequitur thing, because…
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Brandon] Any time, it’s like… He wants to tell a joke, he’s like, “All right. What weird thing can they find in here that’s not…” Yeah.
[Shannon] [garbled It gets all surreal really weird?] This is why books for children are not written by children. Because they can… It just gets really weird.
[Brandon] Real weird real fast. But he also uses… I’ve noticed, he uses a structure. So he’s telling a story about kids who get sucked into a videogame. The videogame is basically Minecraft, except you have to do weird things to do all the Minecraft stuff. Having that structure of I know how you play a game of Minecraft, I know what you do in Minecraft. But in this one, instead of building things out of metal, you build it out of dirt, because dirt is a silly thing to build your pickaxe out of.
[Brandon] It’s been a lot of fun.
[Mary Robinette] It’s almost as if he’s doing worldbuilding. I don’t know where he would have gotten that from, Brandon.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Shannon, you’re going to tell us about Best Friends.
[Shannon] Speaking of writing books for kids…
[Dean] I love this book.
[Shannon] So I decided to write a memoir of my childhood friendships. It seemed like a really terrible idea…
[Shannon] Because I… A memoir? Who writes a memoir? People who do big important things. I didn’t have that unusual of a childhood. But I… I really… My goal was to do… It’s a graphic novel, and I wanted to just tell the truth of how it felt to me to be 10, 11, and 12. So I wrote it, it was called Real Friends, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. It… I’ve never had a book become so instantly beloved. It blew my mind. I mean… You put out a book and you like wait a week or two and you’re like, “Has anybody read it? Does anybody care?” Within 24 hours, I was getting emails from people who’d read it 24 times already. I mean, it was just insane. What I discovered from that was kids want you to tell them the truth. So many adults and parents are trying to protect them. A story can be a safe place where we can tell kids the truth and they can see there how they’re feeling mirrored back to them. It’s such a relief. Adults often read this book and they’re like, “This is too painful.” Kids read it and they’re like laughing and enjoying it, and like, “Oh, it’s so great.”
[Shannon] Because it’s just like, oh, someone showed me how I’m feeling. Even if what happened with me and my childhood is not exactly what’s happening with them, the emotions are the same. I’m telling them a story so they feel a certain way and they have felt that way and then they can see it, not only read it with words, but see it on the page and they feel validated. It’s an amazing experience. So, anyway, that one was called Real Friends and Best Friends is the sequel. Best Friends takes exactly just sixth… My sixth grade experience.
[Dan] I want to put in an extra plug for this. My daughter read Real Friends like 4000 times. So this Christmas, we got her Best Friends and she had finished reading it before we were done opening presents that morning.
[Shannon] Yes. It’s insane. The thing is that I’ve learned… Some parents have told me that as a way of saying, “Well, that was a waste of $12,” because they read it so fast. They reread it. Over and over again. What’s so wonderful about graphic novels, too, is that… And the beautiful illustrations that LeUyen did, is they can examine each page carefully and they can see… They read it first just for words, then they go back and examine the pictures. They see the nuances and the interactions between characters and expressions. What I like… My hope for it was that kids who are going through certain hard times and haven’t had the words yet to explain how they feel can take this book and show an adult and point to this panel and say, “This is how I feel.” You’re giving them words, like… Writing for kids, I mean, there’s nothing better in the world than to think I was able to give this child a way to communicate to someone else how they’re feeling and to validate how they’re feeling.
[Mary Robinette] That was also one of the things… The literature for kids, whether it’s print or graphic novel or stage, one of the things that I find so exciting about it is the voice that it gives to kids. We had multiple times… Like, we would go and we would do, like, Sleeping Beauty. More than once, we would have a child… We had a child stand up and say a variation of “my dog died, and I miss him,” during the Q&A. It’s not that there was a dog in the show.
[Mary Robinette] It was just that…
[Shannon] We get that every time we do a school visit.
[Mary Robinette] That there was an opening. I think that’s one of the things, for me, about writing for children is that you’re inviting them. You’re creating a space that is for them that is safe, and you’re inviting them in. That invitation allows them to open up, and feel like they can share too.
[Shannon] Yes. The most common, like, fan mail that I would get for Real Friends and Best Friends is not “I like this part when…,” it’s “Here’s what happened to me.” You told me your story, now I want to tell you mine. That’s incredibly empowering.
[Brandon] So, one of the things I’ve noticed about particularly middle grade. YA as well, but particularly middle grade, is that there is, in the stories, an absence of adult figures, or at least adult figures who are controlling the story. Right? I was wondering, you had mentioned in a previous episode that Princess in Black, there are just no adults, right? A lot of the great middle grades, there just are no adults. Or if they are adults, it’s the adults like Dumbledore who for some reason, can’t be involved.
[Shannon] Yeah. Every time, there’s some reason.
[Brandon] So, I guess the question is, why is this? What do you feel about this? Is this an important part of the genre, has this become too much of a cliché in the case of things like Dumbledore, or how’s it going? Dan?
[Dan] So, as I was studying horror, when I accidentally became a horror author…
[Shannon] I hate it when that happens.
[Dan] One of the principles of horror that somebody explain to me was that adults have control over their lives. So what scares us is when we lose that control. For kids, I think it’s the opposite. They don’t have a lot of control over their lives. So suddenly giving them control, that’s what scares them, and that’s what forces them into conflict and adventure.
[Mary Robinette] That’s great.
[Shannon] I think as soon as you have a mom in the story, it just changes the whole dynamic. There someone there to protect you, there’s someone there to make decisions for you. I mean, fairytales, what they are is an excuse to get kids away from parents. Like, almost every fairytale, that’s what they’re doing. They kill the parents, they lock them away somewhere, they do something so the kid is on their own. So, basically, yeah. It just… It’s a story device so that the kid can be the protagonist, the one driving the action. There have been times in books, like, I wrote a book called Dangerous where I was like I want the teenager to have a good relationship with her parents and have them be present. Can I pull this off? I managed, but she… There were times where I was like, “She’s gotta go on her own now. That she’s got to, or this story’s not going to go anywhere.” So, I… You don’t want it to be tiring.
[Dean] No, no. I enjoyed writing the parent…
[Shannon] Oh, we did the same thing with Squirrel Girl.
[Dean] In Squirrel Girl. Yeah.
[Shannon] We wanted her to have a good relationship with her parents.
[Dean] Right. It’s tricky too. Because, I mean, you don’t want them to remove the tension that exists by just simply being there.
[Shannon] And solving all her problems for her.
[Dean] But you don’t want them to be jerks or like just sort of flat nothing people. So it’s tricky to get somebody that you like, like a supporting character that you like that doesn’t derail the tension of the…
[Shannon] In that circumstance, I think what we did is just say, “They think she’s cool.”
[Dean] No matter what.
[Shannon] And they trust her. They think she’s awesome. They know she’s as awesome as she is. There are certain things that she can do that they cannot. They’re like, “We’re worried about you, but be careful. We love you. We’ll make some cake for you when you get back. From defeating Hydra.”
[Dean] That’s right. How awesome would that be?
[Shannon] They have cake.
[Dean] So they are a big part of why she is as awesome as she is. Because…
[Shannon] Just like Ma and Pa Kent were a big part of why Superman is so awesome.
[Brandon] We are out of time.
[Shannon] Oh, there’s so many things we could say.
[Brandon] I’m going to give us the homework. You guys the homework this time. I’m going to suggest you do what I’ve been doing with my 10-year-old, is, find a younger relative or a friend and type out what they tell you for a story for a little while. We talked about how there’s a reason kids don’t write stories for kids, but I think I’ve learned way more about the way my son’s humor works and the way he sees story and what excites him by just letting him tell me a story and me typing it out. He loves the idea that he can now take this and share with people because my 10-year-old’s dyslexic. So writing is really hard for him. But now he has a story that he has written. So give this a try. See if it teaches you anything about writing for children by having a child write for you. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.