There’s an inherent level of frustration that comes with the decision to write for a specific age group, especially when you’re aiming for younger rather than older.
Never has this frustration been more present to me than when I decided to collaborate on a children’s story with with my sister, an artist looking to expand her craft. We had worked together on one similar project (an illustrated alphabet book for my then-two-year-old nephew), and we both decided that it would be fun to collaborate on something slightly more advanced. The goal was to craft a more elaborate story, but still have it be suitable for children, like a picture book or an illustrated short story.
As with most ideas of the like, it seemed very simple at the time, but after a few months I felt like I was trapped in a field filled with road blocks and gray areas. First there’s the ever present challenge to write something unique enough that it stands out from the countless other books, but then there’s also the question of what it means to write for a younger age group. What vocabulary should you use? What themes and concepts are off limits? What is considered to be ‘too adult’?
Someone close to me suggested that I write another story similar to “The Poker Game.” They thought it was the right length, self-contained, and not overly complex, but I was wary of it because it also deals with marital discord, gambling, and a certain embodiment of an abstract concept that (for the sake of avoiding spoilers) I shall not name. None of them are dealt with in extreme or gruesome detail, but it did make me wonder when these issues go from acceptable to unsuitable for younger audiences.
I think a good children’s story should both entertain and inform, but without dumbing down something that never needed it in the first place. Sure, no child (or parent of said child) is going to want to read a book called My Aunt’s Excruciating Battle with Cancer, but there are stories out there that do touch on more advanced themes and issues without exploring them in a disheartening manner. A good example of this is Grandpa Green by Lane Smith, an simple but well thought out story about life, memory, and growing into a ripe old age.
Neil Gaiman’s Instructions is also a great children’s story, taking the unique approach of dissecting and combining elements from fables from around the world, creating a build-your-own-adventure book unlike any you’ll find on the shelves. Then of course there are the classics like Dr. Suess’ Oh the Places You’ll Go, a story which becomes more and more insightful as the reader grows nearer to adulthood.
I’ve always thought stories like these are invaluable to a child’s development because they actually have substance. They teach and entertain, and an adult can read them to their child or charge without feeling like their frontal lobes are being coated in sugar.
There’s no doubt that what constitutes a children’s story has changed from the days of the Brothers Grimm, when they were intended as cautionary tales detailing foolish actions with terrible consequences. Stories now are simpler, more gentle, but they’ve lost none of their importance in helping to build the foundation to a child’s mind.
Given the variety in subject and complexity in children’s stories today, perhaps there are plenty of other authors who are still feeling out what it means to write for a child, including what is too much and too little. If anyone out there has their own examples or theories of what makes a good children’s story, I’d love to hear them, if not for this project then because my niece and nephew could always use another good story for bedtime ;)