Writing Novels For Children Versus Writing Novels For Teens, by Diane Lee Wilson
When I set out to write my first novel my goal was simply to write the kind of book that I’d enjoyed as a girl: a horse-centric story set in a different land. My models were the wonderful books by Margeurite Henry (which include her Newbery-winning King of the Wind), the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley, and a few other library finds, such as The Silver Brumby and Dapples of the Circus. That first novel became I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade and it was published in the U.S. by Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic, as well as in three other countries and languages. In the U.S. it was marketed as a “young adult” novel.
At the time, I’d never heard of that genre and, to my knowledge, had never read such a book. What, exactly, was a “young adult” novel? It was explained to me that young adult, or YA, books are intended for readers aged 12 to 18 and that my style of writing and subject matter naturally fit that reading level. Okay. Happy that my writing had found an audience, I continued to produce and have since published five additional YA novels, all historical fiction and all involving a horse or horses in some way.
I now know that what often sets apart a young adult story from children’s or adult novels is the age of the protagonist and the subject matter. I have been advised to keep my protagonists in the upper teen range (13-17) so that readers can envision themselves in the role. And I have had at least one scene (in Ravenspeak, in which my protagonist has to cut off her arm in order to survive) severely edited due to “overly gruesome details.” I’ve also, on occasion, had to modify a few expletives spat out by the less respectable individuals in my cast of characters. Other than these instances, my writing style seems to suit the YA genre. I try to keep the pacing fast and the details vivid.
While I am currently working on a seventh novel (again YA but contemporary rather than historical) I am also developing a series of books for the children’s market, specifically middle grade readers. This is still a learning process for me and I have been perusing the styles of other authors, studying voice and pacing and structure. I can see that the pages are fewer, the descriptive passages shorter and the plots simpler. I have read some bestsellers that I find unmemorable and I have uncovered a few gems that have told beautiful, rich stories in an enviably simple yet artful fashion. That is what I will strive for in this nascent collection.
I firmly believe that good writing can be produced for readers of any age and skill level. What’s most important is that the reader be interested and engaged in the story, and thoroughly enjoy the reading experience. And, since the chronological ages of readers don’t always mesh with their prescribed reading levels, I think there need not be any firm demarcation between books intended for children and those written for teens.
A final note: In considering this topic, I came across an informative discussion from people who are actually in school classrooms and libraries. It can be found at: http://childrenslitblog.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/childrens-literature-vs-young-adult
Diane Lee Wilson author site: www.dianeleewilson.com