Not Suitable For Children
I don’t believe there are many rules when it comes to writing. Good writing, I mean. In fact, I have only one when it comes to how I go about making a story, and it’s this: we have to care. As a reader, we have to engage with a story, or else it means nothing. As a writer therefore, it’s my first job to make sure, as far as I can, that the reader cares about what I am writing. This means they need to ‘feel’ for the characters, be intrigued by the plot, be moved by the tone, and so on.
Once a story is written, there’s a new process that occurs. It is read. Hopefully! The journey is not complete until a story finds its readers. It’s here, when considering writing for young people, that I also have more or less one rule, and it’s this: don’t patronise children. Do not underestimate them. Do not pre-suppose you know better than they do what they are capable of reading, what they are interested in reading, what will excite and interest them. If you do, you run the huge risk of not only limiting the breadth of their experiences as readers, you risk something worse: boring them. If you bore a young reader, you can be sure you are doing a good job of putting them off reading for good. In ‘aiming up’, of course, there is a risk of confusing a reader, but I argue that a little confusion is a good thing. A little confusion forces the reader’s mind to work a little harder, and that process makes the reader engage with the story more. Take this process too far and you might confuse any reader so much that they get frustrated and drop your book – so it’s a question of balance. But, I believe you lose more people through the boredom end of the scale than you do through the confusion end.
I’ve had this proven to me again and again in the 20 years I have been writing books for younger people. Once, at a book festival in a London suburb, I followed a man who’d dressed as a clown and literally jumped about on stage to entertain a group of 30 rebellious 6-8 year olds. I followed and, not having the energy or ability to do that, just sat on a stool and talked to them about books and writing. They listened and asked great questions. ‘How did you do that?’ asked the clown afterwards. I didn’t really have an answer but the truth is, I treated them as if they were intelligent and well-behaved, and lo and behold, they were. Treat children as fools, and fools you will have.
Another time, a publisher literally and rather angrily backed me into a corner at a party, berating me for writing a book with no teenage characters in it. “What teenager is going to want to read this?” he demanded to know. When I got home that night, I had not one but two emails from young adults saying how much they had loved the book in question.
Why have we forgotten what we were like as children? Or, if we still do, why are we so arrogant as to assume that although we read widely and bravely as a teen, teens today don’t or can’t? I once joined a year 8 reading group after I’d given a talk to the whole school. I asked them what they were all reading. One girl grinned and said to me, ‘well, today I read a Captain Underpants book. But last week I read Wild Swans.’ And that is the perfect example of a good reader, and not just a good teenage reader, but anyone.
Marcus Sedgwick is a Carnegie award winning writer who is one of the authors contributing to Ten Stories to Make a Difference. His book with illustrator Daniel Ido, called Together We Win, centres around a mysterious narrator recounting three change-making moments of rebellion and revolution – and one of them is now.
Find out more about Together We Win, and get your hands on a first edition through our Ten Stories Crowdfunder