There is a fundamental problem with grown ups writing books for children: we are, well, grown up. Life experience has shaved down the edges of our reactions, beliefs and imaginations. I hear a sound coming from the closet at night? It’s probably nothing. A friend doesn’t want to share? Eh, I bet it’s not personal. The ice cream shop just ran out of my favorite flavor? Probably for the best. I forgot my Lactaid pills, anyway.
But how might our kids, the very people we are writing for, experience those moments? A sound in the closet is far from nothing… what if it’s a monster? No, an alien! NO… a monster alien! What is more personal than a friend not sharing? And excuse me as I duck for cover while you tell a 3-year-old to see the bright side of no more cotton candy ice cream with rainbow sprinkles… these aren’t silly experiences to be dismissed. They are big and real and worthy of concern!
So, back to that unavoidable issue of being all grown up. The obvious risk is writing stories that fall flat. But the far bigger one is that our readers will not feel seen, not feel understood and, ultimately, not feel connected.
For me, the path forward is doing all I can to reconnect with my child-like self. Though I may genuinely enjoy vegetables and throw out my back like a proper adult, I know that 5-year-old Caroline is still very much alive inside of me. To that end, here are a few favorite ways to embody my inner child in all her giggly, tantruming, uncoordinated glory:
- Spend time with real, live kiddos: Nothing beats going straight to the source. I’m lucky enough to have two children under three who offer endless perspective. Spend ten minutes in our house and you’ll witness the simple joy of pulling tissues from the box and see why shouting “poo” always gets a belly laugh. If you don’t have kids of your own, offer to hang out with your friends’ or family members’ kiddos. Ask them questions, play, imagine, and, most importantly… listen! The dialogue for your next story may just write itself.
- Think like a kid: My VCFA advisor, Mary Quattlebaum the Wise, kicks off each workshop with a mindfulness exercise. She encourages her students to remember the smells, sounds, flavors, textures and scenes from our childhoods. What games did you play? What made you laugh? What objects did you love to hold? Where did you feel safe? When did you feel unsafe? Sit with those memories and then pour that experience into your writing. Even if the words don’t come out in picture book form, they are likely to spark a tickle of an idea for stories down the road.
- Act like a kid: We know that our physical actions are deeply connected with both our memory and creativity… so start embodying that child-like, playful energy! Skip outside, roll in the grass, eat gummy bears, squeeze play-dough, finger paint, pick your nose, climb a tree, write a poem, stomp your feet, snatch a toy from a friend, scream “NO!!!”, scream “YESSS!!!”, belt out “Wheels on the Bus”… get weird! Get loose! Most importantly, let your feelings flow through you without judgment in whatever way feels organic in that exact moment.
- Read like a kid: There are few greater joys than sprawling out in a library and exploring stacks of picture books cover to cover. My favorite places to start are recommendations from your librarian or independent bookseller, Caldecott winners and honorees, and following suggestions from accounts and hashtags I admire (e.g. @theconsciouskid, #ownvoices, #weneeddiversebooks, etc). When I find a book I can’t shake, I type out the full manuscript so I can better understand what makes the story tick and compels me to turn the page.
- Soak up artifacts from childhood: My parents made the brilliant move of collecting my siblings’ and my paper trails throughout our childhoods. Ink prints of baby feet, crayon drawings, journal entries, and reams of angst-fueled letters about one injustice or another. Exploring these primary sources brings to life the authentic voice and emotion of that age. A slipped note under my mom’s door takes me right back to how responsible I felt for calming our family’s chaos, even in elementary school. A skeptical letter to the tooth-fairy at age 7 reminds me of how badly I wanted to believe. A Rosh Hashanah service program covered in pencil-scrawled games with my dad simplifies my affection for my Jewish identity.
These strategies usher in a helpful mindset to write, but also infuse life with such joy. And they allow me a bit more compassion when my sons splash all the bubbles onto the ground just to see if they’ll pop. Ultimately, they help me remember to seek out the monster aliens in my closet and ask them to kindly share their stories.
I’d love to hear your approach to writing for children! How do you find your voice?