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Children fiction no child's play

By Lucas Wafula | April 18th 2015

How different is children’s literature from adult literature? This is a question one of our readers asked recently. I submit that young authors must establish these differences to produce quality work in all aspects of writing, for these two audiences. Have you ever asked yourself why children like Harry Porter and will cry if you switched from Dora the Explorer to Pillars of the Earth or The Bourne Identity?

This question reminded me of what happened between two editors. One was working on a reader for children, which was taking long to finish, while the other was working on a bigger volume he had already finished and wondered why his other colleague was not finishing such a ‘small’ book! Obviously, the editor of the volume had an assumption that many of us have; we suppose that children’s literature is easier to write and publish. After all they are just ‘small’ books.

I have met quite a few up-and-coming authors who always ask if they should resort to writing children’s books, after we have rejected their fiction for adults. My answer is always no. If you are unable to write fiction for adults, it is most likely you will find writing children’s literature tough. Whatever you manage to come up with might be a book that will never leave the shelves in bookshops. This is why it is important to understand and distinguish the differences between these two literatures and thereafter you can then decide where you fit. This way you can easily write and deliver manuscripts that can be accepted for publication.

Unlike adult literature which employs complex expression of ideas, children’s literature deals with simpler expression of ideas. For instance, you can name so many themes and sub-themes, point out the main plot and sub-plots in Things Fall Apart. The whole is made up of intricacies that only an adult can understand. Certainly, it is longer in length because of this. You will not find this in children’s literature.

Depending on the level, children’s literature may comprise pictures that form a story, a word and a picture, a few words and pictures or a few short sentences that are straightforward.

Also, the use of a given set of vocabulary sets apart children’s literature from adult literature.

As you might already have guessed, it would be imprudent for an author to use big words in children’s books. It would also be wrong for you as a writer to use compound words in a children’s book.

On the other hand, adults like writings that challenge the intellectual abilities. They love what is spiritually uplifting and will frown upon a simple book or literature that has simple thoughts. This is not a licence for you to use extremely big words or complex sentences; it will make your work hard to read, understand and as such render it boring. You must learn to strike a balance of choice of vocabulary.

As an author, you must consider the attention span as you write especially for children.

Children usually have a shorter attention span.

Therefore, you may want to use words and colours that attract and hold their attention.

Keep the stories short and interesting to keep them going. Conversely, adults have a longer attention span and would hate to only get a taste of the action and then lose it fast. If you decide to write adult literature, then the word count should be higher.

You have to note though, that scattering words all over or writing many of them without a conscious plan to entertain will not glue your reader on your word.

Employ proper style and address themes that resonate well with the reader in order to catch their attention. Writing is like entering a contract; that you will write what is interesting and your reader will reward you by reading your work. Therefore, as a writer, keep your end of the bargain so that the readers do not breach theirs.

Another difference between literature for adults and that of children is the relationship between characters. Children’s stories are told more directly; the relationship between characters is shown clearly. This is unlike adult literature that may employ suspense as a style. The author might also want to surprise the reader with certain information that he or she withholds and only releases it to the reader at a certain time for effect. Certainly, application of such a technique in children’s literature would not be applicable.

In adult fiction, the author can also say one thing to mean the other – cases of irony. The assumption usually, is that the reader will be able to discern, understand and enjoy this irony.

Further, children find spontaneous pleasure in rhyme and jokes. If your intention is to write for children, you must consider humour and rhyming words.

The humour keeps them interested in the story as they relate the characters in a work of art with real-life characters. The rhyme appeals to their playful nature at that age and also creates memories.

I must say that adults too love an author who makes them laugh but their jokes are more serious – mature jokes that do not paint you in bad light. At all costs avoid silly, lewd jokes. Humour that makes adults think will always be appreciated, vulgarity and or stereotype, borders on childishness, hence no adult will want to read your work.

As you write, be it children’s or adult’s literature, you must remember that this is art and that literature should be useful and at the same time beautiful. Your readers will want to be entertained but at the same time they will want to learn and pick up ideas they can apply in real life. If you are writing for children, it may be wise to know that you are helping in the development of their language capabilities. Hence, it may be wise for you to consult the English language syllabus for guidance on vocabulary at different levels and apply the suggestions artistically in your writing.

Writing fiction for adults on the other hand requires you to read a lot; research on what you are writing and be sure you are not lying to your audience. Do not assume that just because it is fiction then anything goes; research will open your mind to many possibilities and as such options on how to approach different subjects. Importantly, write what you are comfortable with and always with your reader in mind.

It is about time Kenyan writers considered their reader ‘king’.

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