Writers Conference 2014: fiction writing for YA and Children

What I learnt about writing for teenagers: almost anything goes but you have to consider the impact of your story on adolescents and offer some kernel of hope. And more…

Thinking kid, The Reluctant ScribeI had never thought of myself as a children’s writer. When I was told my current work-in-progress read like a young adult or even a children’s book, I was dismayed and upset. And then I began to embrace the idea. Didn’t I first develop a love for reading when I was a teenager? And some of the best books ever written were supposedly written for children.

But, the trouble is, I know nothing about modern children’s literature. Were the themes in my novel suitable for young teenagers? Or for young adults? And what is the difference between the two groups?

I needed to get myself educated.

Last weekend I attended the Writers Conference 2014 in Nottingham and, when I saw there was a panel discussion about the rights and responsibilities of writing for YA and children, I knew I simply must go along to that session.

The panel consisted of three novelists, none of whom I had ever read.

David Belbin: author of  Love Lessons, Festival and The Beat.
Helena Pielichaty: Vicious Circle and many others.
Bali Rai: (Un)arranged Marriage and many YA novels.

What did I learn?

The big three things a children’s author must consider are:

  1. Sex
  2. Drugs
  3. Level of violence

How gritty can your writing be? Of course it varies according to your intended readership’s age-group. Although this wasn’t explained in any detail, it seems you can, roughly, divide up the readership into three bands.

  • under 10 (primary school and under): no sex, drugs or swear words.
  • 10-14 (middle grade in the USA): no explicit sex and no obscenities.
  • 14 and upwards (young adult): anything goes.

The vocabulary range you choose is not what determines the age-range of your readership. A bright child can read books intended for a much older reading age. No, it is the tone and themes that determine the intended age-range.

David Belbin: said when writing for adolescents what is or isn’t acceptable swings about like a pendulum. Almost “anything goes” these days, but you have to think carefully about the impact of your writing on a young person and offer “some kernel of hope”. The current trend is dystopian fiction, but this may be coming to an end.

Helena Pielichaty: gave some great examples of books that deal with the same serious themes, but use different tones. It is the tone of a book that might be most important in determining if a book is for children, young adults or an adult book. She also suggested that you might like to consider what you prefer a child to be reading: about real characters with real issues, or fake characters with fake issues. She used the Twilight novels as an example of fake sex. Interestingly, Helen has since expanded her ideas in a blog post entitled The Rights and Responsibilities of a Children’s Writer.

Bali Rai: asked, “Are we going to write about idealised teenagers? They’re boring.” Although social realism is out of fashion, writers should be writing about real kids and real issues. And real teenagers have sex, swear, take drugs, bully people, are racists, etc. He suggests that year 9 and upwards (13 year-olds and over) want to be challenged and are only a few clicks away from hard porn on the Internet. Where do you want your teenagers to learn about sex and drugs? Surely it’s from books?

On writing in youth slang: David Belbin advises not to try. Your writing would become out of date very quickly.

Here are some of the take-home messages.
David Belbin:

Almost anything goes but you have to consider the impact of your story on adolescents and offer some kernel of hope.

Helena Pielichaty:

Trust your child reader. They will put down stuff they aren’t ready for.

Bali Rai:

Give them everything and let them choose.

Author: Ruth Livingstone

Walker, writer, photographer, blogger, doctor, woman, etc.

8 thoughts on “Writers Conference 2014: fiction writing for YA and Children”

      1. That’s probably the way to go. Though language is changing so much all the time. Just having a look at Facebook and Twitter proves that.
        I find it quite intimidating as I’d imagine that children are far worse critics than adults.


  1. Interesting post! I too write YA/crossover fiction and do find all the issues raised here quite difficult to get to grips with. I don’t think it’s true that anything goes, because literary agents and then publishers are gatekeepers. You can write whatever you like, but whether it gets published is another matter entirely! And whether school libraries will stock and recommend your books is another.


  2. Ruth

    I’m a children’s literary agent – (and former patient!). Do contact me if you’d like to discuss further…


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