Children do not want nice stories

Many adults who want to write for children make the mistake of assuming that children want nice stories. Our mature perspective distorts our memories and deceives us into believing that only unicorns, fluffy bunnies, and fairy godmothers populated our childhood fantasies. We have forgotten our own dark natures. We assume that because, as adults, we find children to be “cute” and endearing, they must see themselves that way, too.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Little girls are cute and small only to adults.  To one another they are not cute.  They are life-sized.  ~Margaret Atwood

Earlier this year, I attended Grub Street Writers’ annual Muse conference. Author Tayari Jones expanded on Atwood’s observation, “Kids are not cute,” she told us, “They are not cruel, innocent, the future, or closer to nature. To each other, they are life-sized. They convey and inhabit the full range of their experience and emotions – which are as complicated as yours and mine.”

Try to remember what it felt like to be a kid.

Did you ever feel “cute?” Did you feel like your feelings were less intense or less important because you were a kid? I bet you thought your feelings were more intense and more important because you were a kid. Children, from the first spark of self-knowledge through the tumultuous teen years, experience the world in a much more visceral way than most adults. Their perception has not been dulled by deeply ingrained assumptions or painted by the opinions of others. Children live more fully in the “real” world than we do. They trust their senses and their instincts.

“I’d felt something move. I’d felt the knocker twist under my hand as I’d banged that grinning imp down on the door. I was not so old that I would deny my own senses.” – Neil Gaiman from the short story Closing Time

But children also have the advantage of living simultaneously and fully in a world of their own making. In his fascinating book, The Storytelling Animal – How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall dedicates a lengthy section to the nature of children’s make believe:

“Grownups have a tendency to remember the land of make-believe as a heavenly, sun-kissed, bunny land. But the land of make-believe is less like heaven and more like hell. Children’s play is not escapist. It confronts the problems of the human condition head-on.”

He goes on to call pretend play “deadly serious fun.”

Gottschall’s words, along with the examples of stories made up by children, reminded me of just how frightening and often violent my own childhood dreams and fantasies were. My nighttime visions were full of ghosts and monsters, being lost, being chased, falling, and other nightmarish things. My games were full of adventure, crisis, and trouble. I played at being an Amazon warrior, a dragon tamer, and a magical priestess of the forest. I enacted the invasion of Earth by alien species. I handed down death sentences to traitors and slew my enemies on the battlefield.

This isn’t to say I didn’t also search for unicorns and admire bluebirds. I did.

I invented an entire subgenus called White Deer. They were wise and noble creatures with a complex hierarchy, jeweled antlers, and a traveling court that disappeared into the mist at sunrise. My point is, most of my preferred play – my most memorable play – revolved around things that weren’t nice – kidnappings and war and beasts of every description.

Think about the stories that captivated you as a child.

Were they nothing but rainbows and lullabies, or were they inhabited by trolls, evil queens, and haunted houses? Think about the stories that have taken young minds by storm in recent years. A few that come to mind immediately for me are Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Hunger Games (which, technically is young adult), and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Each involves its fair share of tragedy, violence, and death. Even seemingly tame stories like Roald Dahl’s Matilda include their share of bad people and terrible happenings. Enduring classics like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are built around great conflicts, wars, and a deep, unflinching look into the eyes of evil.

There are plenty of favorites on my shelf that are “nicer” than these fantasy and adventure stories – The Wind in the Willows, Winne-the-Pooh, and Tales of Brambley Hedge , just to name a few. But I find that the books my daughter wants to read are either rife with danger or full of gut-busting belly laughs. She does not find “nice” appealing and is easily bored by sweet tales of idyllic childhoods. She is, of course, only a focus group of one, but I’d be willing to bet – based on bestseller charts – that she’s not alone in her tastes.

When writing for children, do not rein in the full range of human experience and emotion. Do not soften the blows or dilute the nature of evil. Children use stories to learn about themselves, each other, and the world. They are naturally drawn to stories that give them a deep, truthful picture of these things. It does not matter if the story takes place on familiar city streets, in a fantasy land full of dragons, or out in darkest space. What matters is the veracity of the human element …

… and we grownups know that human nature is not always nice.

Do you write for children or young adults? What kinds of themes do your stories explore? Have you ever found yourself holding back in a subconscious effort to protect your reader? What inspires you to write for these age groups?

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: Wesley Fryer

26 thoughts on “Children do not want nice stories

  1. Every feeling is heightened when you are a child – because it is the first time you are feeling it. Although sometimes I do find some children demand scary books… and then need to sleep with the light on or next to their mothers.

    • My daughter has done that to me more than once. 🙂
      She’s so drawn to the danger and excitement, but after the lights go out, it’s not so fun anymore.
      Still, I’m glad she likes those kinds of stories. They enrich her make-believe play and give her examples of courage to emulate.

    • As a mom, I can attest that kids are only a “bundle of cute” for a very short time. 😉

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for saying so!

  2. I love this perspective. I am not a children’s writer (although I do dabble in YA) but I was reminded of this in a fiction workshop recently. There was one children’s writer among us, just starting out, and I was amazed how many of his comments were along the lines of “I think you should have the kid make up with his dad, because children’s books should have happy families in them” or “A kids’ writer has a responsibility to teach appropriate behavior.” This was middle-grade fiction, too.

    All I could think was this: Children want the same thing we want out of a book. A good story. Nothing more and nothing less. They can tell when a story is meaningless and sugarcoated, or when its trying to hit them over the head with a moral. Its all too easy to forget that.

    • Exactly!
      Children want the truth. They want to understand how things work and stories help them get at that … “real” stories, anyway – stories that embrace the dark as much as the light.

      And morality tales – ugh! Makes me cringe. My eight year-old daughter can spot them a mile off! 😉

  3. I was a weird kid. I remember thinking way too much about Authors and the words that they wrote long before I should have. When my second grade teacher read The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe to us in little snippits daily, I was mesmorized as she would leave us with one teaser after another. Her name was Mrs. Hoppins, but I’m not sure if I would have remembered her name more than I did, CS Lewis. Who thinks stories like this up? I recall wondering and knew somewhere in the midst of that book that I WAS going to be a writer. I wanted a teacher somewhere out there to read something I had written where another kid would wish it wasn’t Friday just because they had to wait for chapter nine all the way until the following Monday!

    • What a lovely memory and tribute to an inspiring teacher.
      I hope my daughter has such teachers to supplement the incessant reading I do here at home. (Sometimes, experiencing reading away from mom makes a bigger impression.)

      Love that you’ve carried that kernel of desire into your writing life today. Just wonderful.

  4. My favorite story when I was 9 years old was The Old man in the Sea by Hemingway. In fact, between the ages of 9-10 I read “Where the Red Fern Grows” – “Old Yeller” – and let’s be reminded of “The Yearling” where the boy has to kill the pet deer he raised after his father killed the fawn’s mother.
    Not “nice” stories although they have extremely poignant scenes. They all had endings that made me cry. Definitely about the hardness of life. And I could take it. It didn’t damage me. (I think, lol). I LOVED those stories as a child – waaaay more than the nicey-nicey stories. And I didn’t grow up to kill small animals or behave like a sociopath!

    The YA novel I’m writing is a coming-of-age story and my protagonist is not very likeable. Plus, I’m playing around with a seriously terrible ending of death, although I’m vascillating on that one because I know for some readers, it will be a no-go. Morbid perhaps, but I think we should always remember kids don’t live in bubbles. Trying to put them in one only makes them grow into unrealistic adults who have difficulty coping in the real world. Why not give them stories that offer them a glimpse of the ugliness of the world the need to live in? Through these kinds of stories, we can often help them work out ways to approach difficulties without feeling insecure, offer them strength they need to get through it. Today the problem is an aggressive ogre or a scary troll, tomorrow it’s the boss or a nasty co-worker! Same-same.

    • Wow – Hemingway at age nine? I’m impressed. My favorite at that age was Tolkien. I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time when I was in the third grade and was so absolutely spellbound by the vastness and depth of the story and world he had created.

      I agree wholeheartedly that children’s stories should not be sanitized or diluted. The classic Bridge to Terabithia involves death, but children love that story and seem well equipped to handle it. As adults, we forget that children process death much differently than we do. Really young children can’t comprehend it the same way we do and are often very matter-of-fact about it.

      Here’s to giving kids the vicarious experiences that will make them stronger in real life.

  5. One of my daughters, who is eight, loves to write stories but not ‘nice’, happy stories. She likes to write “scary” stories. People always do a double take when she tells them the titles, etc. I used to feel worried about this but I do understand. She has a wonderful life with two sisters and her mom and dad. She NEEDS to explore the other side of things. I was the opposite. I did not have a fabulous childhood so I did like ‘nice’, perfect, sweet stories. We all have two sides and we must explore both. Great post.

    • Ooh! That’s such an interesting perspective, Janna – that our preferences for “nice” or “not nice” stories may stem in part from how we experience real life. And it’s also SO true that there are two sides to each person (at least!) and we must explore both.

      Thanks so much for sharing your insights.

  6. Pingback: Children do not want nice stories | Litteris |

  7. Here is a life-sized two-year-old:
    Ashley was pushing her daughter Ella in the stroller through Nordstrom to the men’s department to buy a shirt for father’s day.
    At the foot of the escalator Ella said: “Can we go up to the video?”
    “Not this time, Sweetie,” responded Ashley. “I want you to stay with me, so I can just find a shirt for Daddy, and then we can go.”
    “I want to go watch the video.”
    “We will go another day, Sweetheart. Today we’ll just buy a shirt for Daddy.”
    “But I want to go watch the video.”
    “No, I told you we are getting shirt for Daddy and then we are going home.”
    After a few more back-and-forths in this vein, Ashley saw an angry look come over Ella’s face and could see the wheels turning behind her eyes. Then out it came: “You’re not even pretty!”
    “Well, look at that,” thought Ashley, “My sweetly dressed little daughter has found in her devious mind the perfect hurtful thing to say,” but she kept it together enough to say: “I understand that I don’t look pretty to you right now,” and started flipping through the racks of shirts.
    The sales lady said, “Don’t say that. Your mother is very pretty.”
    “No she’s not,” shot back Ella.
    Angrily, Ashley thought to say, “Shut up, Lady. That will just provoke her. Just ignore her and mind your own business. Find me a shirt so we can get out of here,” but didn’t. Instead, she just picked out a shirt, and mother and daughter started rolling to the register.

    • Many children have an innate sense of human nature and dynamics, don’t they? My own daughter learned how to push buttons very early in life. Kids are WAY more observant than we give them credit for. They know what makes people happy and what makes them sad. It’s a natural part of their development to explore and experiment with these things. I have learned, like Ashley, to just roll with it – try to teach my daughter what’s right and wrong, but not keep her from also learning on her own.

      You’d be amazed at the stories you hear from very small children. Some of the tales Gottschall recounts in his book are so wrought with crisis and tragedy that you’d think they were based on Shakespeare! Lost children, murdered parents, and dismembered pets are only the beginning. Kids don’t flinch when they are telling their own stories.

  8. You know…when I was younger I was obsessed with the Babysitters Club series…and now I think I know why! The characters were more relatable and REAL than other books I read. You had two characters who came from broken homes, a character who had to deal with diabetes, a character who had lost her mother as a child; they dealt with things like bullying, breakups with boyfriends, and fights that left the group of friends divided. There was fun, exciting stuff like the various “mysteries” they would sometimes encounter, but the big important factor was that these were realistic characters who I could imagine being friends with, rather than perfect little puppets whose stories always turned out to be happily ever afters.

    People underestimate kids. Kids see and understand and all they want is for adults to realize that. That’s why I try not to grow up too much…I was to be able to remember being a kid so I don’t underestimate my daughter when she’s older. It’s a frustrating thing being underestimated all the time. 😛

    • People DO underestimate kids. They make assumptions about them that are often completely off the mark.

      My eight year-old daughter is always surprising me. I have learned not to underestimate her. She’s a great student of human psychology and picks up on things that many adults overlook. She’s also very frank about death and crime, and “bad guys.”

      Life can be tough, but most kids are tougher.

  9. great read Jamie 🙂 Kids need dilemma, or at least the hero-like ones do, without them there would be no victory. your post, especially your reference to Atwood’s talking about “life-size” made me think of writing some old children’s literature ideas i’ve left hanging out to dry. Thanks!

  10. Hey there,

    I certainly enjoyed your post a lot. You are absolutely spot on – why would kids want to read things they cannot relate to… Good Boy, who was always nice to every one and with great manners… which explains why kids enjoy the Horrid Henry series:) I am yet to come across a child who hates it. That should explain, why, we should actually go back our childhood and think about what we would have liked to read. Great post! Inspiring and has got me thinking. Thanks.

    • It might also explain why so many kids find the villains more fascinating than the heroes. Sometimes it’s fun to be the bad guy. 😉

  11. Pingback: Writer’s Weekend Resources: Reading and Writing Links | Live to Write – Write to Live

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