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