One of the most common and simple reasons that I end up passing on submissions is that while the writer may pitch their project as YA or MG, the voice and/or perspective in the sample pages feels very grown-up. There’s a time and a place for books that are primarily intended to teach or send a message, where it’s okay to speak to young readers from an adult perspective. But instead, today, I want to talk about fiction and narrative nonfiction where the goal is to tell a good story for young readers, with any educational or moral takeaway being incidental to the entertainment. If this is your aim, whether you’re narrating in first or third person, you need to write from a young perspective.
It’s hard to recapture a young mindset when you are no longer a young person, and tricky to figure out where to draw the line between character and narration—how do you communicate a sophisticated story in accessible language? Again, the key word here is perspective, or the standpoint from which you tell the story. Kids, tweens and teens see the world from a different place and in a different way than adults do, and whatever your audience, it’s your job as a writer to get on their level and tell a good story from there. Here are a few pitfalls to avoid: things which (at least to me) scream “I am an adult writing for Youths!”
We’ll start with some concrete ones—you’ve likely heard these before, but they bear repeating. (I’m talking mostly to middle-grade writers here, because that’s what’s been on my mind lately. But trying to capture a YA voice comes with its own joys and challenges, which I hope to explore in another post soon!)
Dated references. Many kids love old books, music, and movies. That’s fine! But if your young protagonist is only into Nancy Drew, Star Wars, and The Rolling Stones—especially if that comes with a side of disparaging contemporary media—it starts to seem like an older writer is projecting their youthful obsessions onto a 2010’s kid.
Absent technology. It throws me off when characters in contemporary stories use little to no tech, especially when there are inexplicably no cell phones in your story world. The fact is, most middle schoolers in the US have smartphones, and a huge amount of their schoolwork, recreation, and socializing happen through a screen. Kids are living their lives online, and if you ignore this in a story set in the present day, it will likely not feel authentic. (Plus, as agent DongWon Song mentioned on Twitter the other day, “If your plot can be broken by people having cell phones, you need more interesting conflicts.”)
Ill-considered slang. How kids talk is constantly changing. It’s really hard to get slang in dialogue right when it isn’t your natural mode of speaking—and even if you do get it pitch-perfect, it will date your story. Whether dated dialogue is actually a bad thing is a matter of some disagreement among readers and writers—I personally find it distracting, while others feel it adds authenticity. Either way, it’s something to be aware of.
Now we’re going to move onto the more abstract stuff, with the caveat that this is all just my personal observations and opinions. They are meant to be taken with a grain of salt, and are not universally shared among agents or writers! Okay, disclaimers out of the way, here are some story quirks that take me out of a young character’s head and show the writer’s age:
An obviously retrospective perspective. This might seem obvious to some, but I frequently see stories in my inbox that imply that the narrator is narrating their distant past; that the time/place of the story and their current standpoint are not the same place. For instance, a story opener like “In the summer of 1995, life was great” doesn’t place me in the summer of 1995, but rather gives me the voice of a contemporary narrator, telling me a story out of their past. This is fine if you’re writing adult fiction (see: “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since”). But generally speaking, YA and MG stories are narrated in the moment. They’re about a young character and told from a young perspective.
A feeling of heavy nostalgia, or the sense that your character’s life is an idealized one. Once in a while, I’ll meet a young character who thinks things like Being a kid is so great! I don’t have any worries! But since kids have no frame of reference for adulthood, it doesn’t really make sense for them to see youth in an especially positive way—it’s just the air they breathe. And while kid problems, to adult observers, may seem simple in retrospect, in the moment they’re as big and scary and important as the problems we grown-ups deal with. More so, even. So it feels off to me when child characters are totally carefree or constantly appreciate their youth—it feels more like an adult’s nostalgia than something that would genuinely spring from that character. Being a kid, like being any kind of human, is really hard! Resist the temptation to view your character’s childhood through rose-colored glasses.
Relatedly and finally, stories scrubbed clean of darkness—to me, these show the hand of an adult writer. Of course there are parameters to what content can and should appear in books for young people. For instance, a middle-grade book probably shouldn’t have a lot of graphic violence. But even in MG, I don’t want authors to shy away from the dark, complicated, even ugly feelings that we all deal with, no matter our age or what problems we’re facing. Whether your character is exploring faerieland or solving a murder, or dealing with issues in their community, school, or family, I want to see them move through the full range of human emotions. Let them be joyful and curious, but let them be sad or angry or afraid too, if the story calls for it. Every dip and peak of life’s emotional rollercoaster feels HUGE when you’re young, so embrace that when you’re writing from a kid’s perspective.
So there you have it: some pitfalls to steer clear of when finding your kidlit voice. I’m of the opinion that you’ll probably be fine if you just remember that kids, while still growing, are real, complete people with the same range of feeling as adults—only the intensity dial is turned, always, up to eleven! What about you? What problems do you find yourself encountering when writing from a young perspective? What tips and tricks do you use to get into your character’s head?