Browse the children’s book section of any vintage bookstore and you’ll likely discover books written with the sole purpose of teaching young readers a lesson. Rather than looking to capture a child’s imagination, many children’s books from decades ago are light on storytelling and heavy on sending a virtuous message.
Today, young readers are too savvy for books whose aim is simply to teach them something. They want to be entertained and to get lost in a story. As writers of children’s books, we want to give kids the stories they crave, but we don’t want our stories to be all fluff and no substance.
How do we strike a balance?
We sat down with children’s author and editor Amanda Cleary Eastep to discuss her new children's series and how to write books for kids that offer strong themes without being too preachy. She offers three helpful suggestions.
Why are you writing for children? What is the underlying reason you’re writing this book?
“The term ‘moral imagination’ . . . was something I was able to grab onto. It gave words to my why. Why am I doing what I’m doing?” — Amanda Cleary Eastep
Amanda’s why is her desire to help form the moral imagination of children through story. The goal isn’t to directly instruct kids in virtuous behavior. The goal is to use story to engage their imaginations through images and metaphors and guide them towards an underlying message.
Once you’ve determined your why, it’s helpful to decide on an underlying theme for your children’s book. It will likely be invisible to your readers at first glance, but your theme will help shape the story as it makes its way to the page.
Your theme is likely the reason you want to write a book for kids in the first place, and may come from your own childhood experience. Personal experience is a great well to draw from when writing children’s literature.
Perhaps you want to explore fear, friendship, or acceptance. How will this inform your message? How will you use the story to show and not tell it?
Your story isn’t just a vehicle for information or training, especially when it comes to writing for children. Stories are meant to stir the reader’s imagination and help them subtly grasp your message without being knocked over the head with it.
As a writer, storytelling is your skillset. This is what you do — you tell great stories filled with strong characters, interesting conflict, and imaginative metaphors and images. Continue to develop these skills with your underlying theme in mind, and your message will shine through the storyline in a way that engages kids, rather than pushing them away from it.
One simple way to learn to write amazing stories for kids that don’t sound preachy is to read children’s literature regularly. Study the greats and inevitably your storytelling will improve. We’d love to hear in the comments: What are your personal favorites from childhood?
Want to know more about the nitty gritty of structuring a children’s story? Amanda offers even more helpful advice in her conversation with hope*writers. Click here for free access to our entire conversation and take one step towards balancing the art of writing with the business of publishing.