Lessons in Writing for Children

by Joy Neaves

“I don’t write for children, I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”
—Maurice Sendak

My workshop, Heart of the Story, is deeply informed by the teaching I’ve done at the namelos writers workshop, alongside editor and publisher Stephen Roxburgh and award-winning children’s book author, Carolyn Coman. An innovative workshop of its kind, the namelos intensive helps children's book writers approach revision not on a portion of their work, but with a focus on the whole. The structure of each workshop differs greatly, but the aim of each is similar: to help writers find the core of their overall story so that they can refine and shape each scene and chapter with an eye toward precision, honing their manuscripts for submission to publishers.

The Heart of the Story workshop comprises two elements: craft lectures & facilitated critique, supplemented with suggested exercises, readings, and resources to support writers’ work as needed. During critique, we use a method of storyboarding. I learned about this tool for revision from Carolyn Coman and teach students to use it to analyze various aspects of their works in progress, from plot, to setting, to tone, to character development, to dialogue. It’s a particularly useful technique for examining structure, and seeing holes or glitches in a developing work.

Sharing a storyboard of a full manuscript serves a dual purpose in the workshop: it gives fellow participants in the workshop a view of the writer’s overall aim (without the need to read 10 or 12 novels), and it gives the writer a tool for analyzing and ultimately self-editing their work. It helps us avoid a common pitfall of writing workshops: developing a highly polished first chapter that may or may not serve the work’s overall intention. Instead, students discover that they may have created multiple chapters that serve the same purpose, or that the true beginning of their story is fifty pages into their manuscript, that a particularly beloved character must go, or a beautifully written scene simply does not serve their overall aim. The process of storyboarding can help writers find the most essential aspects of their stories and bring focus, clarity, and precision to each scene and chapter in a longer work of fiction.

Children’s books are not easy to write and readers hold them to the same critical standards that they hold other literature. The characters must be appealing, the point of view consistent, the setting vivid. In other words, all aspects of craft must be top-notch. Think of classic children’s literature, such as Treasure Island, The Secret Garden, The Hobbit, Charlotte’s Web, The BFG, Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, A Single Shard, and the list goes on. The words that comprise a strong narrative must be precise; every word, every sentence, every scene, every chapter must serve a purpose toward the overall aim. I push students to look at the bigger picture. When my students resist, we talk about why. This conversation is often the most fruitful and productive. If I can figure out why a student is resisting a sound editorial recommendation, I can begin to see their overall aim more clearly and we can determine ways to work together toward accomplishing their intention. Our critique sessions do raise questions about topics that are specific to children’s literature: what a child’s point of view lends a story; coming of age & loss of innocence; the role of adults and how they mustn’t be didactic; whether we can write about sex and violence; which subjects are still taboo; and ways to make it seem as if animals really do talk. However, the true focus of our workshop is about how to hold our work accountable to the same critical standards that we hold all literature.

As an instructor, my greatest hope for my students is that they come to understand that there is no one right way to set about this work, that they must find their own way. I encourage students to develop a filter for the critical feedback they receive in the workshop: which feedback strikes a chord with them in terms of what they hope to accomplish. I want students to come into the workshop setting with open minds and hearts and give themselves the time and the space necessary for seeing, really seeing, into their work as well as the work of their fellow participants. I want to offer students a fresh perspective and the necessary insight to accomplish the great task of entertaining and delighting young readers.

I see the most growth from student writers who are not afraid of reworking, of trying things out. Most of my students hunger for critical feedback and are thirsty for community. They understand that writing is a social, not a solitary, act and they do not write in a vacuum. Instead they seek programs like the Great Smokies Writing Program, an invaluable place in our community where writers gather and build relationships that carry forward into their lives in meaningful ways. Incidentally, one of the greatest unexpected joys for me as an instructor has been the friendships I’ve discovered and built with student writers. At the end of the day, like Sendak, my students are not writing for children as much as they are writing to gain insights into themselves and to speak to something universal about the human condition for children and adults alike, including me.

Joy Neaves is a teacher, editor, administrator and mother of two with over fifteen years of experience as an editor of children’s literature, first from Front Street, an award-winning publisher of books for children and later at Boyds Mills Press. She is currently a freelance editor of children's books at namelos, and a project manager at CAKE Websites. She has taught for the Highlights Foundation, the North Carolina Humanities Council, the namelos writers workshop, and has presented at the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators conferences. She has been teaching in the Great Smokies Writing Program since 2009.