Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Friday 12 April 2013

Kids are People too... Even when it comes to writing for them

I’ve got a theory.

I’m not talking about YA. I blood hate YA... Sorry, that’s wrong. I don’t hate YA fiction, or those who write it. I only despise the label. I think if a book is good and well-written with a plot and characters, and all the stuff required to spin a fabulous yarn, then it ought to transcend labelling. I also think that labels narrow the reader’s eye view. They don’t expand it. If someone decides they like YA/Gothic/Fantasy, and you offer them a label that tells them that’s what they’re reading, there’s a good chance they won’t ever pick up YA/Gothic/Steampunk or YA/Steampunk/Fantasy, because they honestly think it’s not quite going to hit the spot for them. It is Pish and it is Tosh, and I won’t have it.

Gosh, I am full of feist this morning!

Here is my theory about children, and about telling them stories:

Kids are people too!

I know... It’s radical, isn’t it?

I’ve always been a great believer that the best stories... Really, the only stories are about sex and death, and gods and monsters, and if you can write about at least a couple of those elements in any given story, you stand a chance of piquing the interest of an audience. Of course, as with most things, the more the merrier.

I don’t see why that rule shouldn’t apply to telling stories for kids.

My other thing with kids is that there is absolutely no point condescending to them. I am not the sort of woman who pulls faces at babies, or makes cooing noises. I leave that to other people. I mostly call those people... Well, I won’t tell you what I call them, because it’s not a good written-down word.

Some of you might be feeling sorry for my kids around about now, but, let me tell you, when there are babies around, there is never a shortage of people willing to put their gurning faces up close to them and make babbling noises, so my kids did just fine on that score.

Here’s the fun part of the equation, though...

... Here’s the challenge:

I think it is really, very important to write very clean, very accurate, very grammatically correct prose when writing for children.

I don’t care how they speak, and I don’t care what the modern vernacular suggests, and I really don’t care that they won’t notice. I want the English professor dad to notice! I want the critics to notice, and I want the kids to absorb enough of what’s good to begin to recognise what isn’t. 

Yeah, I know it’s a big ask. I suspect it’s a really big ask, but I also think it ought to be doable, and it ought to be a pleasure. 

There’s another thing, too. I don’t think it’s a good idea to dumb down on language. I don’t think writers for children should throw out half of their vocabulary just because these kids haven’t learned certain long words yet. They're going to have to learn them some time, and there’s a way around that, right? Whatever happened to context? Whatever happened to giving a kid enough other information to make the meaning of a new word apparent on the page. Give him enough other stuff so that he can guess, right? Right!

Give him long words, too, but give him words that he knows and hears all the time. They can be long, but so long as they’re spelled phonetically, he can work them out, right? Of course he can.

I don’t know any writers of children’s fiction, except the husband, and I know he thinks about this stuff... I know he does, because we’ve had some long, fascinating conversations about it all... I promise you we have, because I've made sure of it. 


  1. This reminds me of an essay by the fantasy author Ursula K LeGuin in which she says that writing for children is harder, because children get bored. You've got to keep them captivated, keep them reading and make it something they want to read. They're not afraid to stand up and say 'Well, I'm bored of this now'. You've got to make a conscious effort with talk to them, not at them.

    You're right though, we had a similar discussion about the whole 'YA' thing in a class the other week and we all agreed that it's a load of shit. I've read supposed 'YA' novels that on the surface have been brilliant, easy going narratives but when I really got into the meat of them, have challenged me more than any other book I've read. A story is a story, it's what you bring to it that makes it worth while or not, that's why literature is so exciting.

  2. I was 12 (almost 13) when First and Only was published. Black Library stuff was the fiction of my youth. I don't buy that kids need captivating more than anyone else. It wasn't that long after I had a disagreement with a teacher who knowing I had just read Lord of the Rings had suggested a range of books that my peers were enjoying but which were very much aimed at children. It was really fortunate that Black Library came along with it's brand of easy to digest pulp fiction that interested me as my first forays into my father's bookcase for material involved William Gibson and whilst I loved Neuromancer I did end up reading it twice in a row because the first time I wasn't certain I got everything.

    Considering that background and my love of Greg Wiseman cartoons that persists to this day (and the angry letter I wrote to ITV when they cancelled Reboot mid-series because the storyline would get too dark) I am very much of your thinking with regards not talking down to the audience because they happen to be young. It happens too much in all media aimed at kids when really they're meant to be exposed to stuff and challenged so as to develop into intelligent and interesting people.

    That said look how I turned out. Perhaps those who feel our youth should be sheltered have a point. My general line in arguments when discussing this with friends is that "kids are resilient and even if they're not therapy doesn't have the stigma in today's society that it used to do" which pretty much sums up my position.

    1. I think my answer to that would be that some people are resilient and some less so, and age isn't always a factor in these things as much as personality is.

      You clearly got what you needed when you needed it; the same should be true for all of us.

  3. I think people often find that they have to draw these invisible barriers between things to segregate what doesn't require segregation. YA is one of those things, and I have never understood why there is a need to pigeonhole stories in such a way. I was an advanced reader when I was a child, but that is only due to the availability of good books, and the appropriate reluctance on my mother's part to shield me from 'more advanced' reading. Lines were not required to keep me restrained, and I feel that I benefitted from such freedom.

    I am a new father, and although I fall prey to the gurning/cooing desire (even though I always maintained that it was stupid) I am with you on the anti-dumbing-down front. Let's make some picket signs and march somewhere! Not only are children immpressionable and capable of learning new things, but they also have a huge amount of curiosity too, so they will want to learn new and longer words. If we keep telling them they won't understand these longer words, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.