Guest Post: Liesl Shurtliff on Writing for Children

LieslLiesl Shurtliff was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the mountains for her playground. Just like Rump, Liesl was shy about her name, growing up. Not only did it rhyme with weasel, she could never find it on any of those personalized key chains in gift shops. But over the years she’s grown to love having an unusual name—and today she wouldn’t change it for the world!
Before she became a writer, Liesl graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in music, dance, and theater. She now lives in Chicago with her husband and three young children, where she still dreams of the mountains. Rump is her first novel.

 

 

Writing for Children is Fun—and Hard

By Liesl Shurtliff

 

When I tell people that I write books for children, the most common reaction is “Fun!” And it is fun. It absolutely is. But underneath that reaction I can’t help but feel there is the assumption that writing for children is easy-peasy, pudding and pie. While I won’t pretend that a children’s novel has the same complexities (not to mention length) as Dickens or Hemingway, the art of writing for children can be deceptively difficult, to the point that that I believe it could prove a challenge for any author. 

Children are humans. (Surprise!) At a young age they comprehend the most fundamental experiences life has to offer—joy and pain, choice and consequence, fun and boring. Ah! Boring. There’s one of the challenges right there. Though children understand a great deal about life experience, they are limited in their brain development and ability to delay gratification, which means they don’t have a lot of patience for boring.

In a day when there are so many distractions and awesome forms of entertainment, it’s a real challenge to write books that grab kids’ attention and holds it to the end. Gone are the days when we children’s writers can write lengthy paragraphs of descriptions, or three chapters of backstory and character development before the real story begins. A children’s writer could get away with that a hundred years ago, before televisions, video games, and iPhones were an option, but do that today and your reader will likely put down your book and skip straight to the computer for some instant gratification.

Now I’m sure many people are groaning right now, moaning that kids these days don’t develop any patience and we’re only making the problem worse by not requiring them to endure some amount of boredom. And I agree! Enduring and solving boredom is actually an important lesson that must be learned, but in defense of the child in question, the act of reading in and of itself requires quite a bit of patience on their part, especially in the beginning when reading and comprehension take more effort. Why should they have to work so hard for something that is laborious in and of itself? Save it for the college textbooks. In the beginning reading should be fun or they’re not going to see why they should bother.

Is this to say that children’s stories then must be flat and shallow, or plough ahead at breakneck speed without pausing for breath? No! Kids don’t like that either. They might not have a lot of patience, but they’re still capable of having complex thoughts and emotions. They still require dynamics and depth, peaks and valleys. And therein lies another challenge. We must cut the boring but still find a way to weave in all the depth and meaning into the characters and story that starts on page one and hold their attention until the very end. We must do more with less. Every page must flow and sing.

Writing for children takes some serious thought, analysis, revision and editing. In short, it takes a lot of work, but when I see a kid devouring one of my books, it fills me with unspeakable joy. It makes my job, as most people would assume, fun.  

RRH