By Alyse Mgrdichian
In the world of writing, people tend to assume that picture books and middle grade fiction are easier to execute than adult literature: “They’re shorter! The less words there are, the easier the project will be.” Wrong. Very wrong. If anything, the economy of words presents a new struggle — how do you tell an effective story and make young audiences care within a limited page length? Picture books, for example, are typically 32 pages (with illustrations taking up most of the space), while a middle grade novel tends to be anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 words.
I could turn this into a whole writing blog, but there’s already so much info out there about the technical stuff: creating titles, drafting strong beginnings, building tension, delivering a satisfying payoff, etc. These things all pull the reader in — but how do you then connect with them and make them stay? How do you keep them invested in the journey of the main character (and doing all of this, mind you, within a page limit)? The answer is simple: real kids connect with relatable characters.
Although the external stakes are compelling, the characters themselves do most of the legwork. Why? It’s because of the things they go through, and the responses they have to their circumstances. Humans are complicated, and so are children — they feel complex emotions, although they may not always have the words for it, and they’re learning about the world as they go. In this way, regardless of whether the characters are human or not, they need to feel human and have human problems.
For example, you could tell a story about a dog going to the dog park, eating treats with his owner, and going home … but aside from the inherent love people tend to have for dogs, why should kids care about Sparky’s big day?
Maybe he has never been to the dog park before, and is nervous about whether or not he’ll make new friends — this mirrors lots of “first day at school” experiences that children have, which builds an emotional connection between the reader and character. For example, I can personally commiserate with Sparky, because I’ve never been the best at making good first impressions or being sociable. But if Sparky can make new friends, maybe I can too!
This brings me to an important point, though — kids are smarter than you think they are. If you spell out the “moral of the story” for them, you’re insulting their intelligence (and they can tell). So, how do you combat the urge to overshare? Show, don’t tell.
If you’ve heard that advice before, you’re probably rolling your eyes because it is so often said. However, when it comes to connecting with children, it’s especially true. The last thing they want (or need) is another lecture or heavy-handed fable.
For example, instead of saying “Sparky made friends because he got out of his comfort zone,” show him doing it through action. Show him nervous, show him awkward, show him ashamed, show him brave. Kids will be able to look at that and see the connection between Sparky’s life and their own, without you having to explicitly tell them.
And with more complex emotions, like grief, the answer is not to tell kids how they should feel or how they should respond to their circumstances. Instead, through compelling characters, you can show the consequences of human choices (with varying levels of simplicity, depending on the age range of your readers).
Take, for example, My Big Dumb Invisible Dragon (Angie Lucas) and A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness). Both deal with grief, and the forms grief may take … however, Lucas’s story is a picture book, while Ness’s story is for middle grade readers.
With My Big Dumb Invisible Dragon, we see the dragon representing the young narrator’s grief, which he is trying desperately to get rid of. It always ruins everything, and makes him feel and do weird things. We feel for the narrator, and cheer as he learns to live peacefully with his dragon. A young reader can comprehend the narrator’s emotions because they are put both simply and concisely — and thinking of their emotions as a dragon could, ultimately, help young children put into words the feelings they cannot name.
On the other hand, the narrator of A Monster Calls is 13. In this story, Ness delves deeper into the specific emotions that grief can bring, such as rage and isolation. When we feel powerless, we want to feel powerful. When we feel invisible, we want to be seen, whatever the cost. And A Monster Calls ultimately teaches the reader that people are complicated beasts, rarely ever just good or bad — and that not every story has a fairy tale ending.
Here we see a bit more articulation than in My Big Dumb Invisible Dragon, because the reader is assumed to be a bit older. And while the narrator’s mother is already dead in My Big Dumb Invisible Dragon, the main character in A Monster Calls must grapple with the inevitability of his mother’s death, as her chemo treatments begin to prove ineffective.
As we read both of these stories, we feel the characters’ loneliness, confusion, and hope — because we are them, and they are us. Granted, I’m not literally either character, and neither are you. However, we can still put ourselves into the shoes of others … and more often than not, children can too. Why? Because we may come from different backgrounds, but we feel the same things: rage, grief, loneliness, powerlessness, embarrassment, envy, etc.
That’s the power of empathy, of human connection. Whether young or old, we learn by watching others, and children are especially aware of this (and skilled at it, too). When they read about an imperfect (i.e., relatable) character, they’re able to see their own lives and experiences lived out vicariously through the story, learning more about themselves, others, and the world as a result. That’s what ties the soul of your story to the soul of your reader, making them stay for good.
Article originally Published in the February / March 2022 Issue: Connection