Writing Novels for Today’s Kids

Newberry Honor winning author Gennifer Choldenko spoke at the LA SCBWI 2010 annual conference. The following notes were taken during her keynote speech on how to write novels for today’s kids.

Are Today’s Kids Different Than When We Were Kids?

  • Do kids grow up faster now that when we were kids? True? Each child and age group has a huge range of behaviors.
  • Kids are more outwardly sophisticated today than we were as kids. But on the inside they are the same.
  • It’s hard work growing up.

Why Was A Wrinkle In Time So Successful?

  • Great characters.
  • Original Story.
  • No Fat.
  • It’s not the Newbery that makes the book still resonate with kids today.
  • Another book that still has resonance today is The Little Princess. And it’s over 100 years old!

We Need More Multi-Cultural Authors!

  • Kids need to see voices that reflect their circumstances in life.

How to Get Boy Readers…

  • Ask yourself if you can compete with Xbox. Video games are getting more complex rather than shorter, they also have more action.
  • We need books that reflect the emotional reality of boy’s lives.
  • Kids don’t start reading at age 14. Publishers don’t only want YA. They need readers early so they will grow into YA. Think through what you hear.
  • Human beings need stories!

How Publishing and Media is Evolving…

  • The delivery systems (for books) are expanding!
  • The industry is not getting easier to break into, but there are now more doors/ways for books to be published.

On Writing For Kids…

  • “Write up for kids, not down.” – E.B. White
  • Childhood is a lot harder than it looks. Dig deep.

Craft and The Writing Process…

  • What you experience while you are writing is what we (the reader) will experience when reading.
  • Don’t trick-out your protagonist and no one else. Be sure everyone is three-dimensional.
  • Pay attention to how people walk, talk, etc. Be a notorious eves dropper.
  • Every detail must work within the context of the world you have created.
  • If you’re not totally engaged in your work, then something is wrong.
  • No set-up scenes! Each scene must be gratifying within itself.
  • If every risk you take pans out, then you may not really be risking much.
  • Push your protagonist. Readers like to see a protagonist do something they (the reader) would never do.
  • Put your characters in the lion’s cage and see who they really are.
  • Skill matters! Varying levels of practice is more important than talent. It’s about the time!

Clever Quotes and Anecdotes…

  • “Once you have your first draft, re-read to see what you have been avoiding.” – Her editor
  • “The idea for my next novel is contained in the scribble my subconscious hands me.” – Choldenko
  • “Next time fail better.” -?
  • “You need to feel your way through a novel, not think your way.” – Mailer (?)
  • “Throw your heart over, and follow.”  -?

Take Care of Your Writer Self…

  • Keep the caffeine flowing (or not.)
  • Stay away from toxic people (who want to tear you down).
  • Make yourself the time to read and write!

Set Small Goals…

  • BIC = Butt in Chair
  • Try to make a page count or word count for the day!
  • Beware of quantity over quality.

And a Few Other Words of Wisdom…

  • Critique groups are not for everyone.
  • Don’t let promotion overshadow your work.
  • Make sure you have a book worth marketing.
  • Know when to hold on and when to let go. Follow your guy. It’s a visceral decision.
  • Rejection happens. Get used to it.
  • No one can teach you to write. You have to teach yourself. It’s done through writing!

Gennifer Choldenko’s novel Al Capone Does My Shirts was a Newbery Honor Book and a a School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year. Other books by Choldenko include: Notes from a Liar and Her Dog, If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, and No Passengers Beyond this Point.

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5 thoughts on “Writing Novels for Today’s Kids

  1. Thanks, Ingrid! There’s amazing info here. This is encouraging for me as my MG novel is complex and action filled. (I was afraid it might be too advanced for MG readers.)

    The only part that surprised me is about the critique groups. All the good writers I know had groups that helped them learn to write. I’m a big crit-group advocate.

    Thanks again for your devoted reporting! :-)

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