Writing for Kids

Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. My guest today is Sarah Beth Durst. Durst is the author of nine fantasy novels for children, teens, and adults, including (click link to read our reviews) ConjuredVessel, and Ice. Her new middle-grade novel, The Girl Who Could Not Dream, which Tadiana loves, is from HMH/Clarion Books, and her next novel for adults, The Queen of Blood, comes out in fall 2016 from Harper Voyager. Sarah was awarded the 2013 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature and has been a finalist for SFWA’s Andre Norton Award three times. She attended Princeton University, where she spent four years studying English, writing about dragons, and wondering what the campus gargoyles would say if they could talk. Sarah lives in Stony Brook, New York, with her husband and two children.

Sarah Beth Durst

Sarah Beth Durst

The best part about writing for kids is that you can write about a rainbow-pooping unicorn completely unironically.

His name is Glitterhoof.


A lot of people think of writing for kids in terms of what they think you can’t do: you can’t make it a thousand pages long, you can’t use archaic words that even Scrabble rejects, you can’t have your characters do things that would make the Nature Channel blush…

And to a certain extent that’s true. You can’t write an epic tome composed entirely of adults downing whisky… I mean, you can certainly write such a book, and it could be fabulous, but it wouldn’t be shelved next to Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time.

But what I’ve found in writing for kids is that it is much more about what you CAN do than about what you CAN’T. When you write for kids, you can be silly and you can be sad, all in the same story. You can let your imagination run wild and concentrate on making the story whatever that little ten-year-old stuck in your subconscious wants it to be.

My upcoming novel, The Girl Who Could Not Dream (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / Clarion Books, Nov 2015), is about a girl whose family owns a secret store where they buy, bottle, and sell dreams, and the adventure that she and her pet monster go on when someone starts kidnapping dreamers. And I had such a fantastic time writing it, because of the freedom inherent in writing a novel about a character who has not lost her sense of wonder.

Also because of the monster.

And the rainbow-pooping unicorn.

But a lot because of the sense of wonder.

rsz_girlcover_hiresFor me, one of the reasons that I love fantasy is that I believe fantasy literature has (or can have) the power to restore a sense of wonder to a jaded world. I love when you close a book and feel that the world is just a bit larger and more magical than it was before. I believe this can be true of fantasy books regardless of whether they’re for kids, teens, or adults. It just varies as to the kind of wonder.

In a kid’s book, the wonder is a first-time kind of wonder. What I mean by that is when you write about a twelve year old character, you have the opportunity to write about someone who is experiencing that larger, more magical world for the first time. You have the chance to see that world through their eyes.

And in doing so, you can experience that silly and sad and scary and funny and fun for the first time all over again. Completely unironically.

Readers, what is your favorite SF/F kids book? What does it do that a book written for adults could not? One random commenter (US only, alas!) will win a signed copy of The Girl Who Could Not Dream.

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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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  1. Sarah Beth, thanks for the lively essay!

  2. Great essay! Thank you for your contribution.

    I’d never really thought about writing for kids in this way before. Probably because I’m not optimistic enough. BUT, I see what you are saying, and it makes perfect sense.

    For me, since I’m not a huge fan of fantasy, I always talk about the difference between YA fantasy and adult fantasy in terms of two tendencies: YA fantasy is almost always character-based first. World-building is done second. So, there’s this kid, and these mean people make him sleep under the stairs. His name is Harry.

    I think, “his life sucks, I want to hear more about this poor kid.” And if I’m interested, I might keep reading long enough to find out about this world he lives in.

    I often feel like Tolkien and his followers have it reversed: There is a WORLD, it is a fascinating world, with a CULTURE, and a LANGUAGE (with such inventiveness the author must be a scholar in Old English or at least want to be one). Five hundred pages later: Oh, there’s this guy who lives in this WORLD. But I’m not still reading, so I never find out about this guy.

    I’m joking in my presentation, but that’s how it feels to me because I don’t like long world-building books. If I’m going to read a long book, I’d rather read a ninetieth-century British or Russian novel. I’m serious. Those are long books I LOVE to read. But a long fantasy novel? Generally, no.

    However, Harry Potter is long. But I got sucked in by characters. And just recently I’ve discovered Elric, and I think it can appeal to YA as well as adults because it is character based. I’m just getting initiated into the Fritz Lieber’s fantasy novels which, appropriately, are named after two characters. The only fantasy I liked as a kid was Prydain because it focused on Taran, but after I read that series, nobody gave me anything good. I was in my late 20s before Potter came out.

    So, I’m coming to fantasy late, and I’m having to either read YA novels or go back in time and find the short fantasy works for adults. I’ve read a few collections of Eric stories and novels, but the novels within the collections are usually no longer than 150 pages long! That’s perfect.

    So, I guess I get that one of the positives for writing YA fantasy is that you CAN write short fantasy novels. It seems like fantasy novels for adults are not even allowed to be short anymore. What happened?

    As a side note, I hoped that SF novels, which were always short, would have a positive influence on the length of fantasy novels. But nope, it turned out the other way around. Now everybody is writing long SF novels, too!

    I’d have to say my favorite fantasy series for kids is, as I mentioned above, the tales of Prydain. Prydain was my sole venture into fantasy as a child (save for Lewis, which has soured for me over the years in one way and not in another–intellectually, I find Narnia a fascinating development of Lewis’s ideas in terms of the planets and cosmological associations–there is an academic and a popular book on this analysis by the same author–but on the other hand, I find them incredibly boring to read. Why didn’t anybody give me ELRIC when I was a kid?!).

  3. Thanks for this. I’m going to approach this from the perspective of Jurassic Park. I liked Jurassic World, a lot (dinosaurs after all). And I’m glad they’re doing another because even the weak JP movies are fun (dinosaurs after all). But I’ve had enough of dinosaurs chasing people and cynical adults and teens. I want a prequel movie. I want to see the scientists who first figured out how to do this and then did it a step at a time. I want to see that “wonder” in their eyes. I want that movie to be about creation, not destruction. Love, not fear. Wonder, not greed. YA does that well, not exclusively, but maybe they should consider bringing in a YA author and the folks at Pixar . ..

  4. Irvin K /

    Unlike adult books, kids books (and I’m including YA with them) get to the point. We shan’t spend two hundred pages wandering around villages looking at the leaves before any story happens, because kids don’t have time for that. That’s why I’m still reading YA even though I’ve aged out of the demographic (23).

    The other thing is that I find adult books often have to prove to the reader just how adult they are. Everyone is always having sex and talking in swearwords and taking drugs. I don’t object to any of those things in my stories, but I don’t want to be beaten over the head with them time and again, just to prove that it is in fact an Adult Book.

    And while my answer may not be original, my favorite SFF kids book is Harry Potter. Because duh. ;)

  5. This book sounds like lots of fun and I love the cover!

  6. This is a wonderful post! I always find it interesting to read about what the authors have to say. One of my favorite middle grade books (from this year) was Finding Serendipity by Angelica Banks. It was a really cute story with a good dose of magic, and a lightheartedness that was refreshing and something I probably wouldn’t have found in an adult book.

  7. Irvin K, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of The Girl Who Could Not Dream !
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

  8. Irvin K /

    *does Snoopy dance of joy*

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  1. This week’s round-up of middle grade science fiction and fantasy from around the blogs (11/1/15) « Teens Update - […] Sarah Beth Durst (The Girl Who Could Not Dream) at Fantasy Literature […]

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