Jaleigh Johnson: Writing for kids

We’ve got Jaleigh Johnson with us today. I recently enjoyed her new Middle Grade novel, The Mark of the Dragonfly, which has a wonderful premise and setting. Johnson is best known for her contributions to the FORGOTTEN REALMS shared universe, so Middle Grade is a new realm for her. Curious about how she approached this challenge, I asked her what she does differently when she writes for kids. Her response is below and, at the end, she wants to know what YOU are looking for in a story for children. One commenter from the U.S. or Canada will win a copy of The Mark of the Dragonfly.

https://s3.amazonaws.com/fanlit/images/author/JaleighJohnson.jpgI’m asked this question fairly often, and I understand why. Now that The Mark of the Dragonfly is out in the world, I’ve officially written books for adults and a book for a middle-grade audience. I should totally know the difference between writing for kids and grown-ups, right? And I do, to some extent. Certain language and themes in my adult books won’t show up in the kids’ section, of course. But beyond that, I dread the question because I haven’t been able to come up with a good answer.

For example, I say, “Well, when I write for kids I keep the story moving along at a brisk pace to hold the reader’s attention. The Mark of the Dragonfly takes place on a train — it moves constantly. What could be better!”

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsErm, wait a minute. Adults like stories that move at a good pace too. And they like trains. I mean, who doesn’t?

Okay, let’s try again.

“The characters,” I say, “are so important. They have to be relatable. Kids have to see themselves in Piper, Anna, and Gee.”

Um. Except adults like that too.

And on it goes. Sometimes doing a thing is easier than trying to explain how you did it.

Then again, maybe there isn’t as much difference between writing for kids and writing for adults as I thought, and maybe that’s why middle-grade fiction has such broad appeal. Parents are sharing the reading experience with their kids, and I’ve been very happy to see adults responding with enthusiasm to Piper and Anna’s story.

What do you think? What do you look for in a children’s story that’s different from what you see in adult fiction?

Fans of The City of Ember will love The Mark of the Dragonfly, an adventure story set in a magical world that is both exciting and dangerous. Piper has never seen the Mark of the Dragonfly until she finds the girl amid the wreckage of a caravan in the Meteor Fields. The girl doesn’t remember a thing about her life, but the intricate tattoo on her arm is proof that she’s from the Dragonfly Territories and that she’s protected by the king. Which means a reward for Piper if she can get the girl home. The one sure way to the Territories is the 401, a great old beauty of a train. But a ticket costs more coin than Piper could make in a year. And stowing away is a difficult prospect–everyone knows that getting past the peculiar green-eyed boy who stands guard is nearly impossible. Life for Piper just turned dangerous. A little bit magical. And very exciting, if she can manage to survive the journey.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  1. April /

    I agree that there isn’t much difference between the basics of writing stories for adults or children.

    I think what I find different about middle grade fiction, above and beyond certain language and themes that are avoided for children is a sense of wonder, hope and love. A great deal of adult fiction these days are missing one or more of those.

  2. What April said. When I read middle grade or YA, I generally hope to find more upbeat stories. That hasn’t been true of YA for a while. I’ve been avoiding YA due to the angst, the high school themes, the too-typical characterization…and heaven help us, love triangles!

  3. Sandyg265 /

    I don’t read a lot of YA because so many are full of teenaged angst. But I enjoy finding one that isn’t.

  4. Sarah /

    I read MG books for the honest feelings that are allowed to be expressed by the characters. It seems like books for older readers are often all about the heavier, darker emotions of love/lust or revenge or pain and angst. The MG books I enjoy still allow light into their pages and let the reader fall into that world of wonder for the time it takes to read the story. Even when the subject matter is not light and fluffy, they tend to still have room for hope and redemption and love. Room for family and friends and pets and dreams.

  5. Yeah, I agree with what the previous commenters have said. It’s why I dread picking up a YA novel these days (so much angst!) but eagerly pick up a MG novel. I find these wondrous and hopeful, even when there’s actually pain and suffering involved. Also, in adult novels, I’m tired of sex scenes that leave nothing to the imagination. I actually find them dull and mechanical. Fortunately, you never find that in MG.

  6. April /

    Yes, MG is blissfully devoid of awkward, annoying and plot-useless sex scenes. Another good reason to enjoy them and a way to distinguish between MG and adult books.

  7. Sarah Webb /

    And something that came to mind today was that MG can have absolutely ridiculous plots and amazing adventures and it’s okay. Readers just buy into in and celebrate it because I think we all want to be that kid pirate with her own ship, or the girl with all the magic, or live in a castle that moves all the rooms around. Who wouldn’t want to find that book in the library that lets you become a wizard. I really, really wanted to find that book.

  8. Danny Whittaker /

    I agree that MG allows for more imaginative worlds that can just be fun, crazy and magical without the adult themes, politics, and more intense scenes. As a slow reader I find them easier to choose than the next tome from (bestseller adult fantasy author) although.I like those, too. Also, as a parent, I’m keeping an eye out for stories that I can soon share with my children. Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence and Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven series are favorites.

  9. Danny Whitaker, if you live in the USA or Canada, you win a copy of The Mark of the Dragofly!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

  10. Danny Whittaker /

    Wow! Thank you so much! I look forward to reading it.


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