children reading books, tween literature

The right level of language can make or break a book for children. Learn what kinds of English to avoid when writing for kids.

– by Helen Brain

It’s important to choose the kind of English that modern children speak. If it is many years since a writer last read a book for children, and particularly if they don’t have daily contact with kids, their writing may be difficult for children to read.

To write a successful book for children, watch out for these five crucial language errors:

Language that is overly formal, using more Latinate than Anglo Saxon words. This makes the writing stiff and colourless. E.g. ‘Mother purchased a number of items and proceeded to prepare the evening meal,’ is much better as ‘Mother bought a few things and started making supper.’

Here are more examples of overly formal Latinate words, and their friendlier Ango Saxon counterparts:

Anglo Saxon will have ‘tell’, Latin will have ‘relate’.
Anglo Saxon will have worried, Latin perplexed,
Anglo Saxon’s ‘simple talk’ will become the ‘complicated’ Latin ‘converse’, and ‘hide’ becomes ‘conceal’.
In its extreme forms, used by people who wish to play down the severity of something, ‘kill’ becomes ‘exterminate’.

Old fashioned or antiquated words. Don’t use old-fashioned words like ‘disquietude, transpired, bid farewell’ unless they relate directly to the way a character speaks. Particularly, don’t let the narrator use old-fashioned language (unless essential to the plot or setting) as the narrator’s voice is heard more than any other. E.g. ‘Her spirit was filled with disquietude after all that had transpired, and she bade farewell to the assembled company and left.’

Overly poetic phrases, unless this is essential to your personal voice. Too much poetic writing becomes irritating or difficult to negotiate for a young reader. In picture books, poetic language is encouraged, but the reader has the advantage of the illustration to help work out what is happening in the story. But in books for older kids keep it to the minimum.

For example, this kind of writing would never work for a young audience: ‘The dripping, dropping dewdrops dawdled on the rosebush. I gathered arms of roses, sprinkled petals on the path, waiting for the morning sun to light their rainbow colours with his radiance.’

Sentences that are too complicated for the age group. Children’s ability to negotiate sentences with complications like sub-clauses, multiple ideas or which use the passive voice, develop over time. Introduce them too young, and the reader will struggle to work out what you are trying to say.

Writing that is too simple for the age group. Children are quick to feel patronized, and if the writer is speaking down to them, and the level is too easy, they may discard the book. The exception is second language readers, where the writing level is traditionally about two years below what a child can negotiate in their first language.

young boy reading a book, advertising the Write a Children's Book Course at The Writers College

Learn to Write for Children at the Right Level

It’s important to listen to how children really speak, not to rely on memory. Notice their speech patterns, the kinds of words they use, the way they respond to one another in a conversation. Taking the time to study children’s speech is the equivalent of a painter drawing a portrait from memory, or drawing with the model in front of him or her.

About the Author:

Helen Brain is the author of over 30 books for children, and has contributed stories and plays to numerous school anthologies. Her teen novel, Tamara won an ATKV award. She has also published short stories for adults, and her highly acclaimed memoir, Here Be Lions was published by Oshun in 2006.

Helen is the tutor for the popular Basics of Creative Writing Course as well as the Write a Children’s Book Course.

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