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Poop references build credibility (and other tips for writing for children)

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BY KEN KEFFER

People sometimes question how I can be a children’s writer when I don’t even have kids. It helps to know kids, and as a naturalist and environmental educator, I work with thousands of youth every year. Some would also argue I never grew up. Either way, I’ve used my degree in wildlife biology and excitement for the outdoors to connect with kids by writing (along with co-author Stacy Tornio) four books including a 2013 National Outdoor Book Award Honorable Mention winner. Here are my top tips for writing for children:
Know your audience:
This is important to keep in mind no matter what audience you are targeting, but it is especially critical when writing for children. Content and style should always be age appropriate. While 18 and under might pass for youth in many situations, your audience will never be that broad with children’s writing. A common breakdown when writing for kids is picture books, early childhood, middle reader and young adult. Each category requires special attention to word choice, style and structure. Also keep in mind that poop references can build credibility with any youth audience.
Don’t talk down to children:
This should go without saying, but it is so important that I’ll say it anyway. Don’t talk down to children. They aren’t simply miniature versions of adults. They are thinking and learning while reading and it is your job as the writer to help facilitate this mental growth.
Simple is ok:
One thing I’ve noticed is that many adults tend to forget that childhood is full of enthusiasm and a sense of wonder. I view it as my role to fully encourage this view of the outdoors. Everything is new and exciting. One of the early reviews for The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book reinforced this for me. The reviewer was initially disappointed when reading over some of the simple activities we’d highlighted, such as watching clouds float by, skipping rocks, making a snow angel and rolling down a hill like a log. But when the reviewer shared the book with her grandchildren they liked and wanted to do those activities. Also remember that simple is not the same as talking down to your audience.
Complex is also ok:
Don’t shy away from complex topics or using the correct terms — just be sure to define them in proper context. You don’t have to present them as vocabulary words. Give an example to explain what you mean. When presenting to classes I’ll often state the science terms, but then I will assure the students they won’t have to remember the word until they get to college. It’s much more important that they understand the concepts. I don’t expect first graders to learn the term subnivean, but I do need them to understand that critters are scurrying around beneath the snow. It is the same when writing for youth audiences. Examples will help make complex topics more understandable.
Keep it fun:
While some kids are active readers, not everyone shares this enthusiasm. Making reading fun can be especially critical for the younger audiences. While anthropomorphism can be used as a technique to make animals relatable, I avoid it in my nonfiction work. Facts can still be presented in a friendly and approachable way, and I will still use human examples as a comparison.
Illustrations can set the tone:
The visual appeal can be critical with kids’ books. I find describing illustration styles as complex as describing wines. We went with a “whimsical and yet sophisticated” style and insist on accurate illustrations for our work. The writing style coupled with the illustrations together set the tone. Visuals can make or break a children’s project.
Make it interactive:
Kids like to do things. There was a small debate on whether or not including a checklist of actions would feel like homework for kids in my first book. Action items aren’t chores for kids. Instead they are accomplishments. Lots of writing presents a call to action. With children’s writing this can be as simple as stepping outside to play or as encompassing as saving the world. Don’t underestimate kids and they’ll never leave you disappointed.
While it is rarely lucrative, I find writing about nature and the outdoors for youth audiences to be especially inspiring work.Contrary to some the widespread stereotype, it isn’t any easier to write for kids than adults. Writing for children isn’t that much different than writing for any other audience. The most important key is to know your audience. Every other tip goes back to this concept. ♦
– Ken Keffer writes kids’ nature books from his home base in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Additionally, he is an active freelance writer for both youth and adult audiences and is a regular contributor to Birds & Blooms magazine. He was awarded the OWAA’s 2014 Madson Fellowship. 
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