Writing for tweens and teens? In this post, we give you eight insights into writing for middle-grade (tween) and young adult (teen) readers as a fiction author.
Writing For Tweens & Teens?
Unless you’re a plucky teenage genius, you will probably be writing for pre-teen and teenagers as an adult author who is aiming to capture market.
Broadly, you could be writing for children between the ages of 9 and 12 (tween), or between 13 and 18 (teen).
For some writers this is a daunting task. For others, writing for a younger age group comes effortlessly.
Whether you’re a natural or simply seeing a gap in a lucrative niche in publishing, you shouldn’t start writing without doing research into the market. You also need to read and study as many stories as possible.
Insights To Help You Find A Niche As A Children’s Author
To make it easier, we have grouped eight insights that will help you discover the best age group, genre and plot for your story. This will decide your ‘sweet spot’ as an author that reaches as wide a readership as possible.
It will help you understand the market; and lay the foundation for a strong and compelling author brand.
Writing For Tweens & Teens? 8 Insights For Middle Grade & Young Adult Authors
Know Your Age Categories
Many new authors overlook the importance of age segments for children’s literature. It starts with knowing the age of the reader, so that you can ‘visualise’ that ideal reader as you write.
Publishers segment fairly clearly. One can see these clear lines in both online and brick-and-mortar shops, too. For tweens or middle grade fiction, Amazon groups 9 to 12 age groups in the same way a large, urban store might. However, there are slight overlaps in certain categories.
Some stores may divide teen fiction into two distinct sections. The first is for ‘teens’ between ages 12 and 15. Victoria Aveyard’s Broken Throne published by Harper Teens is a good example.
The second is aimed at a slighter older group, young adults (YA) between ages 16 and 18. A great example is the more mature Fire With Fire by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian published by Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers.
With more than half of the readers of young adult fiction are adults over the age of 18, this distinction makes sense.
Match Genre To Age Group
Fantasy and magic, adventure, science fiction, and romance are some popular genres for this market.
However, at this stage of their lives, young people are fired by curiosity and prone to imagination and the need for escapism. It’s important to know what themes or plots within the genre will appeal to the ideal reader.
Kids are ruthless in choosing entertainment. They want something that immediately grabs their interest. More than that, they want stories that reflect their lives and the issues they may be grappling with at a certain life stage. The books must feel authentic.
With this is mind, a good idea is to make the characters in the story a year or two older than your ideal reader. For example, if your main character is 12 years old, your ideal readers would be between 9 and 11.
Build A Brand
As with adult fiction, younger readers are drawn to authors for certain reasons. They could like your storytelling voice, a large part of J K Rowling’s success with Harry Potter. They could love the setting or the types of characters and plots you create. All of these things start to build your brand.
Will Mabbitt is not only a great storyteller, but he is also a superb marketer. He writes for children under eight, but also for older kids.
For his tween readers he writes funny action stories for girls in The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones. For the boys in the middle-school category, he writes quirky ‘horror’ stories in a series called Embassy of the Dead.
In building a brand, a series or a strong recurring character can help build memory structures with young readers. This keeps them coming back for more.
Understand That Parents Have The Purchasing Power
Our parents are often the first people to introduce us to reading as kids. It makes sense that parents will buy books from authors they like to pass on to their children.
Which is why a parent who likes Wilbur Smith adventure books for adults will buy Cloudburst for their pre-teen. The book features Jack Courtney, a 14-year old boy from the iconic Courtney family created by this bestselling author.
That’s not to say you must first be a celebrity or a global bestselling author. But, be aware of how you will get your books into the consideration sets of parents, teachers, and librarians.
As a writer, it’s good to do your homework. See how kids are accessing stories. Find out what they are watching on Netflix and Disney Plus, etc.
Today, you can buy Kindle Kids Edition, which comes with recommended reads, a built-in dictionary and parental controls, so parents can limit what types of books the child can access. Both kids and parents can track reading progress.
Don’t Imitate The Greats
Some writers try to emulate storytellers who influenced them as children. This is almost always a mistake.
Only Enid Blyton can get away with the cheerful wholesomeness of 40s Britain (only fans will overlook her expositional dialogue). There is nostalgia and fondness for books that form part of our culture. That doesn’t mean we can replicate them.
Roald Dahl’s unpretentious style and twisted humour remain popular. He is listed as one of the great storytellers. But, the author’s crude stereotypes of fat, stupid, or poor people may not go over well in 2022.
Find your own voice. Write your own story. Give it a fresh angle, make it relevant (and readable). Read more about how to structure a children’s book.
Create Your Own Literary Children’s Classic
Writing for children doesn’t mean ‘dumbing down’ the text or shying away from complex storytelling. These stories can be deep and literary.
African American author Carole Boston Weatherford’s book Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom was named a Newbery Honour Book in 2020.
Anne Holm’s enduring and award-winning novel I Am David, continues to address important historical and cultural conversations, such as World War 2 and the Holocaust.
Of course, we don’t set out to write stories that scoop prizes. The insight here is to be brave, to write big even for young readers.
Don’t be afraid to tackle difficult and controversial themes, like His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, Ellen Hopkins’s Crank, or many of the stories by Judy Blume. Ahead of her time, Blume addressed teenage sexuality in a frank manner, making it humorous and relatable for her readers.
Embrace Diversity In The Storytelling
Diversity is no longer a ‘nice to have’. It is a publishing imperative. Racial diversity is not only important in the characters, but in the creators of the story, too.
Dealing with sexuality and identity is important too. Phil Stamper’s Small Town Pride is a beautiful coming of age story about Jake, the first openly gay middle-grader at his high school.
Strong girl characters will also address gender inequality. In Lena Jones’s Agatha Oddly series, Agatha is a 13-year-old sleuth in the tradition of Hercule Poirot.
Rather than ‘force fitting’ diversity into your story, write something that will improve the self-image and enjoyment of literature for all children.
Write For Different Levels Of Readers
It would be wrong to assume that all children at a certain age are at the same reading level. (Or that they have enjoyed the same standard of education.)
Some children struggle with reading. Those children learning English as a second language do so through writing and reading. Some authors create bilingual books to help this process for kids.
The Lexile Level, for example, is used to measure how difficult a text is or to gauge a young reader’s reading ability level. While it is designed for teachers, it’s important to keep this system in mind as an author.
The Last Word
We love this quote from US teacher and librarian Margaret Edwards: ‘Too many adults wish to “protect” teenagers when they should be stimulating them to read life as it is lived.’
Never write down to children. They are brutal at sniffing out fakes.
I hope this post on writing for teens and tweens helps you to write a great story.
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