Julie wrote the fabulous Sarah and Katy and the Book of Blank book that I talked up so enthusiastically on Kids Corner a while back. I was super pleased that she was willing and able to participate in doing an author guest post! When she reached out about the potential topic, it was made even better. I thought this was a fascinating piece from her, and agree completely. Thanks, Julie!
Writing for the double audience in children’s literature
by Julie Barichello
When it comes to penning a children’s book, authors are writing for a child audience, right?
Well, sort of wrong. But also sort of right.
Children’s books frequently are read — and enjoyed by — two audiences. The first (and most obvious) audience is children.
The second audience is adults.
Despite the name of the genre, children’s literature is read by all ages. The main difference between kid lit and YA or adult literature is accessibility: The plots and language are accessible to young readers (both in vocabulary and comprehension).
As children’s authors, our primary role is writing for the child audience, but there’s nothing wrong with intentionally thinking of adult readers as we write. After all, picture books and early reader books are read aloud by Mom and Dad to their kids. Teachers and librarians read chapter books aloud (or read them in advance to make sure they’re age-appropriate before putting them on shelves). Then, of course, there are children’s books that are interesting and intriguing enough to attract an adult audience.
The double audience isn’t a new-fangled concept. It dates as far back as the 1800s (at least), when Hans Christian Andersen wrote his original fairy tales. In a brief biography of Andersen included in “The Red Shoes: The Golden Age of Illustration Series,” he says of his writing, ““I seize on an idea for grown-ups and then tell the story to the little ones while always remembering that Father and Mother often listen, and you must also give them something for their minds.”
His method, the biography said, was to write for a double audience. He kept the language and writing accessible to children, but he layered in content that was interesting to adult readers. The biography says Andersen’s tales in their original Danish language are “laced with comedy, social critique, satire, and comedy.”
Elements like social critique and satire don’t spring to mind for children’s fiction; those elements are included for the adult reader’s mind to chew on.
However, a well-told story — particularly one that allows readers to relate to the characters or circumstances — is enough to make a children’s book enjoyable for adults.
When I was in elementary school and my sister was in middle school, we frequently brought home Hank the Cowdog books from the library. We weren’t the only ones in the house reading the books, though. Our dad would pick them up for a couple hours on Sunday afternoons and consume them in one sitting.
Hank the Cowdog books are clearly children’s stories, marketed toward readers in grades three to five. But author John R. Erickson includes plenty of scenes, characters, and situations for adults to enjoy.
The most ready example is the character of Sally May. As a child reader, I thought Sally May was mean and gruff for not adoring Hank. After all, Hank explains it wasn’t his fault for getting sprayed by a skunk (Book 1) or bitten by a rattlesnake (Book 22). As a young reader, I appreciated the books for their humor and for being a dog story. (I went through a phase when all I wanted to read were books about dogs.)
As I got older, I started to discern Hank wasn’t necessarily a reliable narrator. His interpretation of events isn’t always spot-on. And as an adult, I can commiserate with Sally May’s frustration over having to haul a dog to the vet after he stuck his nose in a rattlesnake’s face (after specifically being warned to stay away), or having a skunk-sprayed dog run into the house and spread the critter’s tear-gas stink through all the rooms.
There are layers of storytelling in the Hank series. For children, Hank’s adventures simply make great stories. For adults, the books serve as a humorous case of, “Yep, I’ve been there. … Oh yeah, I remember when my dog did the same thing. … Geez, Hank and Drover sound just like our dogs.”
(It was a frequent occurrence in our house for Dad to read passages aloud, then ask, “Who does that sound like?” and point an accusing finger at our Lab/retriever mix, who would thump his tail innocently as everyone swung their gaze toward him.)
When I first received feedback for the Sarah & Katy books, the most surprising statement was, “This book isn’t just for children. Adults will enjoy it, too.” I thought, Really? But it’s written at a lower vocabulary level, and it’s just a story of kids imagining adventures.
But the books were written with two audiences in mind, even if I never actively acknowledged it during the writing process. For the first audience, I chose circumstances and characters I thought my nieces, Sarah and Katy, would enjoy.
But I also told a story that was fun for me to write. I inadvertently wrote toward an adult audience through writing for my adult self.
Whether intentionally being mindful of an adult audience (as Hans Christian Andersen was) or unintentionally writing for adults (as I did), literary agents caution writers to always be mindful of voice. In the March/April edition of Writer’s Digest, literary agent Sara Megibow says the most common mistake in middle grade fiction submissions “is writing that sounds too much like it’s written by an adult for an adult.”
At the end of the day, the most important audience for middle grade writers to keep at the forefront of their attention is children.
I hope you enjoyed this post on writing for the double audience in children’s literature from Julie! Feel free to give your thoughts.
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One dull winter afternoon, sisters Sarah and Katy can’t think of anything to do. When Sarah pulls a book from the shelf to pass the time, she discovers all of the pages are blank, except for one bearing a mysterious warning: “If you turn the page, there’s no turning back.”
The sisters ignore the warning and find themselves transported into the book. To escape, they must journey to the end of the story by filling each empty page with their imagination. Joined by an eccentric Narrator and three friends, Sarah and Katy discover the blank page can become a place full of fantastic ideas, creativity, and adventure.
But they also soon realize: Once an idea comes to life on paper, it can take on a mind of its own.