An age difference of only a few years can make the world of difference in whether a child or young adult will enjoy your work – that ten year old might love your fantasy about magical, talking ponies, but most fourteen year olds wouldn’t be seen dead reading it. This is a problem that’s pretty exclusive to authors of children’s work because the demographics for adult novels, although still important, are usually wider and much more flexible.
It can be tempting to write the book first and decide on an age range later, but this method holds its own pitfalls as even the slightest deviation from an age-appropriate theme could throw out your whole novel and leave it appropriate for no one. So think carefully about who you are writing for and then consider these tips to help you consistently appeal to the right audience.
This is a fairly simple one, and something I’ve spoken about before; children read aspirationally. So if you want to attract an audience of, say, 13-15, you would be well-placed to use a protagonist that is at the top of that age range. A fifteen-year-old reader will find it less engaging to read about a fourteen-year-old leading character. I know it’s only one year difference, and it seems kind of petty, but that’s children for you. How many times did you tell people that you were eight-and-three-quarters? It might seem insignificant to an adult, but it’s easy for kids to lose interest in a younger protagonist.
If you’re worried about excluding the readers at the bottom of your range, consider adding supporting characters that match their age. This could give the younger readers their very own “every-kid” within the story that helps them to engage.
This tip takes a lot more effort to implement, but it’s very important. The values of your character need to match up with the values of your age range. So, if you’re writing for the 8-10 range, there’s no use in exploring too many romantic elements – your audience doesn’t value this and may even be driven away by it. And, similarly, if you’re writing for 14-16 year olds, you wouldn’t want to talk about the protagonist’s eagerness to gain her parents’ approval. Your readers are at a rebellious age and won’t identify with such a character.
Problems like this make it difficult to appeal to a broad age-range. If you spread your net too wide, it will be difficult to match your protagonist’s values to those of the reader.
Clearly, the themes of your novel also need to be age-appropriate, and I’m not just talking about avoiding the mention of sex in a pop-up book. As well as avoiding themes that may be too advanced for your readers, you need to present them with ideas complex enough to challenge them.
The style in which you approach the themes is equally important. If you have chosen a complex topic such as death, relationships, or tribal religion in the Amazon, you will need to make sure it is presented simply enough for the reader to follow, but not so simply that they feel insulted. You will also have to consider in what way you simplify it; it’s no good to just eliminate any complex element or your explanation of the subject may make no sense at all.
Children’s and young adult writing is a bit of a balancing act. Even with the slimmest demographic, you are going to be appealing to a group people with very different levels of emotional and intellectual maturity. So tread carefully if you want to keep the maximum number of readers!
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