May 10th, 2017

Writing For and About Children: Find Your Childlike Wonder

Donna Galanti

When I was a kid I used to sneak into people’s coat closets when visiting with my parents, hoping to find a Narnia world on the other side. I would huddle in the dark, beneath winter coats, imagining an older world long gone as I hid among musty wool. If I sat long enough would I be transported there?

Now, as a children’s book author and writer of fantasy, I get to step through doors into other worlds. The easy part is stepping into that new world. The hard part is creating a world, characters, and story from a child’s point of view. How to get into that view? By finding my childlike wonder again.

Do you remember what filled you with wonder as a kid?

I do. I walked along rock walls under the stars when the world was asleep. I climbed trees and sang songs to the woods. I swam all day becoming as brown and leathery as an armadillo. I hid away in rose bush caves to write – all the while believing that magic existed, and every day held little miracles.

But what evokes childlike wonder now as a grownup? And as adults writing for children, can we even recapture that? 

Regaining a childlike sense of wonder isn’t about returning to a childlike state, it’s about letting yourself be awed by the little things in your grownup life. Our mundane responsibilities can often dull our wonder, but just because every day is filled with little things it doesn’t mean they aren’t miraculous. 

However, keeping our childlike wonder can be difficult when grownup duties mount. In order to do my job well as a children’s author, I often need to rekindle and sustain my kid wonder. But how?

11 ways to evoke childlike wonder:

  1. Re-visit pictures of ourselves as kids. Search through specific memories. Journal in our voice from that moment. What were we excited about? What did we most desire? What made us sad?
  2. Did you write diaries as a child or teen? Re-read them to inspire that voice of youth in your own writing.
  3. Look at the world from an unfamiliar perspective. Make a snow angel. Hide in a closet. Climb a tree. Be pulled along in a little red wagon (if you can fit!). There are Big Wheels for grownups now. Try it!
  4. Create a new bucket list with your kids or grandkids. What do they dream of doing that you could do together?
  5. Do your kids write stories? Read them to grasp a worldview through their own words. What do they notice? How do they feel?
  6. Revisit the age of your characters. Go back to that time in your life and draw a map of your neighborhood. Walk through it in your mind and journal about it. What do you see? How do you feel? How did you react to events there?
  7. Do a stand-up dramatic read-aloud of a scene in your story.
  8. Face a childhood fear (mine was going down in our creepy 200-year-old cellar where I was sure bodies were buried).
  9. Engage in child’s play with your kids. Hide-n-Seek, Tag. A favorite of my son and mine was battling sock wars to Irish music.
  10. Eavesdrop on kids at the mall or park. Take notes of their conversation.
  11. Visit those places you spent time at as a child. Walk in your childhood shoes again.

I did this last one not so long ago. I resurrected an old manuscript rich with one of my childhood settings. It prompted me to go back in time to the campground my parents owned and operated in New Hampshire. When I drove up, I was zapped back to the 1970s. 

Suddenly, I was nine-years-old again. I swam in the pool, fished with my dad, romped through the woods, collected dead butterflies and shotgun shells, whizzed about on strap-on roller skates, played pinball machines, and spun 45 records on the jukebox.

Returning was an emotional gut punch. I could be a child again in that place of innocence but just as it resurrected joyous moments from childhood, it also brought back painful ones.

What did I take away from this trip for my writing?

  • Vivid feelings of childhood – the good and the bad – to enrich my writing.
  • Revisited my creative foundations and reinforced my yearning to write for kids.
  • Fortified the connection from childhood to adulthood.
  • That I can mend my past while forging my future from it.
  • A renewed sense of childlike wonder, boxed up with a crooked bow and broken seams.

Most importantly, I remembered how awesome it was to be a kid again, to be lost in the moment. And that every day as a kid held magic. By renewing my own sense of childlike wonder, I could once again be lost in it while writing – and tap into the magic of the little things. 

Have you ever thought of writing for children? And if you do write for children, how do you write from their point of view? Share your tips!

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About Donna

Donna Galanti is the author of the paranormal suspense Element Trilogy and the children’s fantasy adventure Joshua and The Lightning Road series. She attended an English school housed in a magical castle, where her wild imagination was held back only by her itchy uniform (bowler hat and tie included!). There she fell in love with the worlds of C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl, and wrote her first fantasy about Dodo birds, wizards, and a flying ship. She’s lived in other exotic locations, including Hawaii where she served as a U.S. Navy photographer. She lives with her family and two crazy cats in an old farmhouse, and dreams of returning one day to a castle.

Donna is a contributing editor for International Thriller Writers the Big Thrill magazine and blogs with other middle grade authors at Project Middle Grade Mayhem. She enjoys teaching at conferences on writing craft and marketing and presenting at elementary and middle schools. Visit her at www.elementtrilogy.com and www.donnagalanti.com.

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44 comments to Writing For and About Children: Find Your Childlike Wonder

  • Donna, I’ve always wondered how authors who wrote kids did it – I’m so in awe by this ability. Thanks for unraveling some of the mystique!

    One of the authors that displayed kids the most true for me (believe it or not) is Stephen King. Seriously – read, The Body (they made the movie, Stand By Me from it), and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon – neither of which is horror!

    • Laura, so great to be here and thanks for stopping in! I am right now diving into a new world of writing picture books and unraveling that mystery. MUCH harder than I could have imagined. I can spend all day on 750 words. So hard when each one counts and you need a complete story plus have to NOT be as descriptive as the illustrator will convey that.

      Oh and YES, love Stephen King and love how he writes for kids. I fell in love with a middle grade he wrote (picked up the hardcover in a $1 book bin) called The Eyes of the Dragon. It’s super wonderful. Check it out! Adventure, mystery, magic, betrayal, a kingdom divided, and great heroes 🙂 .

      • Yes, I often thought that writing lyrics would be the purest essence of writing – I’d love to try that someday!

        • Laura, you just reminded of writing poetry with the mention of writing lyrics. I think we can learn something from poets and songwriters in writing fiction, no matter the genre or length.

          Years ago I took a workshop on Poetry for the Prose Writer by Ben Heins. It renewed my interest in the poetry form and got my brain spinning on how I can incorporate poetry techniques in my writing. Here was my takeaway:

          Using Poetry in Prose:

          Economy of language: Is every word necessary? Can I replace a group of words with one word?(we prose writers tend to overwrite!)

          Unique and engaging imagery: Is my description vivid? Have I avoided cliches? Have I followed an introduced metaphor throughout the work?

          Attention to rhythm: Have I read every sentence aloud? (yes, read that whole dang book aloud!) Is the pacing right for the subject matter?

          Sonic Resonance: Have you created music in the words using alliteration, repeated consonant, and assonance? And have you used something to break up the music when needed?

          Clarity: Do all of my details add up to one, coherent story? Would a stranger understand all I’ve written?

          Order of Detail: Am I building on the momentum of the details or slowing down? Do all of my details build up for maximum impact?

          Hope this gets your words spinning too – maybe in a song! 🙂

  • I love that you also tried to find a Narnia world. I went into a closet in my childhood home. That closet led to a smaller door which I crawled thru. It only led me under the house with dead spiders, rats and a lot of dirt. I used that adventure into my latest children’s picture book about a little boy and his pirate teddy bear who go thru a closet door and end up on a pirate ship. It is called David and Rusty’s Pirate Adventure.

    • Maggie, I adore this! I can see you crawling under the house there. How fun to put it into a book. Keeping these memories close can help us write for kids. What fun it would be to this exercise each day: access a forgotten childhood memory and journal about it to see what story may come from it. Looking at photos would help jog those lost memories!

  • Although I don’t write for children, Donna, there are often children in my stories. I love every one of your tips and want to do them all! Recently I’ve ben wondering if I could still ice skate. I fear if I fell all my appendages would snap off LOL! Forty years since I tried it, and that pesky triple ankle fracture six years ago—but there IS hardware holding that ankle together… might just have to give it a try. Great to have you here!

    • Kathryn, thanks for stopping by! I adored ice skating and rollerskating as a child. I will go with you! 🙂 We can hold each other up. I am a speed queen though – and how I can get myself in trouble. May need to slow down myself. LOL. Would be fun to go through each item on this list one by one for some. (ok, I admit I am still afraid of my new creepy cellar in the old house I live in now. I won’t turn the light off until completely up the creaky, windy stairs and all the way out. Then I reach in, flick the switch, and slam the door. Something could grab me before I get out!).

      • At our farm, you couldn’t turn on the hay mow light until you got to the top of the stairs. Climbing up into the dark, and feeling for the light—ACK! Was sure some hidden threat was going to clamp down on my hand every time!

        • ooh, I would be scared then too (ok, and now as well)! In our old farmhouse I grew up in, we had a landing above the stairs. I would race up the stairs at night, not daring to look behind me at the landing, so sure that a man with an axe was waiting there to chop off my head. Funny enough, this fear has stayed with me – and this exact scene made it into chapter 2 of my middle grade book, Joshua and the Lightning Road. 🙂

  • I love this post, Donna! I get to experience a lot of childlike wonder with my first grader and it is AWESOME. So are these tips. 🙂

    I just approved a comment so you might want to browse from the top!

    • Thanks for having me on Jenny! I fondly remember when my son was a 1st grader – the whole world was this amazing doorway from which he peered through. 1st grade is a fun time for them AND you to revisit your own childhood through your child’s eyes too! My son is now 14 and in MS but that’s fun too as I write for his age group and he can give me pointers on my stories – and especially word choices. I get this sometimes, “Mom, a kid would soooooo never say that!”

  • This is such a rich post Donna. I don’t write for children, but reading your suggestions evoked a couple of buried childhood memories that can be mined for future stories. Your guidelines would also be helpful for memoir writers, and I love your comments about using poetry in prose.

    • Lori, how wonderful! I hope you are able to mine those memories. Accessing childhood memories can be used for stories across the ages. They are powerful!

      I began a new novel that featured a childhood setting and recently went back to visit there. It’s a tiny NH town where my parents owned a campground when I was a child in Holderness on Squam Lake (where they filmed On Golden Pond).

      It was a very emotional experience for me, especially with my mom now passed away. Painful memories resurrected events I had long forgotten and a story came pouring out of me from it. You can read it here: http://www.donnagalanti.com/throwbackthursday-story-childhood/
      Visiting those places you spent time at as a child are intense – and great for storytelling!

  • I don’t write for children. I do remember my children writing some very vivid, and crazy stories.

    denise

  • I write for young adults and it can be both joyful and painful to go back to that time. My kids help me to stay in touch with my awe of the world. That and trying new things.

    • I agree! I write for teens too and finding my diaries and reading them all was very sweet and painful all at once. Things long forgotten blasted back – all those milestones as a teen (many embarassing!). So wonderful to have your kids to help you keep the wonder. My son does that as well. Really grounds me in what’s important in the daily moments.

  • Your words are beautiful and make me long for the magic of childhood again.

    • Thanks Debbie! I long for it too but try to find it as much as I can. Looking at photos and writing from that memory helps me. And being silly with my son. We love to make up nonsense songs. One thing I love are fireflies and we live next to woods that have a bridge that goes through it. On a summer evening, I love to stand on the bridge with my son as thousands of fireflies gather there. I truly feel I could float away with them and become a magical light like them. 🙂 I hope you can find some magic too!

  • Kate Brandes

    Love this. Especially tip #3. I think it’s important for any writer to foster a sense of wonder. You’ve provided great advice for keeping the creative spirit alive and well.

    • Thanks Kate! Yes, you are right – these tips can be used for any kind of writing really. And I see you doing #3 all the time with your touching and wonder-filled photos online from nature and with your family 🙂 .

  • […] also talking about how I find my childlike wonder to write for kids on Writers in the Storm blog this week. Pop on […]

  • While I don’t write for children, your post reminded me of something I did after my mother died. I was sixteen, a mixed up sad and angry kid, mad at the world and especially at God. I swore to myself that nobody would ever see me cry. When alone in the house, I’d go into Mom’s closet full of clothes (my father had a hard time letting them go) and sit on the floor next to the old family dog. Every once in awhile, Tiny lifted her head, sniffed at the hems of my mother’s house dresses and whined. That’s when I grieved.

    • How sad for you that your mother died especially when you were so young. I can completely relate to your story. I kept my mother’s clothes for a long time. The first time I cleaned out her closet and smelled her perfume on them was just devastating. I eventually took her clothes I remembered her in best and had several quilts and throws made out of them. I feel comforted when I use them on the bed of couch. Makes me feel like she is still there with me. I actually wrote a post about it recently here: http://www.donnagalanti.com/memory-quilts-keepsakes-history-love/ I hope it gives you some comfort, and I hope you have many wonderful memories of your mother as well.

  • Fae Rowen

    Rollercoasters. That’s how I recapture childhood wonder.

    I didn’t know anything about them, but my dad took me to ride one when I was five. It was wooden and part of it (the first, coming down screaming part) was built out over the ocean. My dad told me it was okay to scream, it was okay to cry, and if I didn’t like it, I’d never have to ride one again.
    Of course, I screamed, but I wasn’t afraid because he was right there with me screaming–and we survived. Best lesson ever!

    • Fae, I LOVE this!! I am terrified of rollercoasters and scream and scream – but my son loves them and laughs and laughs. I think this will be his go-to to find his childlike wonder too after he grows up. And you were five on your first! WOW. I can just see that wooden ride over the sea 🙂

  • […] Galanti explores how to find your childlike sense of wonder when writing for children, Kathryn Magendie tackles the problem of perceived weakness, and Jami Gold asks: what advice do you […]

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