Differences Between Writing For Children and Adults


“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,” the great Maurice Sendak once said in an interviewI don’t write for children,” he told Colbert“I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” This sentiment — the idea that designating certain types of literature as “children’s” is a choice entirely arbitrary and entirely made by adults — has since been eloquently echoed by Neil Gaiman, but isn’t, in fact, a new idea.

J.R.R. Tolkien On Fairy Tales, Language and a bunch of other things

Pet Sematary by Stephen King is a horror novel R.L. Stine has said he admires. He has also borrowed the plot several times over.

On Level Of Detail

It’s like a runner who’s used to doing sprints and then decides to do a marathon. When I write for kids it has to be kind of believable, but they also have to know it’s a fantasy. But when you write horror for adults, every detail has to be real. I actually had to do research on things like vegetation on the Outer Banks.

– R.L. Stine, from an interview with Businessweek

On Thematic Material

There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction: they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.

Philip Pullman

Children … have the same emotions … They may be not as complex … but as primary colours, fear is fear, happiness is happiness, and love is the same sense for a child as it is for any other.

Lloyd Alexander

Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne. All these people wrote for children. They may have pretended not to, but they did.

Ray Bradbury, explaining how these writers write ‘in metaphors’, just like he does, and that’s why their work is popular in schools.

Different Life Experience

When you are writing for children, there are no cultural modifiers. No icons that you can quickly draw on for reference. You can only deal with the core emotions as that is what they recognise.

Mo Willems

The firmness of the setup must be adjusted to the target audience. We set up more prominently for youth audiences, because they’re not as story literate as middle-aged filmgoers. Bergman, for example, is difficult for the young–not because they couldn’t grasp his ideas if they were explained, but because Bergman never explains. He dramatizes his ideas subtly, using setups intended for the well-educated, socially experienced, and psychologically sophisticated.

– Robert McKee, Story

Refusal To Accept There Is Any Inherent Difference

I don’t see a clear difference between writing for children and writing for adults. It’s just that when I write for children, I’m writing for everyone; when I write for adults, I’m only writing for some people. In everything I write, I try to be ‘brief, clear, and rich’, to quote Andersen. The question ‘What is true?’ is fundamental to my life…I think of world literature as both shared and indivisible. Children’s literature is also world literature. All literature involves sharing and reciprocity, giving and receiving gifts. All works, whether they are written for children or adults, in whatever language and country, form one and same world literature, in which all works exist in relation to each other. Completely autonomous works don’t exist, and every book has many authors, both dead and alive. Literature is intellectual capital that is not used up or diminished through distribution.

Leena Krohn

I myself would hope that in my books there is no separation between comedy for children and comedy for adults. There’s just good comedy, humour in fact, because that’s a language that can speak to people of many different ages at the same time. I don’t fret over whether children can understand everything in my books. Perhaps the best situation is when they end up asking their parents and each other questions now and then – and hey presto, a literary discussion ensues.

– Timo Parvela

A Musical Metaphor

The craft is the same whether I’m writing children’s books or crime novels. Maybe if writing a book in the Harry Hole series, a crime novel, it may feel like conducting a symphony orchestra. Writing a children’s book is like jamming with your band. It’s more direct, but it doesn’t mean it’s easier, or less demanding. It is more enjoyable.

– Jo Nesbø

Difference In Audience Criticism

Literature for children and young people finds itself wrestling with the pressures of conflicting expectations: adults think a book is a good one if they themselves genuinely enjoy it, although children often have a much more uncomplicated, hands-on relationship to reading.

Books From Finland

Difference In Subject Matter And Humour

To be honest, I don’t think I change style, genre, concepts, no matter what audiences I’m writing for. There are some subjects children probably aren’t going to be interested in: The complexities of adult relationships. There are things like farts that probably very few adults want to read about. But by and large, all my books can be read from anyone from three to adult, and I suspect they are. Just about all my work is really not age specific. I do get annoyed when people advocate limiting language for children. That’s how children learn. Language. If a book is good enough a child needs only understand four words in six and they will keep on reading. And when they come across those words another three or four times they’ll know what they mean. That is how we acquire language and concepts and so often we totally underestimate kids. Kids are often more interested in the big questions: The good and the evil and how can we change the world. Adults will often read a book because it [conforms to] their image of being intellectual. They will be more preoccupied with how you pay the mortgage and is there going to be a train strike tomorrow. But the job of a kid is to understand the world. They are deeply, desperately interested in how the world works, why, and what is good and what is evil far more often than adults. For a writer writing about good and evil, you’ve probably got a very small readership. If you are doing that for kids you have got probably everyone out there, who is passionately in what is good, what is evil and where they meet. Don’t be cute. Don’t underestimate [kids]. Don’t write down. Forget about the books that you loved as a child; always remember though who you are writing for. Don’t think of a child as being a different species. Don’t equate the words that a child is able to read with what the child is able to understand. No adult ever says to a kid ‘Don’t watch that TV show because you won’t understand it’. We say ‘No, don’t watch that TV show’ because we know they are going to understand it!

Jackie French, Australian Writers’ Centre Podcast (episode 25/10/2013)

Difference In Plot Shape

Contemporary YA novels and even novels for younger readers often come very close to adult fiction, both in their general pessimistic worldview and their complex narrative strategies. However, we can still distinguish a children’s novel from an adult novel by its unaccomplished rite of passage and its possibility of return to circularity, if only through death.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

For more on plot shapes, some of which are more prevalent in children’s literature, see Shapes Of Plots In Children’s Literature.

Difference In Relationship With The Author

A child walks into a library asking for Wimpy Kid or Artemis Fowl, not Jeff Kinney or Eoin Colfer. However, every now and then a child reader will take an interest in their favourite author and these days will be able to find information about them on the net.

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Interview With Elizabeth Dulemba

Episode 68 of the podcast Escape From Illustration Island is an interview with Elizabeth Dulema, who has illustrated many books as well as Lula’s Brew, which was one of the first storybook apps on the iTunes store. Interviews with storyapp developers are pretty rare, so here are some of the most interesting points:

  • When going freelance after working for a company, it was necessary to discover her own ‘visual voice’.
  • Dulemba spends half her day marketing. “You have to.” She does postcards, but recently pulled out of contributing to other people’s portfolio websites because her own website was getting more hits than theirs.
  • Her coloring pages have been a really successful marketing project: Coloring Page Tuesday.
  • Constantly look at the work of other artists, in the same way you looked at other people’s handwriting when you were learning to write. You’ll end up with your own style.
  • Typical process: mostly digital now, Photoshop. Used to use Painter. Still draws by hand with pencil on most things, due to lack of that freedom you get with a computer but last book was done completely on the computer.
  • Dulemba tries to work out where the lighting is coming from, greying out an entire layer then creating a wedge, to work out where the light is coming from. Most artists have a default light source, for example top left, but one good way of adding something special to your work is to experiment with different sources of lighting. Perhaps the light is coming out of an open book, or from another unexpected place. (I do this too, but I usually choose a colour other than grey, and put a blend mode on it. It often stays there in the final product, with the colour unifying the entire picture. It makes a big difference.)
  • Next she lays in flat colour, these days making use of some excellent large spongy brushes in Photoshop.
  • It’s good to experiment with texture because this is harder to convey in digital media.
  • The perfect amount of time in which to illustrate a picturebook is six months. Any shorter and it’ll be too tight. Any longer and you might find your style evolves to the point where you have to go back and do the start of the book again. (I can definitely relate to this, having just spent one and a half years on Midnight Feast.)
  • Claim a name for yourself in one thing.
  • Differences between illustrating your own work versus illustrating for other writers: When you illustrate your own work you get full control. When working with others you have to bend a little bit.
  • Differences between a print book and a storyapp: In an app, large shapes work better. The  typography has to be better. With the backlit screen the colours are more vibrant. Lula’s Brew actually started as a dummy for a children’s book, and before turning it into an app, had to zoom in on some of the pictures. Had to get rid of some extraneous details and leave more space on things. Big brushes in PS was great because she was able to apply colour really fast. Working in the small format actually sped her up.
  • The same issues are there with regular books: It’s much harder to get found. We’re all trying to get found.
  • She calls herself a ‘storyteller’ rather than a writer/picturebook illustrator. Apps are just another way of telling a story.
  • It’s a really easy time to become an expert right now, because everything is new and you can be one of the first. It’s really easy to come up with something no one else has done right now. That’s an opportunity.
  • Colour and drawing are two completely different skills. Just because you can do one thing doesn’t mean you can do the other. Some people are good at one and not the other.
  • Picturebooks are more sculptural more than anything else. They’re not finished until someone’s flipping through the pages.
  • In a children’s book there’s a rhythm, there’s something that builds, and you don’t have to explain the whole story in one image. Likewise, pictures in a picturebook are not at all like an editorial illustration, in which you take a big idea and squish it down.
  • The aim of a picturebook is to draw the reader in and make them want to be in the picture.
  • Stay on top of what’s out there so you can come out with something new and different.
  • Dulemba usually has about six stories going on at any one time. (Wow – I’m not sure how I’d go with that. So far I’m a one-project-at-a-time person, but this gives me confidence to try two at a time.) I’m reminded of this advice:Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.


  • On the difference between picturebooks and MG work: She doesn’t feel like she’s doing the same thing at all. It’s a little bit of a switch. She reads upper MG, and therefore writes it too.
  • She has a separate blog which is more ‘cerebral’, whereas her picturebook website is about engaging younger readers with colouring pages and so on. (Is there a case for separate blogs for separate tones and audiences? I guess so.)