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Anyone have examples of the dreaded "writing that talks down to kids" ?

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I know that the biggest thing you want to avoid when writing for children is to "talk down" to them. I've heard this complaint so much, though, that it's lost all meaning. In my own MG writing, I just write what my inner-12-year-old wants to write, so it feels natural to me, but I can't be sure.

How do you know if your writing "talks down" or not? Can anyone point to examples, maybe existing books on Amazon so we can browse through some sample pages?

I can also post a sample from my own writing, and let you all decide if I'm talking down!
#1 - October 02, 2014, 02:47 AM
The Voyages of the Merry Mariner - newly launched MG fantasy/adventure series!

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I don't want to name any specific books, but talking down to kids to me includes things like this:

1. Overexplaining. Kids are smart. They don't need you to pick up a 2"x4" and whack them over the head with your point.

2. Telling when it comes to emotions, instead of letting the depth of reactions and true emotion come through naturally. Also, people's emotions can be crazy and messy and illogical. Write what your characters REALLY feel instead of what the detention teacher prescribes them to feel.

3. Too! much! overexcitement! over insignificant things tells me the author thinks that all kids are the same, and all of them just want candy.

4. Too generic a plot/character, as if borrowing from stock kids' movies and TV shows. Films depend on an actor's nuances bringing through a sense of 3D character, but in a book, you need to portray that in words. Fears, hopes, secrets, strengths, weaknesses--they need to feel like they exist outside the pages of the book, too, not just as a cardboard cutout brought on the page in the moment and retired to the closet when not in use.

5. Targeted writing/details. A film and a book tell stories differently, and while on a plot level, they may be similar, the telling thereof tends to be specific to the medium. Yesterday I picked up a book that had an interesting plot, but I could tell instantly that the author was a bigshot filmmaker because he detailed every. single. decoration and gadget (in the same exact grammatical structure, mind you--adjective + noun) in the scene, with no distinction to what was actually relevant and what was background detail. If it was a movie, you'd see all of this on screen and then the actors would move in front of it. But writing it all out that way meant that as a reader, you didn't know if this was Chekhov's smoking gun, or just another meaningless detail. But--the kiddies! They LOVE gadgets! Because all kids are exactly the same... It was bad writing and it felt condescending.

6. Time Out for a Lesson, Children! It's not necessary to make a novel overtly educational. Of course you learn from good books. But a novel is first and foremost a story. It is NOT considered a selling point for your novel's main purpose to be educational. I can think of a couple of time travel books that went overboard on bringing in every single event/person you might find in a history lecture--even if logically, there's no way all those people and places would end up in the same story. I can think of some books that have pulled this off well and been very enjoyable to read, though, so I'm trying to think of the difference. In these particular cases, it seemed the story was only there to back up the history lesson, not the other way around. It conveyed a bit of, "I'm the mighty teacher, you're the much dumber student" feel.

Basically, show, don't tell. Be honest in your writing. Good writing is usually not condescending.
#2 - October 02, 2014, 05:09 AM

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No "adult/teacher/parent ex machina."
#3 - October 02, 2014, 08:47 AM
VAMPIRINA BALLERINA series (Disney-Hyperion)
GROUNDHUG DAY (Disney-Hyperion, 2017)
among others

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Everything Olmue said!

But I think if you're writing from your inner-twelve-year-old's perspective, you're probably going to be just fine. I find the books that really talk down to kids are the ones that come across from an adult-talking-to-child perspective. Especially the "I'm the adult and know better than you" perspective.

Climb up into that inner-twelve-year-old's head, look at the world through their eyes, and write your story. If you can tap into that, it will ring true.

Oh, and steer clear of stories aimed at teaching a lesson. Not saying good books don't have lessons in them. But they're more subtle and thematic and not smack-you-over-the-head obvious. Ugh. If I see one more kids book about "Poppy the Penguin Learns to Share" or "Teddy Tiger Stands Up to the Bullies" I think I'll scream!

Hope that helps!

#4 - October 02, 2014, 09:20 AM
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Maybe consider that your characters NOT be the poster children for good manners and always doing the right thing. I mean, along the way they might organically decide to do the right thing, but generally speaking, kids throw rocks, they get dirty, they mutter bad words, and they forget things like homework and walking the dog. So they break windows, they stuff a shirt with the chocolate sauce they weren't supposed to be eating under the bed, and have a long list of great excuses or coverups and let the poop dry long enough to roll it under the couch.

Of course, any of the above could be used to teach a lesson. NO! Don't do it! You have the character throw the rock and break the window NOT because you want to show him realize he shouldn't be throwing the rock because he'll get in trouble with the neighbor and his parents, but because he must throw the rock to hit the bad guy who's trying to steal the neighbor's dog. Which begins a course of events from which he cannot recover!

Is that clear as chocolate sauce?
#5 - October 02, 2014, 10:04 AM

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You got some great answers to your question. For fun, here's an over-the-top example of talking down: Tommy's mommy had an idea! Tommy felt happy!  :lalala:
#6 - October 06, 2014, 03:21 PM
ROLLER BOY (Fitzroy Books, 2018)
AMY'S CHOICE (Luminis Books, 2014)
CALL ME AMY (Luminis Books, 2013)
Twitter: @MarciaStry


What about when adult dialogue is thinly disguised advice on why the kid is wrong?

"Now Jimmy, where are we supposed to put our dishes after supper?"

Or when the choices in phrasing is obviously a writer trying to sound like a kid, but is coming across phony?

"We were the coolest kids around."

How about the use of a condescending tone?

"My, my, you've been a very naughty mouse."

Or what about a narrator who talks to the reader like she's a moron and this oh-so-important story will change the reader's moronic behavior?

Everyone knows hard work pays off.

Okay, those examples probably totally stink.... :eh2

Anyway, I've come to think of talking down to kids to mean a writer coming across as an adult patting a wee, little kid on his wee. little head and saying. "Let me squeeze those darling, chubby, wee, little cheeks of yours."

On the other hand, when a writer is out of sight, so to speak, and the young characters are believable and the story is told organically, I don't think the reader will feel like they're being talked down to.
#7 - October 06, 2014, 04:37 PM


No "adult/teacher/parent ex machina."

Is this your meaning? Deus Ex Machina-- a god introduced into a play to resolve the plot?

The girl is deep!! :exactly:
#8 - October 06, 2014, 04:45 PM

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Basically, show, don't tell. Be honest in your writing. Good writing is usually not condescending.

Hah! Sounds to me like writing that talks down to kids is just bad writing, for kids OR adults. Nobody likes to be talked down to, whether you're 8 or 80.

Thanks everyone!
#9 - October 07, 2014, 12:14 AM
The Voyages of the Merry Mariner - newly launched MG fantasy/adventure series!


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