craft review by Kristi Wright
Often when I read writing craft books, I’ll treat them like a buffet, read a little here, read a little there, stuff myself silly with the tastiest craft ideas and leave less interesting fare untasted on my metaphorical plate.
With Mary Kole’s Writing Irresistible Kidlit, I read voraciously from the moment I cracked open the book until I turned the last page.
In addition to her wonderful insights, I deeply appreciate her chapter format. In each chapter, as she tackles an important Kidlit topic, she sprinkles term definitions, comments from authors and editors, and (my favorite) examples from successful novels. Most chapters include even more examples in sections labeled “From the Shelves.”
And while Writing Irresistible Kidlit is comprehensive enough for a novice writer, it has plenty of yummy nuggets and reminders for even the most seasoned author. It also provides an excellent overview of the Kidlit craft for a writer of adult literature who wants to make the shift to writing children’s literature.
These are four of my favorite sections. I’m hopeful that you’ll find some useful nuggets of craft wisdom and that your appetite will be whetted for more.
Your Readers–Remember Who They Are
On page 2 of Kole’s book she reminds us who are readers are. Yes, this should be self-evident, but when you are in the weeds of 200 plus pages, it’s easy to forget! Kole’s list of how kids read is priceless. I recommend that we all create posters with the words: voraciously, communally, socially, and for keeps. But make sure you read page 2 for the details!
In Chapter 2, Kole delves even further into the MG and YA mindset. She says:
The point of understanding the reader is so that you can play with theme and give your stories bigger resonance. (pg 18).
I love arming writers with these mindset ideas because, I hope, they will inspire you to create something thematically rich that speaks directly and urgently to your audience. (pg 19).
When Kole explores the idea of middle graders having that “in-between feeling of being a pre-teen” she uses an example from Danette Haworth’s Violet Raines Almost Got Struck By Lightning:
Even when you outgrow your childish things, someone saves them for you. Someone who loves you does that so you don’t forget who you are. (pg 19).
Creating Knowledge for the Reader
By far, my favorite section in Writing Irresistible Kidlit is the one in Chapter 4 that discusses how authors create knowledge for their readers. For me, Kole’s explanation of Show vs. Tell is by far the best in the business, especially when she discusses the dangers of physical telling and the power of interiority–emotional telling that’s “a great tool that writers don’t use nearly enough.”
KidLit Craft contributor, LA Biscay brilliantly analyzes Wolf Hollow based on Kole’s definition of Character Interiority. You can find that must-read post here.
Interiority’s relationship to Showing is a matter of context. First we should see characters in action and then we get some Interiority to really drive home the author’s intentions for that scene in an organic way. With this one-two punch, we can move on with a solid understanding of what we’ve just witnessed and learned. It’s when Interiority is missing that Telling and Physical Telling become a problem. (pg 59).
One of the examples of Interiority she uses in “From the Shelves” is from Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things. Notice the last paragraph:
My dad turned seaweed green.
Then he turned sea-foamy.
Then he turned pomegranate, then grapefruit, then orange.
Normally I like orange. It is the color of tigers and sherbet and sunsets and mango. But I did not like this orange. It was danger-alert orange, which is only helpful around construction sites. (pg 59).
Another gem is Kole’s discussion of core identity. On page 106, Kole delves into “what you need to know about your characters and their core identities in order to forge a three-dimensional protagonist.” She asks you, the author, to think about your protagonist’s core strength, core virtue, and core flaw. A “core” that I especially love is “Core Boundaries”.
In her moral framework, what is right and what is wrong? What are the absolute boundaries that your character will not cross? (Question taken to the next level: What happens if she is forced to the very edge of these boundaries, or maybe even over it?) (pg 107).
And Kole explains that the reason she asks these “next level” questions is that they help you “brainstorm ideas for plot complications.”
… the best plot points are those that cause tension between your main character and her identity, that force her into a tough choice, that turn her beliefs on their heads. (pg 108).
Chapters, Scenes, and Beats
Finally, I found many helpful nuggets in Kole’s section on “Chapters, Scenes, and Beats.” Kole says:
Something must change after every chapter, scene, and beat, whether it’s character or plot or action, and we must have at least some forward momentum in the physical realm. If we learn nothing about character or story, you’re falling flat. If no character or event changes, if no Objective shifts, if no new action is played, then your chapter, scene, or beat is probably thin. Similarly, if the plot doesn’t advance, you need to reevaluate. (pg 131).
Then she delves into each of these units of measure. Favorite quotes for each include:
- Chapter: “With each new chapter, you will need to ground the reader and hook her all over again.” (pg 132).
- Scene: “Scenes thrive on conflict.” (pg 134).
- Beat: “Think of beats as an emotional map of a scene’s progression.” (pg 141).
On page 143, Kole provides a scene rubric. Whether you are a planner or a pantser or something in between, this is an intriguing list to review when you are either getting ready to write a scene or when you are ready to revise it.
There’s so much more that I could say about this craft book, but that would be “telling” all of its secrets!
For me, the book was hard to put down, it provided many moments of inspiration, and the examples did an excellent job of reinforcing Kole’s expert advice. Writing Irresistible Kidlit was, indeed, irresistible!
Kristi Wright (assistant editor) is the Assistant Regional Advisor for the San Francisco/South region of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators and a writing mentor for the non-profit Society of Young Inklings. She offers writing workshops at the elementary school level with a focus on point of view and sensory detail. Her indie-published futuristic middle grade adventure series, The Basker Twins in the 31st Century, raises funds and awareness for a rare, childhood-onset disease, Friedreich’s ataxia.