Agent Jennifer Laughran Talks Juvenile Writing

Since I hope to one day write juvenile fiction, I sat in on a session at the San Francisco WC where agent Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary and Wendy Lichtman, author of Secrets, Lies & Algebra, talked tips and advice on writing for teenagers and pre-teens.

(Learn how to get your book for children published.)

Here are some great points they made:

  • Kids are very media savvy these days, of course, and that should be reflected in your story.
  • You can’t talk down to kids. Jennifer brought up Octavian Nothing, noting that she first believed the book was way too smart for kids.  But the truth, she said, is that kids are actually smarter than we think, where as adults are the lazy ones. Kids feel an intense connection with books and will take the time to tackle a book. They consider a “smart book” to be a great challenge.
  • Wendy said she sat in on a high school class for three months to pick up kids’ patterns of speech, lingo and cadence.
  • You will indeed come across morality vs. reality dilemmas. For example, if teenagers use the word “retard” constantly in a derogatory fashion, should you include it as such? Wendy refused.  And yes, thirteen-year-olds do have sex in today’s world, but is that really proper to include in a middle grade work?

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  • Publishers are constantly trying to push the boundaries in terms of sex in these books. Anything is fair game, but a lot depends on how the crucial horrific moments are dealt with. For example, if a teenage girl narrator is telling of a scene where someone is murdered, she doesn’t have to provide the graphic details. It’s the difference between “He slit her throat and blood sprayed everywhere” and “Her body went limp and the carpet became red.”
  • If you want to go with heavy sexual stuff, that’s OK, but understand that the book is always facing gatekeepers (librarians, booksellers, agents, editors, teachers) who can opt not to carry a certain book because of what they deem inappropriate content.
  • Don’t start your book off with something terribly graphic and horrific.  It may scare off booksellers. Wendy said that her book, at first, began with a suicide. She moved the suicide to chapter 2 so that those who picked up the book weren’t immediately confronted with something so morose that didn’t define the rest of the book. 
  • You can cross genres. In adult fiction, things are often pressured to be classified. “Is it a mystery?  Is it women’s fiction?” Juvenile fiction has less of that problem.
  • The joy of novels for kids is the incidental learning. Kids don’t want to be lectured. They want to learn while being entertained.

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