Writing About Children in Fiction

Quote of the week: “Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity.” – Jonathan Franzen interviewed in Booth


A substantial percentage of the submissions I receive as the fiction editor of a literary journal concern children: children at school, children at play, at parties, on the road, in the woods, children at odds with other children, children dealing with mom’s/dad’s new lover.

I try to give these stories the same chance to prove themselves as any other submission, but I must admit it’s sometimes more difficult. It’s not that I don’t like kids, but that I feel the problems children often face in fiction—the stakes of the story—aren’t high enough, or go as far in creating the tension necessary to drive the narrative.

A recent blog on Literary Hub by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford, titled “Chekhov: A Writer for Grown Ups,” helped me crystalize my thinking on the issue. Ford wrote: “Chekhov seems to me a writer for adults, his work becoming useful and also beautiful by attracting attention to mature feelings, to complicated human responses and small issues of moral choice within large, overarching dilemmas, any part of which, were we to encounter them in our complex, headlong life with others, might evade even sophisticated notice.”

Notice how often in that one sentence Ford touches on what constitutes fiction for adults: complicated, complex, sophisticated…small issues of moral choice within large, overarching dilemmas. He’s referring to Chekhov’s remarkable ability to convey the nuance inherent in adult situations, which in turn creates irony, the characteristic of great fiction.

Too often in stories centered on children the stakes are limited to what might be called “growing pains,” the learning experiences most children go through in their journey toward adulthood; the culmination of the narrative is a “lesson learned,” rather than a coming-of-age, or even a step in the transition to adulthood. This is enough revelation for some writers, but not for me.

Two drawbacks come to mind with that approach. First, growing pains is a stage. It’s something we pass through, but it is not an end in itself, not the kind of situation that yields largely unpleasant choices—an adult situation—the kind in which there are no real winners, no do-overs, and no turning back. More importantly, it doesn’t carry the same level of tension inherent in adult situations, which makes it more difficult for stories about children to pass the test of good fiction.

Stories about children too often tend to simplify the choices, to make them a this or that proposition (which is what Franzen is getting at in his quote). Unfortunately, in life, choices are rarely that easy. Often when a choice is made something is gained, but something else is lost. Choices for adults are more often compromises (despite what your Congressperson says). A decision about one issue ripples out to affect many others, and not always in a positive way.

These issues manifest in the narrative tone when writing in a child’s point of view. The difficulty in such stories is often to maintain the authenticity and naïveté of the child’s voice while portraying a complex world. It’s not as easy as it sounds to convey the intricacies of difficult problems through a child’s perspective. Sometimes the child sounds too much like an adult; other times the adults sound too childish.

It’s the rare short story that manages to accomplish this balance well. Granted there are many outlets for children and YA stories that accept their simpler moral messages, but when it comes to adult publications, the standard is, and should be, higher.

Joe Ponepinto
Joe Ponepinto is the founding Fiction Editor and Publisher of Tahoma Literary Review. His new novel, Mr. Neutron will be published by 7.13 Books of Brooklyn, NY in the spring of 2018.

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