The best way to write for kids is to listen to them

By Matt Stanton

When I visit schools, there is always the opportunity for the students to ask questions. Every lesson, without fail, I am asked this:

‘Matt, where do you get your inspiration from?’

I reply quickly, ‘From you.’

The students usually look a little befuddled by that. I sometimes worry that my answer sounds trite. It’s not. It usually invites a follow-up:

‘So, you write about kids that you meet in schools?’ they ask.

I explain that this is not what I mean. In fact, I find basing characters on real people fairly problematic.

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Rather, I’m saying that when I sit down to create a new book series for children, I’m thinking about the students I have met on these school visits. These are the real kids I create reading experiences for.

I’m thinking about what they told me they liked to read and the things they were interested in. I’m remembering what made them laugh and when their eyes glazed over. I’m thinking about how to offer them something they will actively choose to read.

It’s no wonder then that all thirty-five books that I have created so far make use of humour in some way. That’s because the best times I have with students who I visit are when we are all laughing together.

Of course the research backs this up. The Kids and Families Reading Report Australia, put together by Scholastic in 2015, identified that the number one thing Australian children look for when selecting a book is something that will make them laugh.

Taking this information and combining it with my own experience with students, talking to teacher librarians about the most popular books in the library and even as a parent myself, I set out to create the chapter book series, Funny Kid. The series debuted as the number one children’s book in Australia in 2017 and has gone on to be published all over the world.

My thinking was this. If we know that kids are looking to laugh when searching for a book, then I want to create something that overtly scratches where kids are saying they itch. Most of the funny chapter books for middle grade readers are funny, but also about something else. So it’s a funny series about pirates or a humorous series about zombies for example. I wanted to create as few resistance points to reading as I possibly could. If you like funny books, then in this series I promise to do everything I can to make you laugh on every page. The covers tell you very little except for the fact that this book is intent on cracking you up.

However, what I’ve also learned from listening to children is that humour is great, but don’t forget the heart. I’m fascinated by what gets children reading but also what keeps them reading. A joke may get them in the door, but a sense that they, as a reader, have been known and understood, is what keeps a person reading.

Understanding this from my conversations with students helped me make sure that the Funny Kid series is not a collection of gags, but a caricatured story of kids trying to make sense of an adult world while grappling with their own fears, pressures and insecurities.

Of course, the children I’m intent on listening to aren’t just the students I meet. They’re also my own kids. It was in travelling with my seven-year-old on her reading journey that I noticed something I hadn’t picked up on before.

The transition from reading picture books to reading novels is challenging for many reasons. But there is something in this period of time in a young reader’s life that I find particularly interesting. It’s the point where the student is desperate for a more substantial story and yet thoroughly unimpressed by the idea of having to trade the illustrated component of the reading experience in order to get it.

It makes sense to me. They have spent all of this time developing their visual literacy skills. Their reading ability hasn’t extended enough for rich and evocative prose and so they’re left in a kind of no man’s land.

I am an author and an illustrator so this was a challenge I was passionate to tackle. How could I help these kids?

I decided to create a graphic novel series. I found, when reading with my daughter, that graphic novels can have this beautiful role to play in the no man’s land. A two-hundred-page novel, The Odds (the first book in this new series) tells a layered and nuanced story about identity and imagination that is filled with visual storytelling. It has a lot of words to read, but it has a lot of imagery too. It is the longest book my daughter has read on her own, and thanks to the kids and parents who email me, I know she’s not the only one. The next question kids tend to ask in those emails is, ‘What can I read next?’

It’s this conversation with teachers, parents and students which got me thinking about the whole idea of reading links. How can I help kids move from one book to the next? How can I help them to stretch their skills and to be drawn towards something more challenging than the last thing that they read?

One of the things I noticed in my school visits is that when I ask a room full of students about what they like to read, they often don’t answer with titles. They answer with authors. They tell me that they like to read books by particular people.

Young readers really enjoy connecting with authors, I’ve noticed. They like to access the imagination behind the things that they read. It’s one of the reasons I create so much video content for them on YouTube. When they send me emails (I receive five to ten emails most days), they reveal the connection they feel with the person who created the story they loved.

It was in putting some of these pieces together that I decided to create books across a wide range of reading levels. Together with my wife, bestselling author and illustrator Beck Stanton, we have deliberately created series from baby books all the way up to middle-grade novels.

This is all about helping kids to easily find something new and more challenging to read. So, if they enjoyed my picture book series Pea+Nut, then perhaps they will enjoy my graphic novel series, The Odds. If they enjoyed The Odds, why don’t they try a novel series like Funny Kid? And so on.

In 2020, even before COVID hit, I had decided to take a year off visiting schools. I was behind on some projects and I had a lot of books I wanted to make. Then, as it turned out, almost all the writing festivals were cancelled as well. I have been largely alone in my studio now for twelve months. At first, I thought that, in a way, this might make things easier. Less travel means more time for book-making. That was the rationale anyway.

But I have missed the kids. I haven’t had the sound of their voices quite as loudly in my ears or their laughter echoing in my head. I haven’t been able to ask them questions or hear their frustrations. I need them in my creative process. Time with them is vital if I am going to serve them well. That is why in 2021, I want to be back with those young readers who inspire me so much.

I guess hindsight really is … no, I’m not going to make that joke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Stanton is a bestselling children's author and illustrator who has sold more than one million books worldwide. His middle-grade series Funny Kid debuted as the #1 Australian kids’ book and has legions of fans across the globe. He has published bestselling picture books such as There Is a Monster Under My Bed Who Farts, This Is a Ball and Pea + Nut!, and produces a daily YouTube show for kids. Matt’s latest book, The Odds, is the start of a middle-grade graphic novel series about identity, imagination and discovering who you are.

This article is proudly brought to you by QBD Books. You can get Matt's latest book in the Funny Kid series here and 'The Odds' here.

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