Finding Your KidLit Voice

Writing in the appropriate voice is probably the hardest thing about writing children’s lit. You don’t just have to just worry about the words on the page and the age appropriate way to say them, but also how it sounds.

Does it sound like a teenager or does it sound like an adult trying to be a teenager?

It’s such an important question to keep in mind for YA, but also for every age group beneath it.

When a voice isn’t working for a piece, I call it the “Drug Assembly Skit” voice. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Your teachers pulled you out of class during first or second period, lied to about having a treat for you this morning, and sat you in the auditorium to watch some recent college grads pretend to be 16-years-old again while they said no to drugs.

It was stagnant.

It was awkward.

It sounded like this:

Person A: Hello there, I am selling drugs. Would you like some?

Person B: No way, man/dude/jose/friend. Drugs are bad for you. Those things can kill you.

Person A: Are you sure you do not wish to do drugs? Drugs are super cool.

Person B: I said no. I’m better than drugs.

Every awful after school special in the history of ever

You remember it now. You’re cringeing.

That same thing happens in children’s lit. Your audience picks up a book and they skim a few lines and think, “nobody talks like this.”

That kind of writing comes from a lack of understanding of and experience with the age category you’re writing in and the belief that writing for children means dumbing down your prose.

Let’s go back to your childhood. Can you remember how adults talked to you? Do you remember the gentle shift in their voice while they said things like “Wow,” “That’s cool,” “Oh, thank you,” and how all the other adults laughed?

Don’t write like that.

The narrative voice is a defining feature of children’s literature. You cannot write in these age categories if you do not put forth the time and effort to craft the right voice.

The best statement I’ve ever read for it comes from Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies.

“The perfect YA voice doesn’t just project a distinct personality; it also instantly connects with an intensely opinionated group of humans who exist in a constant state of angst thanks to raging hormones and the strain of navigating social minefields on a nanosecond-by-nanosecond basis. Phew! The mere thought of attempting such a connection may send shivers down [your spine]…”

Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies

I know the Dummies series of books gets a lot of head tilts, so let me tell you that it’s a great place to start. There are a lot of bullet points and resources to help you and direct you to other works for further study.

Let’s define voice quickly here-it’s not dialogue. It is what the narrator says and how she/he/they say it. For example:

1. I watched him lay out on the bench like he owned the damn thing.

2. He lay on the bench completely, leaving room for no one.

3. He spread his body over the bench so I couldn’t sit there.

Voice is about the words we choose and the rhythm we choose to create with them. In the first example, the phrase “like he owned the damn thing,” tells the audience that the narrator is bothered by this man taking up so much space. The second example is a simple description, there’s very little room for emotional interpretation. And the third example explains the narrator’s relationship to and reason for watching the man on the bench.

In all three examples there is a man taking up too much space, but each narrator has a different way of saying it.

Consider how you get to know a person in real life–they open their mouth and say something and you judge them.

Yes, you judge them, just as a reader will judge your characters.

Maybe they babble on and on, laughing at their own jokes. Or maybe they misuse words or say them incorrectly (supposably, irregardless, nip it in the butt). Maybe they say very little. Maybe they speak in short sentences. Maybe they use obscure grandeloquent words. Maybe they’re so excited that they should take stock out on EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!! OMG!!!!!

Your narrative voice works the same way. Let’s look at some examples:

1. Christ, I was so bored. I kept, like, asking the guys to do something but they stared at me like I was growing a second head or something.

2. A sliver of moonlight sliced through the open door, illuminating the darkness beyond it. Tali closed her eyes and pressed her forhead against the cool wood. She could easily close it and slip away like nothing ever happened. Leave the gang behind. Start over somewhere new. Somewhere less grey. The temptation was overwhelming.

adapted from writing young adult fiction for dummies

Here, the voice sets up the mood of the piece as well. In the first example, although short, you can tell that nothing is happening and as the narrator says, it’s boring. That narrator is clearly frustrated with their friends. They want to get up and do something but it seems like a foreign concept to those around them.

In the second example the lens of the story is further away, although still close to our subject, Tali. The rhythm is smooth, there are pauses where there might be breaths as Tali considers leaving her life behind.

Now let’s look at them combined:

Christ, I don’t want to be here. There’s barely enough light coming through the door to see in the room. I kind of want to bash my head on the door but that’s just gonna wake people up. I could leave. Go somewhere nice. Warm even. Maybe an island or a shore town. Somewhere I wouldn’t have to steal just to survive.

Do you see how we’ve gotten a new attitude as well as a conversational tone?

Remember the following while you craft your narrative voice:

📗 Point of view: whether you choose 1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person limited or omniscient, your POV influences all other aspects of your voice.

📕 Sensibility: You are an adult. You must leave the adult behind and re-engage with the part of you that once learned to become self-aware. Young people see the world differently and often focus on how it affects them directly. Think I need to change the world versus the world needs to change.

📘 Word Choice: Use dynamic words and stir up some emotions. Get rid of cliches and don’t attempt to use slang if you don’t understand it. Use regional choices to cement your setting and character’s background. Remember that children’s literature is casual, so colloquial wording is favorable over formal academic phrases.

📙 Sentence structure, paragraphing, and punctuation: Fragments are fine. Seriously. They contribute to the sound of the piece. Rhythm too. We speak in fragments.

And a paragaph on its own can add emphasis.

Crafting your voice doesn’t have to be difficult when you write for children and young adults, but it does need to be at the forefront of your mind while you create your world. Your audience will come for your vibrant world and characters, your space stations and astronauts, your fantasy islands and wizards, your contemporary schools with love triangles and angst.

But they will stay for your voice and the way your story is told.

An Interview with Lisa Frenkel Riddiough All By My Shelf

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Originally published on June 29, 2021 @ 12:00 pm

Published by J. M. Tuckerman

J.M.Tuckerman is a neurodivergent writer with a big education. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, an MA in Writing, and a BA in Writing Arts (specializing in Creative Writing, New Media Writing, and Publication; concentrating in New Media Production), which she somehow managed to earn despite her three very loud and large dogs. Jessica was lucky enough to intern at Quirk Books and Picador, USA while earning her master’s degrees. Her service dog, Ringo, is very proud of all that she has accomplished and hopes to be on a back cover of a published book with her very soon. An avid reader, writer, and lover of young adult and middle-grade literature, Jessica’s bookshelf is overflowing with hardbacks, paperbacks, and a million half-filled notebooks. She is a proud fur-mommy to two lab/st-bernard littermates, a retriever-mix service dog, and one orange little hobgoblin cat, all of whom have made very audible appearances on the Booked All Night podcast.

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