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Making an Impression

By Eileen Hoftyzer

“Hopefully you marry rich or you have a day job.”
Children’s editor Jude Isabella laughs as she says it – in an interview, not as personal career advice – but there’s still a feeling that she’s speaking the truth.

That’s not what anyone wants to hear from an editor. It’s harsh advice and a reality check for every writer looking to break into the children’s market.

Writers who dream of a leisurely life, throwing together articles and making a good living in the children’s market are in for disappointment. Children’s magazine writing can be an enjoyable side project, but it can also be difficult to do successfully. To make money, writers have to write children’s books or other types of articles. So much for a leisurely lifestyle.

There is no set path to success in this market. The backgrounds of people in the industry are varied. Editors and writers may have started their careers in newspapers or scientific research. It almost seems like this is a field people fall into by accident.

Even though it may not have been the original career goal of people in the industry, writing for children can be a very enjoyable side project, and another market for freelancers to explore.

The children’s section of the newsstand has a plethora of magazines, though most of them are American. There are only a small number of Canadian children’s magazines, and most of the sales are through subscriptions, not on the newsstand.

Canadian magazines do not directly compete with each other because they have different niches and target different age groups: Yes Magazine is a science magazine for eight to 14 year olds, Chickadee  and Owl are general interest for kids six to nine and nine to 12, and Pop is an adventure magazine.

Children’s magazines compete more with other media than they do with each other. “When we think about competition we’re just not thinking of magazines. We’re thinking of TV, computers, sports,” says Hilary Bain, editor-in-chief of Owl for the past five years. “We have to compete for kids’ attention in all kinds of ways.”  That means articles have to be fun and interesting and keep kids’ attention.

Writing for children can be both rewarding and enjoyable. Writers have a unique opportunity to educate and occupy young minds at the same time with fun and informative stories. Freelance writer Magi Nams got her Master’s degree in plant ecology and was helping her husband with his scientific research when she started writing for children.

She has written 25 articles for Ranger Rick, an American nature magazine for kids seven and up, and says she loves seeing excitement painted on children’s faces and helping them develop an interest in nature.

“The best thing about writing for kids,” says the mother of two teenaged boys, “is to try to create that excitement about the natural world and how wonderful it is and try to get that across to them.”
She says when she reads one of her most popular articles about a lynx on a hunting trip, kids become involved in the story and even start acting it out.

“I would like my writing to get kids thinking more about the natural world, about the animals that are out there and ecosystems that are out there, so that they’re aware of it,” she said. “And they’re going to want to take better care of it.”

Despite how enjoyable the end result can be, the task of writing for children can be more challenging than writing for adults. The first challenge is figuring out what to write about, which can be as hard as actually writing the article. It is possible to write an article for children based on research that was done for an adult article, as long as the topic is something that children are interested in and care about.

“You want familiarity,” Owl’s Bain says, “but you want to go a step beyond that so they’re learning something new.” 

Nams chooses subjects from nature that she finds fascinating and thinks editors will like. In her favourite article, she dispelled myths about vampire bats, a topic that is spooky enough to keep kids intrigued but is also educational.

One unique challenge in children’s writing is the length the articles. Word counts are far lower than they are for adults. Features are generally 300 to 800 words long, and are rarely more than 1000 words, but complete and sometimes complex stories still have to be told.

“Writing for children is a fine art,” said Bain. “In a lot of ways it’s much harder because the words you select have to be the right words and how you put them together has to be crafted in ways that make it comprehensible for kids. It’s a skill. You have to learn it.”

Just because articles are shorter, it does not mean that they require less research. Nams researches far more information than she ever uses so she has a complete understanding of the topic she is writing about. She reads scientific papers and contacts experts to make sure she has accurate information. It then becomes a challenge to pare down all the information and choose the most relevant, interesting, and entertaining facts.

Writers must simplify words and sentence structures without compromising variety or entertainment. “It’s a challenge, a real challenge. When I go from writing for adults to writing for children, there’s a mind-switch involved in there,” says Nams. “You can’t use the same approach.” 

At the same time that ideas have to be simplified, it is extremely important not be patronizing. That, according to Bain, is one of the most common mistakes writers make. “They have the best intentions, but as an adult, without being in a kid’s world, a kid’s head, it’s hard to put yourself in that position,” she says. She looks for articles to balance the fine line between too simple and too complex.

“Oftentimes, the material is either somewhat patronizing, like really really talking down to kids,” Bain says, “or it’s too complicated so they don’t even understand the puns and the wit of what a writer is writing.”
So what is the fine line? 

The balance is hard to weigh: Nams says it’s not about making a story simple, but making the vocabulary age-appropriate with phrases kids can understand. Then, to keep children engaged, she writes it like a fictional story. “I try to make my articles action-packed, I try to make them exciting, sometimes they’re mysterious,” she says. “And they’re to read like a story, with all sorts of science facts woven into the fabric of the story.”

Part of the reason adults unintentionally patronize children is their lack of understanding. “A lot of people think that ‘oh, I like kids’ or ‘I’ve got kids so I can write for kids’, and it just doesn’t work like that,” says Bain. “To really write for them, you have to really understand them and be in their world.”

That means reading children’s books and magazines, watching children’s television, and going to children’s movies. Becoming familiar with what children like and how they relate to each other is essential when writing for them.

Like all other markets, writers need to research the magazine where they want to be published. It is important to know and follow the guidelines, send an excellent query letter, and be flexible when working with the editors about the articles they assign. Isabella says that breaking into the market, if you are persistent, shouldn’t be difficult “because I think editors and people who work for kids’ publications are notoriously very nice and pretty encouraging if somebody makes an effort.”

Taking the time and effort to contact children’s editors and write a great children’s story can be very rewarding on a personal level, if not financially. Being a part of a child’s learning experience and seeing excitement is what makes the job worthwhile for Nams.

And the learning process doesn’t stop. New children are always learning enough to read a magazine, so there is always the opportunity to reach a new audience. Writing for children, though it has its challenges, also gives writers a unique opportunity to make an impression on young minds.

“Each year kids are expanding their vocabulary and reading comprehension,” says Bain. “So a whole world is opening up to them.” 

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