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You don’t have to tell young readers as much as you think

There is sometimes an assumption that younger readers won’t understand what’s going on unless the plot and the characters’ feelings are explicitly spelled out to them. But children are often more sophisticated readers than adults think they are and, like adults, they appreciate stories where they are given the chance to be active rather than passive readers. In other words, if there are gaps in what the author writes – about a situation or the way a character feels – then young readers are encouraged to use their imagination to fill them in and, in doing so, become participants in a shared experience.

A good example of this is the scene in the classic children’s book Charlotte’s Web, written by E.B. White*, in which Charlotte dies.  It would perhaps have been easy to try and manipulate the young reader’s emotions in a straightforward manner, by telling them how sad it was and how all the other characters wept at her tragic loss. But instead, White chose to set the scene at the summer fair, where everyone is happy and excited. The air is warm and the lights are bright. Then, just as Charlotte dies, he shows the fair ending. The lights and the tents are taken down and packed away. The fields are empty except for litter.  Charlotte’s death, when it comes, is written almost as an aside: ‘No-one was with her when she died.’ But the metaphor of the dismantled fairground has already done its work and readers are undoubtedly affected more profoundly than if they had been told how to feel.

So next time you are writing a scene for young readers – particularly if it is a moment of high emotion – then it is perhaps worth thinking carefully not only about what to include, but also about what to leave out.

The following exercise gives you the opportunity to experiment with the notion of leaving gaps for the author to fill in…

*Interestingly, ‘The Elements of Style’, a handbook on written English that White updated and revised in 1959, is still seen as one of the finest guides to writing ever produced.

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