January 15, 2018

Three Things I’ve Learned about Writing from Children’s Classics

By Cathy Gohike

1.  Create Strong Characters
You know the ones—those lovable, memorable characters from childhood books who’ve endured. You might not remember the names of their authors, but you’d recognize a clever boy like Tom Sawyer anywhere . . . or an incorrigible Huckleberry Finn, or even a man sporting a cruel streak, like Injun Joe. Saying “she’s a real Anne—Anne with an e,” is telling about a girl’s lively imagination, her loyalty, her repeated mishaps. “She’s just like Jo” leaves no doubt that we’re talking theatrical, writerly, ink-stained Jo March of Little Women. Christopher Robin, winsome to the core, runs forever on spindly legs, while simple Winnie-the-Pooh remains forever roly-poly—his paws dripping honey and his little red shirt a mite too tight. “Peter Rabbit” conjures up a bunny at once so dear and naughty we love him but shake our heads.
Children look for story friends like themselves: strong, likable people or talking animals whose foibles are their own—or ones they can imagine—and characters so clearly, endearingly drawn they’re unforgettable. 

2.  Write Sharp Dialogue
Natural and unaffected, children say what they mean and mean what they say. They don’t beat about the bush, unless, of course, they’re Tom Sawyer and they’ve got you on a string for fence painting. Crisp dialogue appropriate for their age, experience, and understanding moves the story forward. Dialect is true and rendered unapologetically. It rarely needs tags because each character’s unique speech and behaviors differentiate them.

3.  Weave an Intriguing Plot—but Keep It Simple
Plots in children’s stories are straightforward, moving steadily from beginning to end. Readers discern the good guys and bad guys by their actions, even if motivation is not immediately clear to the protagonist. There are few very complex characters or point-of-view changes in children’s classics, and few red herrings. Plot twists may surprise, but are plausible within the realm of the story.

Plots in children’s stories are known for their morals, their “takeaways,” and for their suitably happy endings—even to the most tragic tales. Books abound that espouse hard work, truth telling, kindness, and remaining true to oneself—even if the journey is convoluted.

Some children’s classics weave tales as meaningful for adults as they are for children. Allegory and metaphor—transporting for children, and recognized by adults in purely crafted stories—produce exquisite beauty . . . think C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. The barnyard and its adventures, its friendships and pitfalls, is the world of Wilbur and a metaphor for life. 

We might read those books every year of our lives and come away with greater insights, greater joy. It’s why these classic tales, their characters and authors, appear in my own novels from time to time.

What higher praise than to become a book for all ages? What better lessons for writers penning books for any age?
Three-time Christy and two-time Carol and INSPY Award–winning author Cathy Gohlke writes novels steeped with inspirational lessons from history. Her stories reveal how people break the chains that bind them and triumph over adversity through faith. When not traveling to historic sites for research, she, her husband, and their dog, Reilly, divide their time between northern Virginia and the Jersey Shore, enjoying time with their grown children and grandchildren. Visit her website at and find her on Facebook at CathyGohlkeBooks.    

No comments:

Post a Comment