Writing Fantasy for Younger Readers
Fantasy is an interesting genre, as it encompasses several kinds of fantasy within itself. To say it is one genre is like saying Buffy the Vampire Slayer (urban-fantasy) is the same thing as Lord of the Rings (epic-/high-fantasy). Because these sub-genres are so different from each other and appeal to different kinds of readers, applying that to middle-grade or young-adult fiction can be even harder. As an author working on their first epic-fantasy series targeted at readers aged 10 to 12 years old, I feel that there are certain factors that need to be applied.
Including fictional languages and complex world building are key staples in epic fantasy novels, but for children, these could be seen as overly complicated and confusing. Children who are not strong readers or are ones who do not like reading at all may get bored if things get too wordy. In the untitled series I am currently working on, the language is simplified while still including what I call “dictionary words” that will encourage children to learn new words that still fit their age grouping but could be more challenging. Having characters with names that sound how they are spelled can also be a tip to keeping things easier for younger readers. It is important to remember that if you mention something in any level of novel (or really any genre) that it is actually relevant, but it is even more important when writing for children who may get bored.
To lean into the other direction, while it is important to keep things simple for younger readers, it is just as important not to patronize them. An excellent example of this is the Percy Jackson series and its spin-offs by Rick Riordan. Even with all the inclusion of Greek mythology, it never once goes out of its way to explain things that wouldn’t be common knowledge to the age group (typically in North America students learn about ancient mythology in grade 4, when they are around 10-years-old). More complicated things or lesser-known myths are clearly explained, but only to the extent that is relevant to move the plot forward. Riordan’s novels do not underestimate the readers or even their acceptance of those who may live a different life style than them, as later works include vastly diverse characters in race, gender, and sexuality.
With this information in mind, it certainly isn’t easy when it comes to writing for younger age groups. I am an adult, my illustrator is an adult, and so is my editor. What do we really know about what a 12-year-old can or cannot understand? Work shopping ideas and even testing out chapters with a younger audience is key, and it doesn’t matter if it is a child in your family or in a friend’s family or even children you babysit. Finding someone in the demographic you are targeting with your writing is key to making sure it actually appeals to them. That is not to say go to a park and start reading to random children, but ask friends if their children or younger cousins/nieces/nephews would be interested in story time.
I believe that at the end of the day, being something new and unique is the most important part of fantasy while also being the most stressful. Keeping a separate notebook or document with little notes about your story can help to ensure that everything is multifaceted even if much of the information does not actually end up in the novel itself. Trust yourself and let your world flourish!