Favorite Ingredients of Kid-Lit
Hans Ness, Oct 22, 2023
Stories for children and young adults have certain similarities, but I haven’t found much written about that beyond the basics. So here’s my observation of four popular elements in kid-lit:
The Chosen One
Everyone wants to feel special, especially kids. So, vicariously, kids like a protagonist who discovers they have special talents, special lineage, or special character:
Harry Potter: He learns he’s a wizard, the most special one.
Frozen: Elsa discovers her magic powers.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: He’s the only kid special enough to win the factory.
The Lightning Thief: Percy Jackson discovers he’s a demigod son of Poseidon
The Princess Diaries: Mia discovers she’s a princess.
How to Train Your Dragon: Hiccup is the first one understanding enough to fly a dragon.
Hunger Games: Kat learns she’s a great survivalist and an inspirational leader.
Divergent: Tris learns she’s uniquely gifted in all five aptitudes and traits.
Star Wars: Luke Skywalker learns he has the Force and becomes one of the greatest Jedi.
This trope applies to adult protagonists too:
The Matrix: Neo learns he is “the One” prophesied to free humankind.
Avatar: Jake Sully learns he’s exceptional as an avatar and becomes a savior.
Keeping Secrets from Grownups
I don’t know why, but kids love the idea of keeping secrets. It’s so common in stories that any paper-thin excuse will do — or even with no good reason at all, it’s just understood, “We can’t tell Mom and Dad!” Of course, secrets are always a way to create obstacles for any age, but it’s way more common in kid-lit.
Kids want to be trusted with important responsibilities, so it’s no surprise that child protagonists often take on a very important task, usually without the help of grownups. (This is also a natural outcome of a proactive protagonist with high stakes.)
Moana: Ventures out to sea alone to save her island.
Harry Potter: Battles Lord Voldemort.
How to Train Your Dragon: Hiccup saves the dragons and his village.
Onward: Ian and his brother go on a quest to visit their dead father.
Ender’s Game: Saves Earth.
For similar reasons, boarding schools are popular settings because kids have more independence from grownups, e.g. Harry Potter
, Ender’s Game
, Looking for Alaska
Apparently, reality is so boring that many kid-lit stories involve magic spells or anything paranormal or far beyond our science — like the Force (telekinesis, etc.), fantastical creatures in How to Train Your Dragon
, silly technology in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
, ghosts/spirits in The Lion King
, and an alternate reality in The Matrix
. Many adults like this too, but it’s more common in kid-lit.
has all four ingredients:
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
- The ocean chooses Moana — she’s literally the chosen one.
- She sneaks away from her parents to sail away.
- She has the responsibility of finding Maui and saving her island.
- Maui, Te Fiti/Te Ka, and the ocean are all magical.
also has all four:
- Elliot is the special one who found E.T. “He came to me.”
- Elliot and his siblings keep E.T. secret from the grownups.
- Elliot has a big responsibility the help E.T. get home.
- E.T. has magic-like powers of telekinesis, flying, healing, and empathic bonding.
While these are popular, not all kid-lit has all four. (I tend to minimize them in my own stories.) What else should go on this list?
When writing for children or young adults, consider adding any/all of these ingredients.