Book Review: Irresistible Kidlit Writing Manual

Refresher courses are always a good idea. Every year, I make sure I study a writing book or three to keep my skills sharp. In 2014, my writing craft book of choice was Writing Irresistible Kidlit by editor and former literary agent Mary Kole.

Writing Irresistible Kidlit

Writing Irresistible Kidlit [ISBN 978-1-59963-576-7]

The book delivers exactly what the subtitle promises: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers. Mary Kole generously laces her advice with excerpts from current YA and MG books, and she sources the opinions of other publishing professionals. Every chapter finishes with some exercises to try. The book packs a wallop with this great combo of insider advice, pertinent examples, and handy exercises.

In an interview with Writers’ Digest (who published the book), Mary Kole summarised her message:

“It’s all about a great idea mixed with characters that readers can really relate to. And your theme must be universal enough to attract a wide audience. Idea is only half of the battle, though. The best writers I know are always learning and working on their writing craft, so execution is also important.”

9468186250_7a72c99662_mHeavy Highlighting

I devoured Writing Irresistible Kidlit from cover to cover, highlighting, annotating and dog-earing pages until my copy looked like the victim of a gnarly face painting accident. With my highlighter sucked dry, I turned the last page and felt a surge of empowerment and direction that rarely comes from reading writing craft books. Not only was I equipped, I was inspired and ready to fly…

One Stop Shop

Mary Kole’s book covers everything kidlit writers need to know:

  • Understanding the MG and YA markets — with a detailed section on why understanding the difference is critical
  • Getting a grip on the mindsets of MG and YA readers
  • Shooting for “Big Ideas” (This chapter is worth re-reading a few times.)
  • Basic Kidlit Writing Craft
  • Advanced Writing Craft
  • Publishing Tips

Notable Quotables

The book is way cheaper than a master class but every bit as helpful. For the benefit of Spilling Ink readers, I’ve selected a few of the passages I starred, circled or highlighted to death. Here are a few nuggets:

On MG/YA Markets and Readers

  • “To generalize, conflicts in YA tend to be bigger and more all consuming and they are resolved on a more bittersweet note than in MG. There are fewer 100 percent happy endings because readers are starting to realize that life is more complicated than that, and nothing is ever all bad or all good.” (p 15)
  • “The kidlit audience reads to bond with characters.” (p 73)
  • On the importance of relatability: “We want characters to grab us because we recognize ourselves in them. This  is especially important when writing MG and YA, because pre-teens and teens are searching for connection.” (p 106)
  • “The idea of a core relationship is especially important in MG, where family bonds factor more strongly into a protagonist’s life than they sometimes do in YA. It’s very common to have MG with a sympathetic family member, family friend, or mentor.” (p 115)

 On Good Ideas

  • “Writing aside, a book’s number-one killer is a lack of story.” (p 27)
  • “Story originality is overrated. Your stock trade as a writer is your vision and your ability to execute and idea as only you can.” (p 29)
  • “A story must be both a mirror and a window. A mirror, because it reflects something readers recognize in themselves. A window, because a great story also needs to show the reader something new.” –Mary’s paraphrase of a sentiment expressed by kidlit author Mitali Perkins (p 77)

 On Storytelling Basics

  • “Most novels do not find their true beginning until the writer is deep into revision. Just because you put it first doesn’t mean that your current opening section is the real beginning. “(p 49)
  • Interiority--access to a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions–is a great tool that writers don’t use nearly enough…It reinforces character feelings or turning points in key moments. Interiority is usually found in summary at the end of a scene or paragraph and used judiciously to make sure that an emotional moment really “lands” with the reader.” (p 58)
  • “You should strive to create a bond between the villain and your reader, one that disturbs them but that they can’t help.” (p 124)
  • “When (your main character) has an ally, take that person away. When she has a decision to make, put a ticking clock on it. Where there’s an object that he absolutely requires, obliterate it. When she craves a safe place, make it inaccessible.”

Advanced Kidlit & Beyond…

  • Theme is born when a writer has a Big Idea, something he wants to express about the world, or a Big Question that he’s hoping to answer about life or human nature.
  • On Authorial Voice: “Of all the craft elements I teach, voice is among the most enigmatic. Writers always want to know what voice is, and the best I can usually come up with is ‘It’s the je ne sais quoi of writing.’ Real helpful.” (p 219)
  • “Writers can become very myopic. They get so caught up with writing and trying to play the publishing game that they forget their larger role: Creator and truth-teller. And we can’t tell a lot of life truths or explore a lot of Big Ideas if we’ve been tapping away at a laptop in a darkened room for weeks on end.” (p 241)
  • “We create to be true to ourselves and to tell the truth.” (p 242)

Recommended Titles

As mentioned, Mary backed up her advice with excerpts from over forty kidlit books. Her list could fill a whole year with exemplary writing, but I’ve narrowed it down to a few that made it to my TBR list:

Mary’s Resources

Kidlit.com – A fantastic website with all kinds of information and links

Mary Kole Editorial – Looking for an editor? Mary Kole’s available.

Creative Commons Image Credit

Time to Fly by Victoria Nevland

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Irresistible Kidlit Writing Manual

  1. I have two copies Ali. I downloaded an e-version and I loved it so much I wanted to write notes in it, dogtag pages and highlight sections – I bought the hard copy. I am planning on reading it again in the New Year. Mel

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  2. Harry Potter was in there, wasn’t it? Harry Potter is PERFECTLY written, it is amazing 🙂 If Harry Potter’s not on there, that book is not worth reading….Harry Potter is a work of GENIUS!! JKR is a BRILLIANT author!! Oh, I could rant all day, but mustn’t…drat. 😛

    Also, what’s “MG”? Isn’t that a brand of car? (It is – there’s a car called an MG in “Pastures of the Blue Crane” – another great book!!)

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