I want to start by saying I know next to nothing about children. To the extent that he can be said to have taught me anything beyond how to deal with one individual child, Sebastian’s lessons still don’t extend beyond his age, and it’s a while since I was too young to buy alcohol.
But I’ve always thought “write what you know” shouldn’t be taken to its extremes, and (prodigies aside), we’d never read books with children in if adults didn’t take up the baton and write them. So how do we write about children, even make them protagonists and narrators, when we’ve left those years behind.
Personally, I think the first lesson is not to underestimate children. Kids are a lot smarter than many adults give them credit for. I was talking to a pre-teen the other day whose ambition is to study Law at Cambridge. She discovered I’d done it and was happy to discuss her thoughts and plans in detail. Talking to her, it was easy to forget that this was just a kid. I could imagine having the same conversation with someone ten years older, hearing the same enthusiasm and excitement, and being enthused by it myself.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we should base our portrayals on the children in children’s stories either: Macaulay Culkin’s Home Alone character, the Famous Five, even the meddling kids from Scooby Doo (How old are they anyway? I always thought they were grown ups, in spite of this line… is it apocryphal? Another ‘beam me up, Scotty”? I’m digressing. And dating myself!) … Anyway, there is no need to go over the top with kids who outwit and outsmart adults at every turn, unless that’s your genre.
But in my (limited) experience, children think about many of the same things adults do, they notice things, they have the same feelings as adults, even if it’s about different things. They are not different from us, they just come at the world from a position of less experience, and less knowledge.
It’s easy to make child characters 2-dimensional and push them into the background, but even if they are minor characters, they can help hold the story together better the more clearly and honestly we write them.