Almost 20 years ago, a novel about a boy wizard began to fly out of bookstores, first in the United Kingdom, then around the world. By 2007, with publication of the final volume, the seven-book “Harry Potter” series was a global juggernaut. Along with attendant movies, merchandise and theme-park attractions, the series transformed its initially unknown author, J.K. Rowling, into an iconic billionaire — and the children’s book industry into a publishing force majeure.
How did Rowling manage to write novels that connected with so many young and adult readers? And could this magic happen again?
Other mega-dollar series — “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games,” “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” — soon followed “Harry Potter” and made household names of their authors. Children’s and young-adult titles became increasingly hot commodities. How-to books and online courses proliferated, and more colleges began offering classes in writing for children.
Above this bubbling stew of hope and ambition, Cheryl B. Klein floats like a craft-focused fairy godmother with “The Magic Words.” This book is a well-organized master class for serious writers seeking solid instruction. Readers — and would-be authors — soon learn that the “magic” referred to in her title happens only with a great deal of effort and creative risk-taking. Klein calls for attention to detail, regular hours of writing and numerous revisions.
Klein brings a wealth of experience to this guide. As the executive editor at the Arthur A. Levine imprint of Scholastic Books, she has worked with acclaimed authors very different in tone and style, including Bill Konigsberg, Francisco X. Stork and Lisa Yee. And she has proven herself highly capable of helping authors succeed.
The sheer size of “The Magic Words” contradicts the still-too-persistent myth that writing for children is somehow “lesser” or “easier” than writing for adults. Klein ranges far beyond simple character-trait checklists and plot diagrams to substantively consider story premise, structure, openings, pacing, voice and characterization. The 18 chapters move logically from basic principles to revising and publishing. Exercises stretch the mind and skills.
Chapter 9 alone is worth the price of the book. Titled “Power and Attention,” it focuses on writing that can be “especially charged with questions of power,” including writing across cultures — “race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender identity, sexuality, physical ability, neurotypology.” Klein also discusses writing historical fiction, which she describes as “unpacking the baggage of the past to bring it to life in the present.” Her points help writers consider their responsibilities to young readers if they write outside their own cultures. Klein homes in on issues raised by the We Need Diverse Books campaign, established in 2014, and draws on essays and blog posts by key voices — author-activists of color Justina Ireland, Daniel José Older and Nisi Shawl — to provide a nuanced treatment of issues galvanizing the children’s book industry.
This guide best serves chapter-book authors and novelists. (Picture-book writers might glean insights more specific to their work in Ann Whitford Paul’s “Writing Picture Books.” ) Those writing fiction for adults would also find Klein’s book helpful. After all, increasing numbers of authors, such as Kelly Link and Jacqueline Woodson, write for both children and adults.
Looking for quick, easy magic and a pot of gold? Search out that boy with the wand. Klein’s guide is for people willing to put in the heart and hard work to develop skills that might transform words into a tale that touches the world — or that one eager young reader.
Mary Quattlebaum is a children’s author and the reviewer of teen fiction for The Washington Post. She teaches in the graduate program in writing for children and young adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
By Cheryl B. Klein
W.W. Norton. 368 pp. $18.95