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 â€œHarry Potterâ€ 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 â€” and the childrenâ€™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 â€” â€œTwilight,â€ â€œThe Hunger Games,â€ â€œPercy Jackson and the Olympiansâ€ and â€œDiary of a Wimpy Kidâ€ â€” soon followed â€œHarry Potterâ€ and made household names of their authors. Childrenâ€™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 â€œThe Magic Words.â€ This book is a well-organized master class for serious writers seeking solid instruction. Readers â€” and would-be authors â€” soon learn that the â€œmagicâ€ 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 â€œThe Magic Wordsâ€ contradicts the still-too-persistent myth that writing for children is somehow â€œlesserâ€ or â€œeasierâ€ 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 â€œPower and Attention,â€ it focuses on writing that can be â€œespecially charged with questions of power,â€ including writing across cultures â€” â€œrace, ethnicity, religion, class, gender identity, sexuality, physical ability, neurotypology.â€ Klein also discusses writing historical fiction, which she describes as â€œunpacking the baggage of the past to bring it to life in the present.â€ 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 â€” author-activists of color Justina Ireland, Daniel JosÃ© Older and Nisi Shawl â€” to provide a nuanced treatment of issues galvanizing the childrenâ€™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 Paulâ€™s â€œWriting Picture Books.â€ ) Those writing fiction for adults would also find Kleinâ€™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. Kleinâ€™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 â€” or that one eager young reader.
Mary Quattlebaum is a childrenâ€™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