Ursula K. LeGuin is famous for saying (among many, many other things) that writing for children is not just a case of using short words. I’m paraphrasing – if I can ever find the quote, I will insert it here. While writing for kids often involves short words, that’s not the whole picture. Kids’ brains are developing. Their language skills are developing. Their comprehension of the world around them is developing. When you’re writing for kids – and especially if you are trying to explain a scientific concept to them – you need to meet them where they live. Four-year olds do not understand that the earth is a sphere (wouldn’t all the people fall off the bottom?). Six-year olds can’t work with models (no, that’s not the moon; it’s clearly a tennis ball). Thirteen-year-olds have not had differential calculus yet (so please find a different way of explaining Newton’s Laws of Motion to them). The best way to learn how to write for kids is to read books and articles written for kids. And maybe talk to a few kids. And seek advice from their teachers. Also, check out the links below about reading level, science concepts, and vocabulary.
If you want to write for kids, magazines are a good place to start. Here’s a list of Parents’ Choice Award-winning magazines. Evelyn Christensen keeps a complete list of magazines. And visit your local library’s children’s section, and look at their magazine collection. If you are interested in submitting work to any of them, that information is usually near the bottom of the magazine’s main page, labeled “submissions,” “contact,” or something similar. A magazine pitch usually consists of a description of the scope of your article, proposed word count, a detailed outline, and a list of resources (including potential interview subjects). If it’s your first time querying this magazine, you will also be asked to submit a writing sample. If it’s a published sample, submit the unedited version, and say so. If you’re unpublished, find something you’ve written for anything. My first writing samples were a class exercise and the justification section of a grant I’d written. Your query letter or email should also include what any other book or magazine query would include: a brief description of the article and why it will be interesting to kids, your credentials, and why you’re interested in this particular magazine. If you are unknown to the editor, keep it professional. Avoid being cutesy, even though you’re writing for kids.
Magazine editors don’t have a lot of spare time, what with having to get an entire 50-100 page issue out every 1-2 months. So make it easy on them, and follow their submission instructions carefully. Sticking to proper formatting, word limits, due dates, and manner of submission will help convince them that you are reliable (i.e., they will want to hire you again). Most of these magazines are probably in your local library, so go check them out to get an idea of their desired writing style.
Reading level: If you google “reading level,” you’ll get a lot of commercial websites trying to sell you leveled readers or software that will assess the readability of your text. Alternately, most word processing programs will do it for you as part of their grammar check. In MSWord, it’s under Tools > Spelling & Grammar. Hit ‘Options’ and check the box for ‘Show Readability Statistics.’ After it goes through a grammar check, it will spit out this wonderful thing to the right. As a scientist, I find the automated algorithm a bit simplistic and brute-force. For example, a word like “sometimes” is pretty long (9 letters – gasp!), but I think it’s in most kindergarteners’ vocabulary. But it’s a good starting point and a good first estimate. Check out the related Wikipedia page for more. (Yes, yes, I know. Wikipedia, blech. It’s a good article, okay? If you’re really upset by it, click on the references.)
What concepts can you cover, and in what detail? There is no Common Core for science (yet), but there are the Next Generation Science Standards. These are developmentally appropriate science learning standards formulated by the states, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Science Teachers’ Association (NSTA), and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). You can check them out at the NGSS website. Your state’s department of education will also have some good resources.
Vocabulary can also be an issue. Harcourt School Publishers has a nifty scientific glossary listed by grade level (1-6). You can also observe how they write for different ages by looking up the same concept presented for different grade levels. It’s not just the vocabulary that changes! Notice that writing for grade 2 is concrete and includes examples, but for grade 6 can be pretty abstract.
- Adaptation [grade 2]: Anything about an animal that helps it live. The way a chameleon changes color is an adaptation.
- Adaptation [grade 6]: A structure or feature of an organism that helps it meet a particular need in its natural habitat.
If your query to a particular magazine isn’t picked up, fear not! There are many, many reasons that an editor will pass on your pitch. Maybe they had twelve pitches about the same topic, and they went with someone who was more seasoned, more expert, or who had written for them before. Maybe they decided to go in a different direction. Keep pitching. I realize everyone says this, but in this case, it’s actually true.