Little Darlings—Time-crafting in children's fiction

How to write time in children's fiction

By Kate Lee

Whether you’re writing a picture book, early reader, or middle-grade novel, there’s one aspect of crafting a work of fiction that’s frequently overlooked: time. The timescape for your story might be an hour, an afternoon, a day, a week, a particular season, or a broad sweep of time encompassing a year or more—there’s no right or wrong. The important thing is that the timescape suits the story and that the author has consciously developed it as part of the story’s architecture, helping to give it strength and shape. This helps the reader feel they are in safe hands. Then they can relax and enjoy the story.

Choose a timescape that suits the story 

how to write time in children's books, kidlit, and for middle grade readers

When thinking about your timescape, your choices are many and varied. You might use the days of the week as a familiar and easy-to-grasp framework; you might decide that a long, cold winter makes the perfect chilling backdrop; or, as the work unfolds, you may discover that a key seasonal event, such as Diwali, offers a brilliant focal point.

In the recently-published and utterly joyful picture-book retelling of the Kenneth Grahame classic The Wind in the Willows, written by Rashmi Sirdeshpandi and illustrated by Jojo Clinch, the story opens with the advent of spring, triggering a zest for adventure: "Spring was in the air. Mole could feel it."

The story encompasses the dangers of winter snow before reaching an ending drenched in summer sunshine. All timed to perfection! In contrast, in middle-grade eco-adventure The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold, the timescape is a whole summer. Time ebbs and flows, perfectly reflecting the role of the sea and melting ice in the story. 

Time and your narrative as a whole 

The manipulation of time in children's literature

Whatever timescape you settle on, a deadline adds a sense of urgency and, as a tried-and-tested narrative technique, has certainly earned its place in the writer’s toolkit. (Think Cinderella!)

Middle-grade adventure Ajay and the Mumbai Sun (winner of the Time/Chickenhouse Children’s Fiction Competition 2020) written by Varsha Shah and illustrated by Sonia Albert is a great example of this. In the novel, a group of street kids led by 12-year-old Ajay battle to outwit devious commercial forces. A clearly set up three-week deadline drives the action without feeling in any way unrealistic, allowing alliances to form, suffer setbacks, recover, and grow deeper. 

When writing for older children, time may not be purely linear. You might include flashbacks or memory gleams, especially when looking to add emotional depth to a story. 

Making time work at scene level 

Once you’ve chosen your timescape, the next job for the writer is to keep track of it once the story is underway. There are several techniques writers can use. Firstly, when writing each scene or chapter, take a moment to reflect and ask yourself, what time of day is it? How much time has passed since the last event? Is it dark or light outside? When you’ve finished your first draft, review the entire work with your time goggles on: is there a sense of continuity in how you handle the passage of time, or have you jumped from densely-textured scenes to a more sweeping approach? Consistency will help readers of all ages feel in safe hands. 

Could a time map work for you? 

the art of time in children's fiction kidlit

Another useful technique is to create a "time map" of the story, either as a jotted list, a spreadsheet, or something more visual. This can be a great help in figuring out how long things take to happen (a journey, a party, a fight?) and whether or not you’re still aligned to your original plan. It may be that, as the work develops, you decide the story cannot actually be squeezed into that nice, neat Monday-to-Sunday framework, or that your idea to use all the seasons is slowing things down too much. 

Time to make friends

In children’s fiction, it’s particularly useful to consider time alongside friendship, since the business of meeting and making new friends is central to many children’s books. In real life, true friendship, with its hallmarks of trust, understanding, and loyalty, takes time to develop. Friendships may be tested in a story and differences resolved—all of which also needs time.

A great example of this is The Girl Who Stole An Elephant by Nizrana Farook. In this middle-grade adventure Chaya navigates an unlikely new friendship while doing her best to preserve a long-standing one. The emotional aspects are balanced perfectly with an adventure that moves along at a cracking pace. This matters because, for developing readers who are flexing their reading muscles, it’s important for the story to offer frequent rewards, whether that’s in the form of short chapters that build confidence ("I’ve finished another one!") or cliff-hangers that ensure those pages keep turning. A leisurely approach is unlikely to win over a developing reader and often points to a manuscript that might benefit from the editorial axe. 

Sometimes, however, trust and affection may develop extremely quickly due to dramatic events. A great example of this is the bond between lost-at-sea cabin boy Syms Covington and playful green lizard Farthing in Darwin’s Dragons by author Lindsay Galvin. 

Time and your reader’s age 

writing time in picture books and early readers

One tricky issue that often crops up in today’s always-connected digital world is how, in fiction, children aged say, eleven or twelve, can "escape" from the control of adults, have their own adventures, and fend for themselves. It’s difficult to explain how kids can be away from home overnight unsupervised, for example. This might lead to a condensed timeframe, the need to create ingenious reasons for parents or caregivers being absent—or even a timeslip approach. 

In contrast, when writing for preschoolers, you’ll need to think back to your own early years and consider time from a developmental point of view. When did you start to gain an awareness of the passage of time and the language we use to describe it? Do words and phrases  like tomorrow, afterwards, later that day or next year make sense to, say, a three-year-old? When did you learn to tell the time, or understand the concept of being late? 

Make time your friend 

Many writers are prone to procrastinating and note with astonishment how oddly time behaves in their day-to-day writing lives. (Have I really spent an hour scrolling Twitter rather than finishing that chapter as I’d planned?) But in your literary work writing children’s fiction, you can harness time and make it your friend, one day (or one summer) at a time.

Kate Lee—resident expert on children's fiction and time travel

Kate is an award-winning author who has published poetry, flash fiction, and short stories along with six picture books including Santa’s Suit (Campbell Books), a bestseller translated into seven languages. Kate followed up her MA in Creative Writing (Chichester University, UK) with a PhD (Southampton University, UK) and has a special interest in maps in children’s fiction. As a developmental editor and mentor, Kate offers a calm, experienced, and supportive approach to help writers shape their narrative and develop their craft, with an emphasis on pace, structure, character, and point of view. Kate reviews picture books for IBBY UK as a volunteer and is passionate about diversity and inclusion in children’s literature.

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