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Favorite Ingredients of Kid-Lit
Hans Ness, Oct 22, 2023
I’ve noticed some fairly common elements in stories for children and teens. They’re not universal or required, but they are fairly popular for this age group, at least in our current culture. Here we go:

The Chosen One

Everyone wants to feel special, especially kids. So, vicariously, kids like a protagonist who discovers they have special talents, special lineage, or special character:
Harry Potter:  He learns he’s a wizard, the most special one.
Frozen:  Elsa discovers her magic powers.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:  He’s the only kid special enough to win the factory.
The Lightning Thief:  Percy Jackson discovers he’s a demigod son of Poseidon
The Princess Diaries:  Mia discovers she’s a princess.
How to Train Your Dragon:  Hiccup is the first one understanding enough to fly a dragon.
Hunger Games:  Kat learns she’s a great survivalist and an inspirational leader.
Divergent:  Tris learns she’s uniquely gifted in all five aptitudes and traits.
Star Wars:  Luke Skywalker learns he has the Force and becomes one of the greatest Jedi.

This trope applies to adult protagonists too:
The Matrix:  Neo learns he is “the One” prophesied to free humankind.
Avatar:  Jake Sully learns he’s exceptional as an avatar and becomes a savior.

Keeping Secrets from Grownups

I don’t know why, but kids love the idea of keeping secrets. It’s so common in stories that any paper-thin excuse will do — or even with no good reason at all, it’s just understood, “We can’t tell Mom and Dad!” Of course, secrets are always a way to create obstacles for any age, but it’s way more common in kid-lit.

Big Responsibilities

Kids want to be trusted with important responsibilities, so it’s no surprise that child protagonists often take on a very important task, usually without the help of grownups. (This is also a natural outcome of a proactive protagonist with high stakes.)
Moana:  Ventures out to sea alone to save her island.
Harry Potter:  Battles Lord Voldemort.
How to Train Your Dragon:  Hiccup saves the dragons and his village.
Onward:  Ian and his brother go on a quest to visit their dead father.
Ender’s Game:  Saves Earth.
For similar reasons, boarding schools are popular settings because kids have more independence from grownups, e.g. Harry Potter, Ender’s Game, Looking for Alaska.

Magic Plus

Apparently, reality is so boring that many kid-lit stories involve magic spells or anything paranormal or far beyond our science — like the Force (telekinesis, etc.), fantastical creatures in How to Train Your Dragon and Avatar, silly technology in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, ghosts/spirits in The Lion King, and an alternate reality in The Matrix. Many adults like this too, but it’s more common in kid-lit.


Moana has all four ingredients:
Harry Potter has all four:
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has all four:
While these are popular, not all kid-lit has all four, and it’s not a prescriptive formula for success. (I tend to minimize them in my own stories.) What else should go on this list?


When writing for children or teens, consider adding any/all of these ingredients.