The Essentials of Writing Back-to-School Stories
It’s that time of year again: back to school! Throughout this month we’re talking about heading back to school. For our kids, it can mean going to school for the first time or returning to school at a new level. For adults, “back to school” can mean seeking out learning activities like taking a writing course, pursuing a new interest, or building on a pre-existing interest.
After all, we never want to stop learning. But before we get into the whole amazing world of learning, let’s take one moment to talk about “back to school” as a subject.
Every year, publishers of both books and magazines pick up back-to-school stories in fiction and nonfiction. This is because back-to-school time never stops being a huge event (even when you’re doing it as an adult.) Now, with back-to-school being a topic that recurs, it’s important to do something very different with your back-to-school stories or articles. Let’s talk about how to create back-to-school stories that are unique and engaging to young readers and their parents.
One of the first things you must decide is whether your back-to-school piece is going to be about a first-time experience or a returning experience. Starting school can be about very young children heading off to preschool for the first time, or about slightly older children stepping up into Kindergarten or First Grade.
Starting school could also feature a child who is older but has never been to school for one reason or another. Perhaps this child has been homeschooled but is going to go to public school. Maybe the child had a tutor because of illness or because of family travel (or even because the child was an actor), and now is going to public school for the first time. Or perhaps the child is going to a new school for the first time after spending many years at the same school.
There are many circumstances that can turn a “return” to a first-time event. When going to school is a first-time event, clearly, the stakes feel higher. This is brand new and the child has fewer past cues or past knowledge to rely on for where to go, how to make friends, or even how to interact with teachers.
Returning to school, on the other hand, is often a story about expectations vs. reality. Are your old friends still as friendly? Will everything be like it was last year? What will the new teacher be like? Can you hack the new classes? Whether you choose a first-time story or a true back-to-school story, you will need to find something to make your story different from the stories editors have seen time after time. They do want school stories. They do know back to school or the first day of school are popular topics, but you have to show them something that fills a spot not already filled by stories in the past.
Twists and Spins
One of the things that can bring a familiar story (like first day of school or back to school) into a new place is to make it a uniquely specific tale. For example, what is the first day of school like for those who live quite far from school? I’ve read stories of the first day of school in places where the student had to get out of bed long before the first rays of morning sun and ride to school in a wagon pulled by an ox. I’ve read another where getting to school meant walking long distances. I’ve read stories where school met in structures that were extremely different from what most of us encounter, like boats. By bringing these new (carefully researched and accurate) stories of school in other countries and other situations, readers not only gain a more expansive understanding of the world, but they also see what things we all have in common. The first day of school is exciting and challenging no matter where you have it.
The first day of school story, when it’s fictional, can also be a time to try out your fantastic imagination. What would the first day of school be like if people lived under the sea? What would the first day of school be like on a colony planet far away? What would the first day of school be like if you were a fish? Again, blending familiar elements with the wildly unexpected adds something fresh and new to a story. This is true of any of the repeat stories like holiday stories or seasonal stories. They are easiest to sell when they either bring in a unique story with a specific cultural point of view or they add in an unexpected twist in terms of setting or situation or genre mixing.
Nonfiction Back-to-School Stories
Nonfiction pieces with a back-to-school theme can be narrative, telling true stories of back-to-school experiences, or they can be focused on practical help. Parenting magazines, for example, often run nonfiction and essays with back-to-school content around this time of year. Pieces like “Back to School Without Breaking the Budget” are popular because they consider ways to prepare children with the items they need, while cutting costs where practical. Another popular back-to-school topic is “Back to School Lunches” where parents get guidance on preparing lunches that are well received while offering healthy choices.
Back-to-school nonfiction doesn’t have to be just for parents. Teen self-help pieces can prepare students for returning to the grind or facing the new challenges of moving into high school from middle school. Articles with a back-to-school twist can also include social focuses like being pre-armed against peer pressure or maybe becoming bully-proof. For younger children, back-to-school articles might include back-to-school crafts that result in usable school accessories. All of these help students get into the mindset that makes the transition from summer to school as painless as possible.
So whether you’re looking at more learning for yourself or for your kids, back-to-school time can inspire writing that publishers need every year. Of course, if you’re writing back to school stories or articles right now, magazine publishers might be interested in it now (to run next year) or they may rather you wait six months (which is why it’s good to check out the lead times listed in the new 2023 market guides). I often write pieces when I’m in the thick of the experience and then hold them to market when the choices of publishing options are broader.
Either way, back to school can be back to writing too. It’s all in how you choose to do it.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.