Conflict—how much is enough? Is it really necessary to have conflict in a story for young children?
I read a review a while back where the reviewer asked the author how he handles conflict in his childrens stories. He was opposed to danger and violence, and he believed all conflict required danger and violence. Therefore, he avoided conflict in his kids-lit. I wish I'd kept it, it was a great question.
Conflict:: Opposition between characters or forces in a work of fiction, especially opposition that motivates or shapes the action of the plot.
To be in or come into opposition;
Conflict doesn't mean violence, though it can lead to it. It means struggle. All successful stories are tension filled. Full of struggle. Tension is the emotion that holds the readers attention, even if it's a picture book--read aloud story. Conflict occurs when the character needs or wants something, and needs it badly. There is a sense of alarm or apprehension that something unfortunate will happen if the need isn't fulfilled.
Mama bird doesn't have to die to put her babies in danger of starving, she could just be delayed by events.
So the answer is yes, all stories need conflict.
Writing conflict is tough for soft hearted writers of kids lit, especially if they are parents. We don't want our young readers to be scared and miserable, and the younger the character, the worse we feel about making them unhappy. So what do we do? We either bring in a wise and caring adult to rescue the babe, or we cut the conflict. We feel better—but the story just died. Kids need to solve the problem among themselves, no adults allowed.
I wrote a short piece starring three of my grand kids when they were very young. I knew it was pretty amateurish, but it was sweet. It was so sweet, it makes my teeth hurt to read it now. I gave them a teeny-tiny problem to solve, but it was solved so effortlessly it was barely noticeable. And they didn't have a thing to do with solving it. Awful stuff. Maybe I'll link it as an example of bad writing. Maybe not.
The reality is that conflict is at the heart of the story. Without that sense of struggle you don't have a story and it definitely won't sell--if that happens to be your goal.
Sometimes, older children want to feel dread, they love to be scared and the stronger the dread the better the story. But young ones can feel tension in apprehension—a milder form of dread. It's the conflict that demands the story be read to them over and over.
Conflict doesn't have to be person vs person. It can be situational.
A kitten is left alone all day and is lonely and bored. She needs a friend, but the empty house stands in her way. The conflict is kitten vs empty house until a new mouse in the house raises a bit of excitement and they become friends.
Or internal. A boy wants to visit his Poppa, but no one can tell him the magic words he needs. His imagination is put to the test.
There are no villains in these scenarios. The tension should match the age group of the audience and characters, but it should be real tension that the child can understand and feel. It doesn't have to be frightening.
The easy way to fix the problem is to rescue the main character, and many writers do. Mom or Dad rush in to save the day. But doing that robs the main character of his job and robs the reader of the satisfaction of feeling capable. He gets pushed into a passive role where there is no power for overcoming obstacles. If characters are rescued by an adult, all of his efforts turn out to be useless and there is no longer a hero for the readers to root for.
Don't make things too easy for your characters. Give them conflict, then sit back and watch how they handle it.
A site you might find useful.
When the Guidelines Say "7-12":
The Ages and Stages of Children's Literature
ages of children--what words they know.