It is not uncommon for new writers [and the general public] to think that writing a picture book is so easy it shouldn’t take more time than the afternoon coffee break. I remember telling an illustrator that Maurice Sendak took six months working on the text of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE before he ever picked up his sketch pad. She laughed and said, “I do that in a day.”
My response was, “And how many of those have sold, let alone become classics?” Picture books are deceptively difficult. My theory is this: the easier it reads the harder it writes. Those who approach writing for the young as something to throw together quickly to teach them some life lesson are doomed to fail—and well they should. When we reach out to touch children’s minds we have a responsibility to do it well. J.R.R. Tolkien, when asked how to write for children, responded, “Write as you would for adults, only better. “
First, know your audience. Children are neither little Goody Two-Shoes nor The Bad Seed. They already come with baggage, just not as much as we adult readers bring to a book. They have that keen sense of survival, meaning the need to love and be loved, to achieve and learn, to be respected for themselves and to respect others, and to feel secure emotionally, physically and spiritually. Keeping those needs in mind give you endless plots when you can throw obstacles between them and the child.
Second, remember that children learn by emulating grownups, not by being told “do as I say, not as I do.” That means that your stories SHOW the child what you want them to know and not just tell them. Forget your adult-speak. From the minute that the lecture begins [even if it is by the child character] the red flag of caution goes up: Grownup in the Room. Think action and logical or natural consequences [Psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs believed that discipline was a matter of mutual respect. You can still find his books on Amazon and in libraries. They are excellent for writers and/or parents.]
Third, let the child character figure out a solution to the problem. Unless it is something dangerous or physically impossible for a child let him solve it without the help of the adult. Life is not all sugar plums and sunny days. Solutions are not always happy ever after. We are obligated to recognize that sometimes we take an alternate solution. Jean Karl, a grand dame of editors years ago, said that we should write, recognizing how things are but showing how things might be. [I’m paraphrasing as I leant out the book and it never returned, but that’s the gist of it.]
Fourth, demonstrate that the child has achieved something important through action-none of those “and little Johnny never again crossed the street without a grownup” endings.
Remember, kids are smart. You can be subtle, and they get it. As a classroom teacher for decades I have seen too many adult hang-ups aimed at the primary readers. [The puppy doesn’t HAVE to die because the child left the gate open; the child can catch the puppy through ingenuity and the message is still loud and clear]. There is virtually no subject that cannot be a theme; it is a matter of seeing it through the child’s understanding according to her age. That’s probably a good subject for a future article.
Before you sit down to write for the primary child you should look at the world from their point of view. Drop to your knees by your favorite chair or the dining table. Now look up at the ceiling. It got a lot farther away, didn’t it? Try getting in your chair from that position. Suddenly it became a big deal. The world is a lot different when you live in a giant’s world. You feel a lot less power and a lot more dependent on the good will of others. Your brain is still working; you know things are unfair, so you want to believe that the best is yet to come. Keep that in mind as you think about writing for the primary child.
Think about their limitations. They are told when to get up, when to go to bed, and when to eat and if they can play. Their world is their home, neighborhood, day care, elementary school, and church, and places adults take them: doctor, dentist, or grocer. Their transportation is trike or bike or hike. Subjects and situations they can identify with include Family [their place in the nuclear family], neighbors, God. They always want to know what it will be like next year. Their humor is still pretty primitive, but they like exaggeration [numbers and actions, for instance].
Picture books have many levels. The surface level is the series of related, gradually more challenging, events. But the emotional level is there, too. One emotion overcomes another emotion and leads to triumph. For instance the boy’s love for his cat is more powerful than his fear of heights, and to climbs the tree to free his cat from the vine. The understanding, then, is that he has overcome a troublesome obstacle in his life and has found courage to tackle future challenges, too. To be a stronger story it needs both levels.
Successful picture books appeal to adults as well as children of all ages. The adult will be called on to read the book over and over, so that it had better have adult appeal. Older children return to books from their primary years and find the many levels and depth of meaning, too. Brother against brother, human against nature—these are the same themes in adult novels tackled on a child’s level of understanding. Next time you pick up that “easy little 700 word story” look twice. You just might see more the second time around.
As a writer you become that child. You take the readers hand and explore with them, seeing it all for the first time instead of towering over them and watching them explore. Only then do you truly reach your audience. I cherish that little boy who came up to me after a school visit and said, “You had me fooled. I thought you were one of us.” I could truthfully respond, “It’s our secret, but I am.”