Children’s literature has always had the power to surprise, entertain, and touch hearts. I am a huge fan. I have a special love for picture books, as they are meant to enthrall the youngest of children. Thinking about picture books elicits images of parents snuggled closely with their children, sharing warm and happy times together. Every child deserves to be surrounded by high quality books to share together with the adults they love.
March is Read For Research Month organized by children’s author Carrie Charley Brown. For each day of March, picture book writers will read a variety of picture books, using them as mentor texts, and then apply what they’ve learned into their own manuscripts. Accomplished author-educators will host daily writing-related discussions and make additional mentor book suggestions.
“But how hard can writing a picture book possibly be?” some ask. Ouch. The discomfort is awfully familiar. When people first hear I am a pediatrician, more than a few have actually said “Oh, I thought you might have been a real doctor.” Ouch again. Some picture book writers can relate.
People do not always perceive children’s authors as real writers.
But writing exceptional picture books is difficult. The limited word counts, the lyricism, the imagery, the precision of thought, and the duet between writer and illustrator, all must come together seamlessly.
So where do mentor texts come in? Learning from mentor texts can further a writer’s knowledge of story and help develop a deeper appreciation for genre. In those brief 32-40 pages, picture books contain a wealth of information that translates to all writing genres. A few such components include the following:
- VOICE lays the framework for story. It provides tone, word choice, and mood. Is the story humorous (i.e. Mo Willems and his pigeon books)? Sentimental (i.e. Brown & Hurd’s Goodnight Moon)? Inspiring (i.e. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go!)? Or satirical (i.e. Scieszka & Lane’s The Stinky Cheese Man)? Is the story nonfiction? About a beloved toy? A retelling of a folktale? A concept book? Poetry? Voice is important to all. Word repetition and rhythm are a part of voice, as is dialogue.
- TENSE provides a depth of connectedness to the story. The immediacy of present tense vs. a separation from past. Some stories work best in the present tense, whereas others may feel stilted. Future tense is another option, especially in books speaking directly to the reader.
- NARRATOR is the story’s storyteller. This voice behind the story can be an external observer or in direct contact to the feelings and thoughts of one or more of the characters. The narrator may even be one of the characters. The narrator can be a child or adult, and voice is intrinsic to the narrator. Imagine, as an exercise, changing the narrator of your favorite picture books. Curious George from George’s perspective, perhaps?
- THEME is the story beneath the story. The big picture message. Examples like love, hope, friendship, family. Theme is best implied. Spoken outright, a theme can seem like a lesson. Subtlety is by far more acceptable to both children and adults. A powerful theme like the acceptance of human difference is articulated in a fun and fantastical way in David Small’s Imogene’s Antlers.
- CHARACTERS – ahhh characters – they ARE the story. Where would stories be without memorable characters? Just say a character’s name and evoke story. Babar. Amelia Bedelia. Corduroy. The Grinch. Ferdinand. Lyle. Eloise. Olivia. Fancy Nancy. The main character (protagonist) moves the story along and is intimately linked to theme, conflict, and resolution. But watch out for the antagonist who acts as a barrier to the protagonist’s success.
- SETTING grounds the characters. It can be real or imagined, internal or external, expansive or minimal. Setting is often central to the storyline and sometimes is felt to be a character of its own. The illustrations are crucial to setting. Crockett Johnson’s Harold & The Purple Crayon will be forever influential for its minimally illustrated setting that evolves through the hand of Harold.
- PLOT involves the progression of time and space. It folds together the character with the conflict. In books for older children, flashbacks can be inserted to break-up a linear storyline. Picture books need to be cautious as nonlinear timelines can be more difficult for younger children. David Macaulay’s success with Black and White is an example that works. Foreshadowing, which elicits predictability, is very effective and satisfying.
- CONFLICT is the obstacle to whatever goal or desire the protagonist is trying to reach. It is essential in nearly all stories. Some action (physical, emotional) involving the main character must occur as a result. Tension, pacing, and motivation all play roles. What ultimately happens can propel a simple story idea (bedtime, new sibling, snowstorm, lost toy, etc…) from mundane to sublime. Just think about Trixie and her father during their traumatic visit to the laundromat in Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny.
- CONFLICT RESOLUTION has long been stereotypically described in children’s fairy tales as “…and they lived happily ever after.” But the best of children’s stories don’t usually end in such a simplistic way. The mark of an effective children’s book is an ending that is both a surprise and inevitable. The ending wraps up everything that’s come before it, logically and emotionally. In essence, how a story resolves is what makes a story satisfying. In Where the Wild Things Are, can you feel the love between mother and son in the soup bowl left in Max’s room?
- ADDITIONAL TOOLS accessible to writers include (but never limited to) the use of symbolism, archetypes, simile, metaphor, allegory, and many other literary elements.
But as important as these story components and tools are to story, superior to all of them is a concept no story should ever ever be without:
Simply defined, verisimilitude is the illusion of being real. Radiating truth. There is nothing more important to story than verisimilitude. Many authors agree. A book with verisimilitude permits us to suspend disbelief and be fully committed to story. The power of story is in its magic. It allows us to believe in Hobbits, and in imaginary worlds like Roxaboxen. It offers us precious childhood friends like the precocious Olivia, as well as Christopher Robin and all the animals in the Hundred Acre Wood. How many children grew up to be environmentalists in part because of The Great Kapok Tree? How many people can reminisce upon a childhood toy with the same feelings evoked by The Velveteen Rabbit?
We praise authors not for their beautiful books but rather because they are the conjurers of worlds.
Here is one list and another of classic picture books to begin your exploration. The Caldecott Medal honors some of the very best picture books each year.
Whose childhood literary magic is engraved upon your soul?
“Fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists.” – Stephen King