Writing picture book stories requires some special insights into 3-8 year-olds' minds. Here’s an example…
The other week, I got to take my 2 ½-year-old niece and 2-year-old godson to the park. It was a lot of fun.
Exhausting, but a lot of fun nonetheless, not to mention a reminder of what goes on inside 3-8 year-olds' minds.
There was another family that evening, and they had two children of their own: a little girl about two herself and a little boy who was perhaps six. He was playing with a soccer ball and very graciously let my niece kick it around a bit too.
Yet how he went about sharing was highly entertaining.
He would kick it to my niece, who would stare at it in perplexment for a few seconds until her grandfather, who was also there, would tell her to kick it back. So she would – badly – and the little boy would chase it with an absolute air of patient self-importance.
He never said a word or disparaged her for her obviously inefficient passing abilities. But the aura he radiated was unmistakable nonetheless. I could practically read his thoughts.
Completely not acknowledging that he was a clueless six-year-old who knew a whole lot less than almost everyone else on the playground that evening, he was thoroughly enjoying the fact that he was the big kid. She was the little kid...
And he was sooooooo much more knowledgeable.
To some degree, that’s sheer competitiveness on full display, which can be taken too far, of course. Yet I think it’s also an important part of being a child. He was proud of himself and his ability to show his particular level of maturity. It was a big deal.
He was a big deal.
As such, so is our Writing Challenge:
Don’t treat your audience like ignoramuses.
Little kids want to be taken seriously just as much as anyone else. They want to be respected and valued.
So don’t think you can get away with writing something stupid for little children. Silly, yes. Don’t we all love a little silly sometimes? But stupid, not even close.
Children old enough to read picture books are looking for pretty pictures, it’s true. However, they’re also looking for engaging plots they can lose themselves in with characters who feel like friends. So start thinking smart.
Take Tubby and the Lantern by Al Perkins and Rowland B. Wilson. It’s the story of an elephant named Tubby who makes a giant Chinese paper lantern for his friend’s birthday, only to end up making it a little bit too big.
While I haven’t read that adorable book in far too long, I do distinctly remember the lantern taking off before it was supposed to and Tubby trying to stop it. Unable to ground the thing but not wanting to lose it, he clung onto that IFO (identified flying object) for dear life as it whisked him away by air.
Now, obviously, elephants can’t make Chinese paper lanterns. That’s silly. And I’m not really sure a paper lantern of any kind or size could support even a smallish elephant’s weight like that.
Yet the pictures are so engagingly drawn, the words so beautifully arranged, and the love Tubby has for his friend so touching that those otherwise silly details don’t come across as stupid.
That’s your challenge if you’re writing picture book stories: to take those insights into the mind of 3-8 year-olds seriously.