Writing for young children can be tricky. It’s not as straight forward as writing for adults. You can’t use your own vocabulary and need to be careful of age appropriate story lines. You also need to introduce your main character immediately.
It’s also important to keep in mind that children don’t have the same comprehension level as an adult, so all aspects of the story need to be clear and geared toward the age group you’re writing for.
So, what exactly does a children’s writer need to include in a picture book?
Let’s go over the basic ingredients of picture books:
1. The story should include: a surface level, an underlying meaning level, and a take-away level. This means young children should be engaged by it; older children should get a little deeper meaning or realization from it; and parents or the reader should be able to see the take-away value.
2. The story should be written with a 50/50 formula. Be sure to allow for 16 illustrations (a picture book usually has 32 pages). And, allow the illustrator to tell part of the story. Picture books are a partnership between the author and illustrator. For example: Instead of telling the reader that John grabbed his favorite blue shirt with red and yellow footballs on it, just write that John grabbed his favorite shirt. Your illustrator will know how to depict the scene.
3. Children love action and need to be engaged so be sure to include action. Being use to TV and movies, writers need to account for the waning attention spans of children.
4. Show rather than tell. The ‘powers that be’ in the children’s publishing world frown upon telling a story.
5. The story should have a flow or rhythm and structure to it.
6. The story should have predictability. This pulls children in; they think they know what’s going to happen next based on what’s happened before in the story.
For example: In the story Caps For Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina, a group of monkeys took a peddler’s caps and put them on their heads. The peddler tried to coax the monkeys to give back the caps, but every action the peddler took, the monkeys mimicked. They stomped their feet, shook their hands, but they wouldn’t give the peddler back his caps. Finally, in anger, the peddler threw his own hat from his head to the ground.
Can you see a child’s mind working and thinking each time the peddler does something else? He/she is going to guess that the monkeys will mimic each action.
7. Finally, the story should have an unexpected ending relating to something that happened in the story. We’ll go back to Caps for Sale. The peddler tried everything and finally, in anger and not realizing, he threw his hat to the ground. What do you think the monkeys did? Down came all the caps.
“Ah,” the reader will say, “he should have done that in the first place.”
Along with these basic ingredients, there are a couple of toppings needed:
1. Use age appropriate words.
2. Use age appropriate story lines.
3. Be sure to have your main character (point of view) speak first so the child/reader will quickly know who the protagonist is.
4. Use proper grammar and punctuation.
Now you can cook up a picture book!
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