Excerpts from Writing Picture Books
by Ann Whitford Paul
(source: April 14, 2009 issue of Writer's Digest)
Too often...picture book stories appeal to one audience only. As a parent, many books my children loved, I couldn’t abide. I’m sorry to say I often stooped to immature behavior, hiding an offensive book under a bed or tucking it behind other books on the shelf. Sometimes it mysteriously disappeared forever.
Then there were the books that appealed to me but not to my children. Because I had control (which comes from being the grown-up reader), they had to accede to my wishes. I knew which books these were because my children never chose to share them. Instead I would foist them on their unwilling ears. They only tolerated this because the bargain was that afterwards I would read one of their favorites. And what child doesn’t want to sit a bit longer in an adult’s arms listening to a story, even one he doesn’t like, when there’s another, better one waiting to be heard?
Obviously the ideal picture book must appeal to both adults and children. The best way to ensure this is to make sure your story depth resonates with both the reader and the listener.
What makes a story have such depth?
Enduring picture books must be about something bigger than a mere incident. The story problem must explore some large theme or issue. It must have a kernel of truth about life and our world.
Writing about a little girl’s walk and the pebble she puts in her pocket, the dog that barks at her, and the neighbor who waves a greeting has no larger truth. It’s merely an incident, a vignette, a description. The writer must have an idea, or theme, in the back of her mind that she’s investigating. She must have something that will turn such a set of incidents into a story that stays with the reader long after the book is closed.
The process of building a story is like building a house. A carpenter cannot put up the walls until he builds a frame. The frame holds up the walls. The frame supports the roof. The frame determines the final shape of the house.
Your story frame determines everything—plot, characters, ending, word usage. To discover your story frame, you don’t need a hammer or a saw. You don’t need tools or expensive gadgets. There’s only one thing you require, and it’s free.
STORY QUESTIONIt behooves writers to think of a general question about the underlying issue they are trying to unravel in each new story.
Remember that little girl’s walk around the block? Let’s add something to it for the writer to investigate. Suppose the little girl is walking to her grandmother’s house at the end of the block and she is supposed to get there in ten minutes. She pauses not only to pick up a pebble, but also to smell a flower and to trace a snail’s trail. Each of those pauses takes on more importance because she must arrive at her grandmother’s within a certain time period. Perhaps the story question now might be: What happens when we pay attention to the everyday wonders of nature?