Written by Cheri Fields, Editor, author, podcaster, and mother from the great state of Michigan. This post first appeared on LinkedIn and is copied here with the permission of the author.
I’m not yet as old as the wonderful grandmother here, but I’ve spent plenty of time reading board books, picture books, beginning readers, and children’s literature to the kids in my life. It’s been a daily part of my routine for decades—and there is a good chance you’ve done a fair amount of such reading yourself.
So, let’s channel our Inner Grandparent
What do we look for when we go to the library or bookstore to find fresh fodder for our beloved child’s reading time? First, the odds are good we need something that works well for a bedtime story, and this means something relaxing.
There is a place for bringing social issues, history, and other uncomfortable topics to children, but for every save-the-planet-we’re-doomed volume we turn to, there are probably at least fifty cosy, relational, or other ‘safe’ stories. Even nonfiction works best when couched in a snuggly story.
Although some of his ‘facts’ like a caterpillar spinning a moth’s “cocoon” (I insert “chrysalis” now I know better) and coming out as a butterfly, Eric Carle knows well how to do this story wrapped Around facts, repetition, and preschool learning.
Picture Books are Designed for Pre-Readers
And they love pictures.
After the topic, we look for pictures. If you’re self-publishing, nothing marks you as an amateur as quickly as hiring an amateur artist. I’ve worked with a husband/wife team on their low budget book, but she just happens to be a professional artist, so the results have been raking in the 5 stars anyway (and they did spend the money on me, too).
But the odds are good you will need to invest cash to get an eye catching artistic look. And a good artist shouldn’t be starving. They deserve the reward for their skill like anyone else.
But for us and our story, I’m getting ahead of myself.
A Children’s Story Needs to Stand Up to the 100+ Read Test
If you haven’t had the chance to experience this endless repetition as an adult, you probably did as a child. We all do. There is a significant length of time when a child’s favorite story is the one they can correct you on if you misread a single word. They know the characters. They know the plot. They know the music of the sentences. And so does their brave and stalwart narrator.
A cheap book from a discount overseas publisher might have colorful pictures. It may even be sturdy. But the odds are good you’ll wish it had fallen apart at the first reading because the story and characters are flat.
On the other hand, books like Carle’s, Richard Scarry’s, or the more recent If You Give… and Fancy Nancy stand this test well. I remember with my sisters making it a challenge to read through the whole book Fox in Socks without messing up once. It was a zany read, but I could still find fun in trying. And I can still read it pretty well twenty years later!
The rest win for characters, fun art, and a satisfying formula.
While it’s great to introduce kids to different times, cultures, and personalities, it’s always good to remember if your book is chosen to become Real (like The Velveteen Rabbit), it’s going to be a child’s best friend.
I remember my mom had to put away our copy of Charlotte’s Web (the movie) because my little brother was absorbing so much of the rat’s bad attitude. But a good attitude is just as infectious. And the most powerful way to impact a life is to set them the kind of example they—and the adults who read to them—are right to follow.
If you want your book to be loved by the narrator as much as the child so they want to tell everybody how amazing your story is, give them characters they would love to have over for a play date.
Even if you don’t plan to build a series (although that is a good idea for any level), a story that has a strong structure tends to just work. Ask your librarian for a worn-to-bits-it’s-so-loved classic and you’ll probably be able to see its formula pretty quickly.
Something happens. The hero responds. Something bigger happens. The hero responds (with developing skill and character?). (Repeat as needed for length.) A new normal.
A full length novel has many more elements like necessary scenes, but anything up to a first chapter book can easily get away with this simple formula. The magic is in how you set up your event-response cycle.
For example: the If You Give series allows Laura Numeroff to introduce all kinds of silly elements to each new story because it’s so simply brilliant:
Two characters meet. One asks for something. This makes them think of something else. Which leads them to a necessary follow up. And then something brand new grabs their attention. This produces a whole new cascade of experiences.
And it all ends up coming full circle to the first request.
You could almost lift this verbatim yourself and make it work—you would just need a highly different setting and characters. There is no real character growth. You just see what’s already there—and that boy in the first Give a Mouse a Cookie book is hospitable and hardworking to a fault!
Another of my favorite 100+ reads is Tomie dePaola’s The Knight and The Dragon. His formula was to parallel the preparations on one side almost exactly with the prep of the other character. Both working step wise towards their big confrontation:
Something happens, the heroes respond, respond, respond. Two somethings happen, the heroes end up responding in a whole new direction.
It’s got a constant symmetry that pulls you forward and keeps you rooting for both of them. And who doesn’t like having the librarian help them cut the Gordian Knot?
Either Think Small or Think Big
While you’re reading to your own little ones or doing research at the library (and I do recommend going there and asking which newer books are always checked out), pay attention to the settings.
Even for baby books you can pick anywhere from the child’s bedroom to outer space. Usually the best stories have simple settings with only a few set pieces. Pete the Cat: I Love My New Shoes does this. You can see in the Look Inside that although there is a lot of paint on the flap spread, the objects (and topics) are limited. And it stays simple all the way through. It’s him, his shoes, and each ‘obstacle’ they encounter. Nothing more.
On the other end of the scale, there are worlds like Richard Scarry’s or Suess’s with a flood of settings. But these worlds took a lot of building—and were both illustrated by the author! So, you might just want to have an artist lined up before starting something so ambitious.
This doesn’t mean no dragons or aliens. It means there have to be rules in your head that are as irrevocable as gravity. If you’re trying fantasy, it never hurts to borrow a set of rules from a favorite existing world. Authors can’t copyright their hard-won rule set, and I guarantee successful ones have a whole guidebook for their novel. Just think of how many authors have freely borrowed from Tolkien’s!
But even if the only fantasy you plan is to have a sentient bulldozer, you still need to develop strong ground rules.
Nothing pulls a grownup out of a story like the ‘yeah, right’ response when reading about a child sent out to wander the streets at five [p.m.] in modern America alone. Or an owl that sleeps at night—even if it’s friends with a fairy. Or a bulldozer that can walk a tightrope (although this one could work—if you can convince me why it should).
This area of preparation for your story is so wide ranging, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to share your early ideas with some nerdy friends to see how skeptical they are. You’ve probably encountered people who obsess over such things, but even for your average reader who doesn’t consciously notice inconsistencies, they will feel the way the story hangs together. And, you won’t be sharing these rules in the story anyway. You’ll be living it out.
Once you learn to think like a grandpa—or beleaguered parent—who is facing the thought of torture by a thousand readings, you can turn things around and give them something that only delights more with wear. Or, that they can quote in their sleep without hating themselves for it.
See the article and find out more about Cheri Fields and the services that she offers on her LinkedIn page.