Picture books are amazing tools to teach kids about the world and themselves, but some writers get it wrong when they tell a story with a message. When a child reads a story, primarily they want to be entertained. At their developmental stage, learning is simply a biproduct and more often than not, if they feel like they are being ‘taught a lesson’ they will disengage from the story. Here are my top ten tips to create a picture book that kids will love, without feeling like you are trying to preach to them.
1. Know that kids will act like kids and they want their characters to act like that, too.
The part of the brain responsible for reason, logic, and impulse control is not fully developed until a person reaches their early 20’s. This is a scientific reality that helps us to be patient and supportive in order to guide children when they struggle.Often writers forget that children learn by screwing up. Making mistakes. Behaving immaturely. The “magic” happens when a picture book gives a character the tools they need to solve the problem by themselves, not by an adult dictating the terms.
2. Set limits with respect, not criticism.
Due to the fact that our kids need to learn literally everything about the world from us, they will require many limits throughout their day. Without proper limits in their environment, kids will feel anxious and out of control.
Limits can be communicated in a firm but respectful way through picture books. Think about how you appreciate being spoken make sure the language in your story is not only child appropriate but empowering.
3. Be aware of developmental stages.
Have you ever questioned where your easy-going toddler disappeared to as they were suddenly screaming bloody murder while getting dropped off at day care?
There are literally hundreds of very normal, very healthy transitions kids go through to become adults. Being aware of these puts content into context, and increases the odds of your picture book being accurate and supportive.
4. Have an understanding of temperament and personality.
It seems pretty obvious, but if we are in tune with the characteristics that make our child unique, we will have a better understanding of when they may need additional support, and when and where they will thrive. You characters need to have a unique personality and realistic temperament for children to associate and assimilate with them.
5. Give room for an illustrator to capture the child’s imagination.
Unless you studied play therapy in school, most adults will never fully understand and appreciate the power of play.
Play is how kids learn all the things and develop all the stuff. This means leaving time each day for straight-up unstructured, kid-controlled, exploration of the world kind of play. Picture books can help care givers facilitate play, especially through the illustrations. Make sure your words let the illustrator play with the story so that the reader can, too.
6. Page turns.
Kids learn to be pretty good problem solvers if we let them. Because we love the life out of them and want them to succeed, it’s hard not to jump in and solve problems for them by virtue of lecture or criticism. Make sure the story had page turns that allows the reader to make their own judgements of what is going to happen. If the story gives them credit for problem solving, they will read it again and again, even if they know the outcome.
7. Write for the modern child, not the child you were.
Many of us write from the heart and rely on how we felt as children for inspiration. While subject matter is constant, the way modern children look at the world has changed over the years. Use your inner child to draw on the emotions that are important for picture books, but content needs to be suitable for today’s reader.
The way the world interacts with children and how they live their life will be a child’s greatest teacher. Kids are incredibly observant and way more intuitive than we give them credit for. They are always watching. If they can’t recognise something from the world around them in a text, not necessarily a place or a person, but a concept or feeling, they will struggle to compartmentalise and internalise the lesson.
9. Teaching through fear has no place in picture books.
Fear and control aren’t effective long-term teachers for our kids. While those dynamics may appear effective in the short-term, they won’t equip our kids with a strong moral compass, or effective problem-solving skills. Picture books that give them positive reinforcement and teach them to value others will give them the confidence to make good choices.
10. The heart of the story.
This is the most important part of story structure. Helping children understand the importance of their thoughts and emotions by writing from the heart and giving the story a meaningful purpose gives them coping and relationship skills that will protect and guide them throughout their lives. That makes picture books the most amazing gift, for not only those who read them, but for those who write them.
About the Author
International award winning children’s author
Michelle Worthington released her first children’s picture book in November 2011. Michelle grew up in Brisbane, Australia and has always enjoyed writing stories and sharing them with others. She believes in the benefits of sharing quality time with children by reading them bedtime stories. Since graduating from the University of Queensland with a Bachelor of Arts, she has travelled extensively and enjoys learning about new cultures and sharing new experiences.
An energetic and dynamic storyteller
Michelle is dedicated to encouraging a strong love of reading and writing in young children and conducts author visits at primary and special schools, libraries and bookstore storytelling and publishing workshops for adults. She especially enjoys meeting people through her speaking engagements for women’s groups and charities.