A Second Guest Post by Children’s Author Megan Higginson
In my last post The Number One Myth About Writing for Children. Busted! we established that writing a children’s picture book appears to be easy. But, writing a good children’s picture book takes hard work and dedication to perfect the craft. I have been told that it gets easier. I have yet to arrive at that point.
What are some other elements that you need to consider? You will need to think carefully about your audience, your language choice, and story content.
Who’s your audience?
Kids! Right? Well, you’re partially right. However, they are not the only audience you have to take into consideration. Who will be buying the books, or reading them multiple times over? They are the parents and caregivers who must be prepared to read the book not once, but 10, 100, or 1,000 times. (Well, it may not be that many, but it certainly feels like 1,000 times.)
Having said that, your primary audience will be children. What age group are you writing for?
What category does you picture book fit into? The Manuscript Agency in their article, Publishing Children’s Books Explained, identify the following categories:
- Novelty books: These books usually contain very few words and are illustrated in full colour, often with flaps, pull-tabs, pop-ups or other features. Board books fit into this genre too. These books are often counting books, or teaching colours, shapes etc. For babies to 4-year-olds (can be fiction or non-fiction).
- Children’s picture books: Usually a larger format, 32-page (planned in double paged spreads) book with an illustrations and text with a word count of about 600. Most suitable for 4-7 years, although some might cover 0-9 years.
- Picture books for older readers: Usually 8+ years—this category is a little like YA for picture books: the themes are darker and more complex. They are often longer than children’s picture books, sometimes 48 pages or more.
I first came across this term in the Writing Picture Books course though the Australian Writer’s Centre. I asked Jen Storer for her to define this term. To my delight, she answered my question on her vlog, Questions and Quacks over on Girl and Duck. In an episode titled, Sparkling Language, she says, ‘It [sparkling language] makes the story come alive. It relates to voice. Voice is the stylistic choices that the author makes in order to write the piece. These things can relate to the rhythm and cadence of the piece, right down to the type of punctuation you might use. The syntax. The use of irony. Humour. The tone of your piece.’ So be sure to use sparkling language where you can when writing for youngsters.
It is important to be aware of the difficulty of the words you use. There is nothing wrong with using harder words in a book for younger children, as long as it is not an obscure word and the meaning is clear from the surrounding words. According to Jackie French in her article Writing Picture Books, ‘Some books need poetic prose, others rhyme, others story; some need simple words if they are ‘learning to read’ texts; others, like most of mine, can use sophisticated language as kids learn to understand the words from the text. Most of all, a good picture book is not a short story—every page must be an adventure, unpredictable as you turn the page.’
Mem Fox says in her article, 20 Do’s and 20 Don’ts, ‘DO NOT assume that plot is the most important element is a story, or even the only important element in a story. Character comes first. Next comes the precise choice of words and the correct rhythmic placement of those words.’
So what can you write about? Is there any topic that’s off limits?
Obviously, you should write a story that is age appropriate. It can be fiction or non-fiction. Fun or serious.
Some examples of the range of topics that you can write about include:
Significantly, in her article about picture book structure, Tania McCartney says, ‘Don’t be Boring. Some may disagree, but I find most super traditional stories (in terms of content) are a little boring. I love unconventional works—works that sit outside the square—and more and more publishers are loving these, too (they’re often the award-winners). Think outside the square. Surprise your reader. Do something different.’
Write your story from your heart. Follow what I said in post one, then apply these three principles to your work. Then take your story out into the wild. See if you can read your story to a class of children in the age group that you’re writing for. By this time, you may have had an editor look at it and advise you about content. This is where you need to step right back and be objective. Ask if someone else, for example a teacher, can read your story so you can pay close attention to the children’s reactions. Did they laugh when you thought they would? Were they bored? Did they look interested? How did they respond to the text overall? Ask them what they liked? And, even more importantly, what they didn’t like. Ask them why?
Then rewrite as necessary.
Write the story that is burning within you to write. Write about the things you love; topics that are near and dear to you, or that you want to research, then share the knowledge you’ve gained. Write something fun, entertaining, crazy, sad yet uplifting. If you love the story and are passionate about it, that will shine through in your writing. Ask ‘what if?’ Take courses. Join a critique group. Write, write, and write some more, then get it out there. Hopefully, one day, we will be seeing your picture book on the shelf, and a little child will cry ‘Again! Again!’ when their parent finishes the story and closes the book.
Have fun and happy writing.
Megan Higginson writes in a small house surrounded by open cut coal mines and power stations. The world inspires Megan: interesting people, animals, history, and science. She loves penning her thoughts and observations in her notebook, which is never far from her person.
Megan is a qualified Youth Worker, and Education Support Worker and has worked as a mentor for teenagers.
Her debut picture book, Raymund and the Fear Monster is due out late 2017. It was originally written for the children she met in a Filipino orphanage in 2013 when she asked herself the question, ‘What if fear was a monster?’
Though she will forever love the North Queensland sun, she currently lives with her adult daughter, two crazy fluffy black cats and a gentleman of a dog in Gippsland, Victoria. If Megan is not writing, you will find her watching sci-fi with her daughter, hanging out with friends, pottering around in her garden, learning something new, or with her head in a book.
Her website is: www.meganhigginson.com