When I think of my favorite picture books, they almost always involve a unique, memorable, character. Whether it’s a dawdling duck, a snoozing bear, or dancing chickens, I want to know what happens to them. What’s their problem? What will they do? Would I do the same things? How will things turn out in the end? Most importantly--after I've clamored through the thirty-two pages--what will I feel at the end? Achieving a goal is not enough. Cleverness is not enough, although it goes a long way. Successful character-driven picture books nearly always end with a satisfying feeling. Ahhhhh!
If you want to write a character-driven picture book, read lots of them. Examine what you feel in the end. What sort of feeling is it? What does the feeling mean?
For example, let’s look at Calvin Can’t Fly by Jennifer Berne. In this book, Calvin is a different sort of starling. Instead of following the flock, he follows his own bookworm interests that have nothing to do with flying. When it’s time for the flock to migrate, Calvin would be left behind, except his friends bring him along. Along the way, they hit a storm. While the flock is clueless, smart Calvin knows what to do because of what he’s studied. In the end, he saves the day, saves his friends, and learns to fly.
If this were about Calvin alone, he could read a bunch of books, outwit a storm even if he didn’t fly, and learn to fly in the end. But there'd be no ahhh feeling. So where does the feeling come from? Although the story is about Calvin learning how to fly, the heart of this story is about friendship and how friends help each other. They save him, he saves them. As they celebrated, Calvin felt so good, he discovered he could fly. After putting his friends first, he happily succeeded at flying too.
Let’s look at my own book, Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg. This book is about a cowboy determined to give his dog a bath. Of course, all his plans fail miserably. After his dog has evaded him for the last time, Clyde gives up and takes his own bath. When he starts to enjoy himself, splashing and singing, suddenly, his dog jumps in too. The pair who were once adversaries, are now scrubbing and crooning under the moonlight together. When Clyde stopped trying to rope, bribe, and trick him, their friendship flourished.
Although I began writing it as a story about a cowpoke trying to bathe his dog, when reached the pivotal, climatic scene of Clyde giving up, I knew it was really about friendship. The story would feel empty, indeed, if Clyde merely took his bath and Dawg stayed dirty. Or, if Clyde’s last trick worked and he scrubbed Dawg just like his pots and pans.
So when you write, think about your character and the feeling at the end. What are you trying to say? What will you feel at the end? If you find yourself saying, "Ahhh . . . " you’ll know you've succeeded.
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles. A member of SCBWI, Lori speaks at schools, SCBWI conferences, and has worked as a writing instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature for the past eight years. Recent picture book titles include Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg, (Clarion, 2013), Cindy Moo (HarperCollins, 2012), Come See the Earth Turn – The Story of Léon Foucault (Random House, 2010), and In the Trees, Honey Bees! (Dawn, 2009). To learn more about Lori and her upcoming books, visit her website at www.lorimortensen.com, or read her blog at http://lorimortensen.blogspot.com.
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