Emotional Truth in Writing a Picture Book
Picture books tend to be based on at least one of three things: character, plot, and concept. Many combine two or even three of these into a single book. In nonfiction picture books, the most popular genre in trade publishing is narrative nonfiction, where character and story are front and center. Sometimes a book with the main focus of an amazing, larger-than-life character will also illustrate an important character trait or another concept. Or, a book with a clear plot arc will also be something of an object lesson. So, a picture book does not have to be only one thing. If you check out a tidy stack of recent picture books, you’ll quickly find the importance of having at least one of the three (character, plot, and concept) portrayed strongly in your book.
Because these three things are so often present in picture books, you’ll hear books classified by the element of these three that seems the most important. A picture book where the main character is front and center, like Olivia by Ian Falconer, is often said to be a character book because the character appears to be the most important thing in the book. A book like Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall would be considered a plotted picture book because the story follows a clear, almost classic story plot, namely one where a young child overcomes a fear. We are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goade is a lyrical poetic recitation of what water means to humanity and is told in first person. The importance of protecting clean water is the concept, but the book also includes connections to community, family, and the concept of duty. The emotional connection in the book makes the concepts especially compelling. Establishing an emotional connection is another element to consider when writing a picture book.
Tell the Truth
Though picture book characters are often huge, larger-than-life creations, sometimes they are very much ordinary children with all the wonderful unique qualities of an ordinary child. For example, in the aforementioned Jabari Jumps, Jabari is a normal, exuberant child. He’s recently completed his swimming lessons and did quite well, and he is excited to jump from the diving board. But the reality of looking up at the diving board where the children on it were “as big as tiny bugs,” suddenly doesn’t feel quite as safe or fun. Jabari covers his growing alarm with a little bravado by declaring it “looks easy,” but he’s definitely shaken up. This is a story virtually any child can connect with, as we’ve all had plans that sounded exciting when far off but became much scarier when the time for them finally arrived. This is one of the key elements of connection with a story character. Their specific experience might be unique to them, but the emotions of the experience are usually universal, so every child can share actively in feeling the story as it’s read. At its core, the story feels true to the reader.
Not all picture book characters are represented by children (though virtually all will have some childlike qualities). For example, in Max the Brave by Ed Vere, the titular character is a little black kitten. Max is very cute and people underestimate him as a result and dress him up with bows. He does not approve of this as he sees himself as a brave, bold cat. This is an idea young children can relate to as they often find the way they are perceived does not line up with the way they see themselves. Unfortunately, Max wants to be a cat who chases mice, but he has no idea what a mouse looks like. He’s never seen one. So, he goes in search of a mouse to chase and has a rather big adventure as a result. The book works because it is lively and funny, but it also works because it’s emotionally true at its core. It resonates with children.
In Sulwe, an award-winning picture book written by Lupita Nyong’o and illustrated by Vashti Harrison, the titular character has the darkest skin in her family and darker skin than many of the children around her. She is grieved by the way others respond to that, and her own view of herself is affected as well. The author takes Sulwe on a journey of self-understanding and acceptance with love and a good bit of magic. The book is about pointing at a real problem, colorism, and offering both understanding for those who don’t experience it, and encouragement (as well as a sense of being seen) for those who do. The main character herself is neither larger than life nor bold. She’s a hurting child, but her pain feels real. She has an emotional depth we believe. As with We are Water Protectors, the plot isn’t exactly the book’s main focus, but the exploration of the concept and the emotional truth are more than enough to make these concept books work.
This element of emotional truth is almost universal in picture books so it is less useful in categorizing books and thus can seem as if it’s less important, but it is not. Emotional truth is one of the ways a picture book hooks young children. It gives them a point of commonality from which the picture book can take them somewhere new or give them something new to think about. Emotional truth is one of the things that helps a charming picture book become a classic because it results in a book that is more than engaging; it results in a book that lingers in the mind of the reader.
Breaking a Rule When Writing a Picture Book
If you’re preparing to write or are in the middle of writing a picture book, you’ve probably heard some rules. Possibly even a lot of them. And one would certainly be that children like active main characters. This is true, but is it a “rule” that means we must always write active main characters?
Let’s consider an unusual picture book with an unexpected main character. In A Stone Sat Still, by Brendan Wenzel, the titular character is a stone. It isn’t a talking stone or a stone who rolls off to have adventures. As the text reveals “A stone sat still with the water, grass, and dirt and it was where it was in the world.” This is a very odd main character to sit so still instead of rolling off to have adventures. Things happen to the stone. The night makes it dark and the sun makes it light. A gull drops a clam on it to break it for breakfast. The stone stays in place and the world happens around it. The stone is big to small creatures and small to big ones. But it never actually does anything, and still, the book makes it very clear without saying it outright that the stone was very important. It is important to the creatures who encounter it. And even after the tide comes in and the stone disappears it is still important. The depth of the book comes from all the creatures living around it, and from the way the book connects the idea of a thing or a place in changing lives and building memories. That is where the deepest emotional truth of such an odd main character lies. The book matters because the book feels true, and it feels true because the reader connects to it emotionally. We all have places and moments that stay important to us even when they are gone.
Have a Heart
If there is one real rule that picture book writers ignore at their own peril, the rule would be that your book needs to be emotionally true. Real connections to picture books, whether the book is funny or silly or rollicking or lyrical, are emotional. It’s the shared emotion in the story that makes it feel true. But don’t be afraid to hint at the emotion and let it unfold slowly rather than stating it outright. Make it something the reader needs to think about. Unfold the emotional truth in the way that works best for your book and your story. However you handle its truth be sure to include heart when writing a picture book.
That’s where you’ll meet your reader.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.