Monday, February 25, 2013

Picturebook Workshop #5: Keeping Your Audience in Mind

A common mistake that can be easily made by a parent/writer or educator/writer is forgetting the audience for a picture book is a child.  And what I mean by that is it is not ideal to create a story where the child protagonist has a problem that is solved by an adult.  Another faux pas would be a story where some knowing adult doles out wisdom so that the child learns a lesson.  Both of these are talking down to the child reader.

Now, I don't want to sound like I am above this mistake.  Oh no!  I have made it myself.  My agent pointed it out to me in one of my earlier manuscripts and I thought No way, then I looked at the story again. Yes way.  I had done just that.  The parent was all-knowing and great.  The kid had a lot to learn.  D'oh!

I don't mean to say that all the parents in stories need to be idiots or antagonists or all the children should be correct all of the time.  I'm just trying to remind writers to think about who they are writing for.  Who's the ideal audience for your story?  Will they identify with your character?  Will they root for that character?

Let's imagine a story where a child character is having trouble falling asleep and Mom comes in and makes it all better and the child falls asleep thinking, My mom is so great. 

I know Mom is really going to love that story.  But is a kid?  (And that's not to say that kid's Mom isn't totally great, but a kid wants to read about how the kid is totally great.)

Let's say that same child character is having trouble falling asleep, maybe Mom comes in and offers a few suggestions but they don't take.  After Mom leaves that child has to take matters into his/her own hands.  Now we have an interesting story and a child reader will be much more engaged with the character and story because the child character is making choices and is in control of his/her own problem. 

In Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak,  Max learns how to control his own temper and emotions before he's ready to come back home to hot soup.

In Wink the Ninja Who Wanted to Be Noticed by me, even though Grandmother suggests going to the circus to cheer Wink up, he ignores the advice until he's ready to discover his place in the circus on his own terms.

There's one exception to this rule (that I can think of.)

It's the Charlie and Lola books by Lauren Child.  These stories set up some idea that Lola is opposed to (loosing a tooth, eating a tomato) and Charlie, her older brother, creates a situation that gently nudges Lola to a certain way of thinking.  (It's soft love.)  I think this works because Charlie is also a kind and because he does it in such a clever way.  Lola never feels pushed into a solution or like some lesson is being shoved down her throat.

I'm sure if you asked Lola, she'd insist she solved her problem all on her own without any help from Charlie at all! 

And that's exactly what you want: the child to feel like the winner!

Happy Writing!

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