Picture Book University: Kid Focus


If you've done all my lessons up to now, you should have a pretty good grasp of how to write a picture book. You've read at least 85 picture books--right? If not, go back and do the lessons you missed. ;-)

Now I want to draw your attention to your latest WIP (work in progress). I've noticed the new writer often forgets who their audience is--KIDS! Sometimes, a grandmother will write about characters suffering from arthritis or the plot will focus around adults and adult wants and needs. Or the jokes will be funny only to grown ups. That has no place in children's literature. Sure, you'll see the double entendre here and there just for adults (even the ending of Princess Peepers has a pun specifically for adults), but the focus is always kid centered. I think of it as a camera lens. Is your camera on yourself? The parent? The grandparent? If so, bring the lens down...keep going...yes, there! To that kindergartner running around your house. See the world the way they see it. If your manuscript doesn't pass the kindergartner test, you need to go back and revise.

If you don't have a child to study, I suggest you get one. Rent a kid! Ha! Well, not really, but maybe you could go out with your friend and ask to bring along their kindergartner/first grader. Volunteer at church to teach Sunday school for the K-2 crowd. My youngest child is 13 now and I no longer have elementary kids around, but I've always taught K-3rd graders at church. In fact, I teach K-3rd on Wednesdays and 4th-6th on Sundays--I know my audience. I watch and observe them. I know how they think. Don't have a church? Volunteer at a local library for reading time on the weekends (or weekdays if you don't have a 9-5 job). It's important for you to understand what's important to your audience. Otherwise, you have no business writing for them.

The best example of an author who really gets the mind of a child is Kevin Henkes. He's a great author to study for kid centered stories. One of my favorite picture books is Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. It's a wonderful book to study for other elements, too, such as rhythm, plot, etc., but for our purposes here, I'm going to show you how Henkes makes sure his camera is on the child.

Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

Genre: Character driven, humor

Synopsis: Lily loves a lot of things, especially her teacher, Mr. Slinger. That is until he takes away her favorite purse. In order to seek revenge, Lily draws nasty pictures of her teacher, but her teacher, in turn, writes a sweet note which makes Lily feel bad. In the end, she apologizes, making everything better.

I'm not going to go over plot and style elements but I'd advise you to do that! You could learn a lot about rhythm and repetition from this story.

Kid Centered Elements:


  • Lilly loves things a child would love--school, pointy pencils, squeaky chalk, shiny hallways, etc. and her teacher. We don't see her loving things like a massage of her sore hands. If you have a character that needs a massage--please revise this. Children are like rubber. They don't get aching muscles!
  • Lilly describes her teacher as a child would--about things a child would like--his interesting glasses and shirts, how he greets the class, the inviting way he arranges the classroom, and the snacks! 
  • Lilly pretends to be her teacher--she plays with her brother--exactly what a child would do at that age.
  • Lilly liked to draw--and the drawings are very much like what a child this age would do.
  • She rides the bus, and raises her hand and volunteers in the classroom
  • Lilly gets a wonderful, musical purse that she adores. This is so much like what a kid would care about and become obsessed over.
  • Lilly indeed obsesses over this prized object and gets in trouble with her beloved teacher. She can't wait for show and tell to show off her purse.
  • Lilly is embarrassed, but after she loses her beloved purse, she almost cries and then she gets angry exactly how a child would. I know. I've taken up things from children before and if it's special, it's hard for them not to cry and get upset.
  • Lilly seeks revenge like a child would--Lilly loved to draw pictures of her teacher--so she drew a mean one that called him a big fat mean Mr. Stealing Teacher. All the things she writes shows her emotions--she deals with her anger and grief exactly the way a 5 year old would. 
  • Even though the teacher is nice to her when he gives her back the purse, she's still angry and tells him so by saying she doesn't want to be a teacher when she grows up (when earlier she wanted to be like him.)
  • But when Lilly gets a sweet note from her teacher, she feels bad just like a child would when they thought about their actions.
I'm not going to go through the whole thing, but my biggest suggestion to you is if you haven't read this book, please do. Unfortunately, these days, editors are not wanting books of this length. I think it's sad because the character can't be shown eloquently enough without many scenes and words like this. Oh well! I can't change the system. Keep your stories to 500 words or less and keep them KID CENTERED.

Assignment 9: 

  • Check out ten books at the library. Some great authors to look at for kid centered perfection are Kevin Henkes, Tom Lichtenheld, Lauren Child, Doreen Cronin, Kelly DiPucchio,
     and Kate McMullan
  • Write a plot synopsis for each one and identify how the author's camera lens is focused on the child.
  • Write elements which are very kids centered. Are there some that are not? Can you think of reasons why the adult-like element might have been allowed? (Usually there are good reasons.)
  • Take a look at your WIP. Is it kid focused? Are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, little old lady from down the street overwhelming the story? Can you replace a parent with a sibling to take the story down to a more kid centered focus? Are you truly looking through a child's camera lens? Are parents making jokes and not the child?

If you know some stand out kid centered picture books, please post them below. This might help your fellow picture book writers pick out some great examples!

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Happy reading and writing!


 






Picture Book Analysis: Daddies Do It Different by Alan Lawrence Sitomer

In honor of rhyming Wednesday, I've decided to do a picture book analysis of a non-rhymer that has rhythm--so much so that it can be classified as poetry. And if you want to write something like this, you need to do it well, so let's see why I think this book is so great structurally.

Today's book is entitled, Daddies Do It Different by Alan Lawrence Sitomer.


SPOILER ALERT! My picture book analyses will reveal the climax/ending to every story. So be forewarned!

Genre: Journey, Cycle of the Day, Rhythmic text

Synopsis: A child relates all the things Daddy does differently than Mommy throughout the day but there's one thing they do exactly the same.


Plot elements: A Cycle of the Day story.

  • In the morning, getting dressed--ways Daddy is different from Mommy
  • breakfast time
  • going shopping
  • making lunch
  • going to the park
  • birthday parties
  • playing dress up
  • bath time
  • bed time
  • hugs and kisses
Twist: All through the book, Daddy does everything differently but in the end, Mommy and Daddy both love the child just the same. A touching, sweet ending! If you get your audience to say ah...usually, you'll have a winner.

Throughout the book, there is a repeating phrase of "But daddies do it different." Which binds the text together and children love to be able to join in this repeating phrase. Although this isn't a rhymer, the text is rhythmic: "When I leave the house with Mommy, she packs a tasty snack, brings a bit of juice, and takes an extra sweater." Can you feel the rhythm here? And then the next line leads into the repeating phrase: "But daddies do it different..."


Style Elements:

  • Lines have catchy beats.
  • visual humor throughout (in the scene above, daddy is putting bananas up his nose to make the child laugh.)
  • Use of active, interesting verbs: jingles, gargles, whup
  • Visually interesting--there's an active, fun picture on every page, (eg; Daddy has bubbles on his head in a room full of bubbles in the tub with the dog joining in the fun).
  • Use of made-up words for rhythm, (eg. "He tickles me so much, I get crazy-hyper-nuts")
  • Use of similes/metaphors, (eg, "we jump like kangaroos; make a fort of waffles, drives like a race car, etc.)
  • Sweet, twist ending
If you can think of a catchy repeating phrase and can do a rhythmic story line with lots of action on a subject that hasn't been done, you'll have a winning picture book every time. 

If you like these posts, feel free to click the like button below or tweet it to your friends. Next up, I will start back with Picture Book University, lesson 9. My school visit schedule is winding down--only two more to go this season, so stay tuned!


New Rumpelstiltskin Puppet and School Visit Tip!

Sorry I've been out of the loop. It's school visit season and I'm BUSY! But I will do two more PBU posts to finish out the workshop this month, and then I'll do some PBU tips until next summer where we'll have a PBU 2.

Anyway, I just wanted to share my newest excitement and a tip for you pros out there doing school visits. I had the privilege of seeing a Mother Goose puppeteer at work at a school where they contracted five authors for one big day of reading for their students. I always wanted to have a presentation that wowed the K-2nd grade set with my math books, and although I am dynamic in my presentation where I act out the part of Rumpelstiltskin to them, I noticed how mesmerized kindergartners were with Mother Goose. Why? Because she had...PUPPETS! Her words weren't unique or even inspiring, but the puppets amazed the kids.

A huge light bulb exploded above my head. HA! That's when I knew I needed puppets to enhance my performances for the younger set.

In my math performance, I teach 1st-3rd grade how to multiply by using a funny part in my book, Multiplying Menace. In order to teach multiplication, I now use finger puppets so they can see the concepts. After we finish reading the book, I give each child a worksheet (could be up to 150 kids--teachers help with this), that has a face without a nose on the sheet--and I tell them this is their face and they are to draw hair on it. THEN I tell them that Rumpelstiltskin is going to visit their school. Usually, they'll squeal with delight until I ask them do they REALLY want Rumpelstiltskin to visit? Their squeals turn to scared giggles. At this point, I whip out my Rumpelstiltskin puppet, and he wreaks havoc on the children's noses using his multiplication stick. They LOVE this! We do the multiplication on a document camera where they figure out how many noses he's multiplied on their face. I also use students to be Rumpelstiltskin's minions. It's so much fun!

Here's a few pictures of my puppet. He was pricey as I used a puppet artist who used to work for Jim Henson, but it's worth it. Four days worth of school visits will pay for the puppet, but the puppet has already helped me book more new visits for next year! Worth every cent!!!

If you're interested in getting a puppet for your book, here are some worthy creators to check out:






 My creator took around 5 months to complete--he was from Creature Clones (the artist did the professional photos for me) and he has a year wait time, mostly. Other makers might not be that inundated with work, so you may want to check with them if you're in a hurry.

If you have any questions about school visits, feel free to post!




Picture Book University: Creative Nonfiction


Today I'm going to go over a genre that allowed me to receive that first picture book contract, and it's something my agent has said editors want--creative nonfiction. Because of the new Common Core Standards that most states have adopted, teachers are now clamoring for books in science and history that can be taught using literature. Science is a biggie since in the Common Core, any science in the elementary grades will be taught through the reading program. History/social studies will be taught that way as well, so this could be a huge boon for publishers who are smart enough to produce books that help teach those subjects. And that means, YOU, dear author, can also start writing books that will help educate our little ones.

But what if you're like me and the thought of writing a nonfiction book leaves your mouth dry like a piece of moldy toast? That's where CREATIVE nonfiction can actually fulfill your need to write something with  pizzazz AND also reward you with that coveted picture book contract. If you're smart, you'll do some digging on what exactly you'd like to "teach" creatively.

What is creative nonfiction exactly? It's a nonfiction subject that is told or shown in a creative way. In order to discuss this further, I'll show some categories and examples to get your juices flowing.


  • Teaching a nonfiction topic through a fictional story--The focus here is on a fiction tale that hones in on the nonfiction subject--and the nonfiction subject must be the star of the book. In Charlesbridge's math adventure line, highly sophisticated math subject matter is conveyed through exciting stories. When I set out to write a math adventure, I studied all of their books to get the idea. Math had to  not just be a bunch of set problems--it had to be almost a character in itself. For my first book, Multiplying Menace, the magic in the story WAS the math! One author to check out for creative nonfiction titles is Trisha Speed Shaskan. Her music families series titles are genius. She tells a story of a certain "type" of instrument family all the while teaching about the different musical instruments and sounds. This kind of story could be done on any subject. She also has other creative nonfiction books. Check them out! 
  • Teaching a nonfiction topic through a surprising format--Apart from the hum drum, this type of book uses an idea and runs with it creatively. One example is the book, What to Expect When You're Expecting Larvae. It's told as a self help book for expecting bug parents. Within the pages conveys a lot of buggy facts that makes this
    topic funny, accessible, and entertaining. Another series of books that's told in a surprising way is the If You Were a _____ (fill in the blank). Some examples of these books are If You Were a Quadrilateral, If You were a Fraction, If You Were a Compound Word, etc. These books creatively use the child as the star and has them imagine themselves as the actual nonfiction topic. Very clever. Another knock out surprising format is using a parody--Lane Smith's, John, Paul, George & Ben, nails the creative nonfiction genre. He uses the Beatles as an underpinning analogy to our United States founding fathers. Parents are pleased with the references and kids are pleased by the silliness. That's a great one to check out.
  • Teaching a nonfiction subject through rhyme/meter--This is a favorite in the trade/school market. If you can use great meter or rhyme to teach a subject, then it will sell. Some glorious classic examples are Math Curse, Science Verse by Jon Sciescka, Grapes of Math series by Greg Tang, and Verla Kay's  metered verse history books. One of my critique partners just sold a book that was told in rhyme that highlighted a historical parade. You never know! If you can think up a great subject and you can write rhyme well, go for it!


Assignment 8:

  • Go to the library and see if some of these examples are there. Are they in the nonfiction section or fiction? I've found librarians don't know where to place them. My books are often in both, but usually in nonfiction so teachers and students will have access to them when finding a subject. Ask your librarian if they know of other examples. Some other authors to look up are Robin Pulver, Loreen Leedy, and Brian P. Cleary. 
  • Check out as many as you can of various subjects that inspire you. Can you find different formats? One of each (story, surprising format, rhyming text)?
  • Next, brainstorm at least three new ideas in your writing journal. If one calls to you, start your research and then write!


Did you find a book that didn't fit my definitions or know of a great book to check out? If so, please share!

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Picture Book Analysis: Kohola: King of the Whales by Vince Daubenspeck

Because of Labor Day, I'm a bit behind this week. I don't want to shortchange you, so I'll post the next installment of PBU next week! Because I don't want to leave you hanging, I figured I'd do another picture book analysis of an awesome new picture book that would be a GREAT, AMAZING gift for not only a child but a family as well. It's entitled, Kohola: King of the Whales. Written as a folktale from the Hawaiian islands, Vince Daubenspeck masterfully weaves a tale of the journey of a young humpback whale from lonely outcast to magnificent hero that underscores the theme of being yourself and never giving up.

The book's illustrations are breathtaking throughout which matches the beautiful words. It's a piece of art through and through!

Okay, can you tell I'm in love with this book? Onto the analysis.

SPOILER ALERT! My picture book analyses will reveal the climax/ending to every story. So be forewarned!

Genre: Original folktale (the author made it up--but you can't tell it's not an actual legend because it's so well done.)

Synopsis: A loving grandfather tells his grandson the tale of Kohola: King of the Whales. Kohola is born with unusually large fins and is rejected by his peers, so he takes to exploring the deep ocean by himself. When his overly protective parents tell Kohola not jump out of the water because it's too dangerous, Kohola tries his best to obey, but his curiosity gets in the way. He uses his large fins to literally sail out of the water and soon he's a master jumper. But when some dangerous killer whales threaten his life and the lives of his clan, he uses his skill to crash down on the animals and scare them away. He tries to teach other whales how to jump out of the water, but no whale could soar the way Kohola, king of the whales could to this day even though you can see them trying.

Plot elements:

  • Intro: The story opens with a child seeing a whale jump out of the water. His grandfather tells him the tale of Kohola to explain why they do this.
  • Problem: Kohola is born with extra large fins and is an outcast.


  • Escalating problem: Because of Kohola's large fins and athleticism, he dives very deep into the ocean causing alarm among his clan.
  • More problems: Kohola decides to dive deep then rise out of the water which his parents forbade because it's dangerous. He goes against his parents' wishes and becomes an expert jumper.
  • Climax--Dangerous killer whales threaten Kohola's life.
  • Solution--Kohola uses his skill of jumping out of the water to frighten them away.
  • Ending--Kohola protects his clan and teaches them the skill thereby gaining the respect of all whales.
  • Folktale connection--This is why you see all whales trying to jump out of the water. They want to be like Kohola, king of the whales.


Folktales usually tell of a legend about why you see certain things as they are. I've re-written many folktales and some have been published by magazines. In every one, there is a larger than life reason why you might see animals with different feathers or coats of fur or even why an island is shaped the way it is. This tale is no different except that the author made it up himself, mirroring the style of a typical legend. 

Style elements:

  • Folktale narration: Told from a third person omniscient format, this story feels old and yet not too distant so a child would be interested.
  • Vivid language: sparkling sea, flashing storm clouds, clear shining light, crashing waves, long, clumsy fins, etc.
  • Kid connection: The story opens with a child's question. In the middle, you see the child wanting to act like Kohola--you can feel the excitement and are emotionally attached to the story at this point as seen through the child's eyes.
  • Great use of imagery: the killer whales are not named as such since this is told from the perspective of the whale. They are called, "dark lights" since they blot out the light when their large dark bodies swim in front of the sun, streaming through the water. He uses language like "waves of fear" as a nod to the water but also gives you the foreboding feeling.
  • Circularity: The story closes as it opens with the child and the grandfather. You get a sense of completeness when you see the child look again at a whale rising out of the water.


If you want to rewrite an existing folktale, or better yet, write your own, this would be a great book to study as well have in your own library.

Happy reading!