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!



Laura Jenkins said...

Thank you Pam. Your posts are always so helpful.

Pam Calvert said...

Your welcome, Laura! So glad this helped!!!!

Sarah Floyd said...

I'm a huge fan of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse! It was helpful to examine the elements and see why the story works so well. Thanks!

Pam Calvert said...

Your welcome, Sarah! :-)

HKinser said...

I'll recommend "Big Little Brother," by Kevin Kling as a great example of a kid-centered book. With great seriousness of purpose, the narrator strives to cook a toy Thanksgiving turkey in a play kitchen--despite being blocked by a bully. The book is about a kid whose little brother grows bigger than him, and it really respects the child's eye view.