Today, we're going to take a look at what goes into writing inspirational picture books. A lot of writers and illustrators start creating picture books as a way to open up a dialogue with children, even if we’re only addressing the children we were (or wish we’d been able to be). We’re writing because we’re excited to share something of ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that, BUT there are ways that it can go wrong.

Agents and editors consistently tell us not to write “preachy” stories. I just heard it again during the “OH FOR THE LOVE OF THE PICTURE BOOK!” writing intensive at SCBWI’s Annual Summer Conference in Los Angeles. Allyn Johnston, Vice President and Publisher at Beach Lane Books, listed the three types of picture books she doesn’t want to see:

  1. Bad rhyme
  2. A piece of prose out of a middle grade novel
  3. Heavy-handed lessons or morals

And yet, when Allyn elaborated on the many picture books that she loved, many of them had some kind of message. With that in mind, I decided to pinpoint differences between stories with “heavy-handed lessons or morals” and the kind of stories that as soon as she reads them, she “wants to read them again.”

What Motivates You to Share?

Authors and illustrators invite their readers to share their view of the world for length of a picture book.

Was the storyteller motivated by a desire to inform the young or to get a certain message across? This can go wrong because it naturally lends itself to talking down to the story’s reader. Nobody likes it when a person gets bossy or patronizing, even when it’s disguised as a story.

Preschoolers are a lot more discerning than adults tend to give them credit for. I know that because I taught preschool for five years. They want nonfiction and stories that engage their imaginations and help them see the bigger picture. Don’t baby them. They want their storytellers to treat them like the intelligent little human beings that they are.

Was the storyteller motivated by life experiences? This can still go wrong if the storyteller talks down to the reader. Children’s books shouldn’t be written from a nostalgic point-of-view. But when the storyteller slips into a memory and shares from a child’s point-of-view, magic can happen.

Mine Your Memories

The best stories tend to come from a place of experience. Judy Schachner, the author/illustrator of SKIPPYJON JONES, said that all of her picture book characters have been based on real people or pets.

Allyn Johnston said that A COUPLE OF BOYS HAVE THE BEST WEEK EVER started out as a thank you note that Marla Frazee made for Allyn’s parents after her son spent the week with Allyn’s son at their house.

One of my critique partners visited her grandpa to record his memories because he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Then she wrote THE REMEMBER BALLOONS. I still remember how her rough draft blew me away when I read it. Jessie Oliveros somehow managed to capture the emotions of her own experience on a child’s level. An agent fell in love with it and sold it to Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, so you can read it next year.

I have another critique partner who was diagnosed with Tourette’s as an adult. The diagnosis brought back all kinds of hard memories from her childhood. Ellie Terry wrote a MG verse novel from the perspective of a girl with Tourette’s that came out earlier this year. FORGET ME NOT is changing the way readers see people with Tourette syndrome. That’s powerful.

Inspirational Picture Books

Beach Lane Books, the imprint where Allyn Johnston works, publishes a wide variety of inspirational picture books. And that’s me, making that value judgment, not someone from the imprint. Allyn is one of those editors who builds relationships with authors and editors. She’s been publishing Marla Frazee’s picture books for 17 years. If you want to pop over and check out their digital catalogue, just to get a sense of what I mean, I’ll be here when you get back.

I’d like to take a look at how and why different kinds of picture books resonate with readers, especially those kinds of picture books that so often go wrong, and I will mostly pull examples from Beach Lane Books. We already covered character-driven stories with the last section.

Nonfiction Picture Books

Allyn edited THE TREE LADY and THE SECRET PROJECT. I’ve read both of these, and in both instances, the design of the book as a whole is incredible. The books have atmosphere. In this case, the storyteller isn’t drawing on a memory as much as they’re sharing their reaction/how they feel about a subject. I’d say they’re inspiring because they make the reader feel and want to learn more.

THE TREE LADY, by H. Joseph Hopkins and Jill McElmurry, is the story of how Kate Sessions transformed San Diego from a desert town to the gorgeous place it is now.

THE SECRET PROJECT, by Jonah Winter and Jeanette Winter, takes on the invention of the atomic bomb.

If you’re enthusiastic about someone or something that isn’t well known, just write a beautiful story about your subject. Enthusiasm is contagious.

Rhyming Picture Books

If you’ve never taken a class on writing poetry, you’ll want to do that first. Even if you have an ear for rhythm, even though poems and picture books are different art forms, learning how to write poetry will save you from making all kinds of mistakes. Whether they’re funny or serious, the best rhyming picture books sing.

ALL THE WORLD, by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee, is a celebration of this world we call home and its people.

Rhyming Dust Bunnies, by Jan Thomas, is a hilarious deconstruction of what you might think a rhyming picture book should be.

Concept Books

There’s a wide range of topics that get addressed by concept books, from numbers and colors to life and death. The trick is to make your details as concrete and sensory as possible. If you can ground a concept in your own memories, you can create something truly beautiful and inspiring.

Brendan Wenzel made a huge splash with THEY ALL SAW A CAT last year. His picture book shows how different animals see the same thing in different ways. That’s a difficult concept, but he pulled it off.

And then he did it again this summer with his illustrations for Cynthia Rylant’s LIFE.

Making a Connection

If you want to connect with your readers, your story has to make them feel something. The best way to do that is to share emotion from a time when you’ve felt something. The story you tell may be different than the story you experienced, but if you can capture the emotion from your experience, you’re going to make connections.

Let me know if you found this helpful, and please share inspirational picture books you’ve loved in the comments!