I’ve been thinking a lot about picture books because I recently taught a Writer’s Digest webinar craft intensive all about them (thank you so much for all my blog readers who participated!). Now that I’m digging into the critiques for the webinar, I wanted to reinforce a point that I made about preaching in picture books, or about didactic stories.
The kinds of picture books that make most agents and editors squirm are the ones that come to the page with a certain agenda. The writer wants to teach the reader something about life. Now, don’t get me wrong…the best picture books all contain big, universal ideas. They all aim to leave the reader with an emotional experience or a realization. The difference between masterful picture books and those written by writers who maybe haven’t honed their craft quite yet, though, is that the masterful picture books get their point across without preaching overtly.
For example, if you want to write a picture book about a stubborn girl named Tally who learns that sometimes compromise is good, too (because what parent wouldn’t like to teach their kids this lesson?), you would never write:
And then Tally learned that she could let her sisters choose the movie once in a while, and it would still be a lot more fun!
You may have a lesson in mind, but it has to be uncovered by the reader in the context of a) a character’s experience, and b) a larger story. If you find yourself coming out and saying the lesson, you are hitting it too much on the nose and it’s very likely that your story is skewing didactic. Basically, you’re working too hard and being too obvious. The best picture book lessons are subtle, and they inspire the reader to come to their own conclusions without hitting them over the head.
Here’s a simple litmus test that I’ve been asking writers to apply to their picture books:
If you remove the lesson at the end, does the story stand alone?
For example, if Tally’s entire picture book is about how she won’t compromise and she won’t compromise and finally, is surprised when her first compromise works out well, then the plot serves the lesson. It doesn’t stand alone. If we took out the moral of the story, we would take away the plot because each event has been in direct service to the obvious ending.
The best picture books are good stories (a very basic definition of “story”: a memorable character faces and overcomes conflict, is changed by the experience), first and foremost. The big picture idea and the overall lesson of the book is then delicately layered over and under the plot.
But if we take the lesson away and your plot crumbles, you’ve been leaning too heavily on only using your book to prove a point. Find your character. Find your conflict. Go back to the drawing board and stop attacking your moral so directly.
(There are, of course, obvious exceptions. Teaching picture books that discuss sharing are a hit with some institutional publishers, and people need them for teaching aides, etc. Also, you are free to teach if you are writing non-fiction, obviously. Here I’m just talking about story-driven picture books for the trade market.)