Nobody wants to admit they’re preaching in picture books, but… Most people also start out wanting to write picture books and their idea has a point to it. Their child characters have to learn something. It’s usually a lesson about living that they’re eager to pass on to impressionable young minds. But writing child characters is a bit more nuanced than that, if you want to do it right.
Even if that lesson is zany and fun and uplifting, rather than moral or serious in nature, there’s still an element of “Let’s distill some life experience for these child characters.” Even if it’s not as conscious or overt as all that, teaching is still part of the urge that draws people to writing for the youngest readers.
How to Avoid Preaching in Picture Books
There’s definitely a way to act upon these instincts and get across to these impressionable readers. Absolutely! But it’s not to preach or state your “message” aloud. Today’s market, and discerning young readers, don’t much appreciate the, “And then we all learned to share” kumbaya moment at the end of the book where everyone lives happily ever after in peaceful coexistence. Writing child characters demands more nuance than that.
Not only is it a bit Picture Book 101 to tell this kind of moralizing story, but think of your audience. You want to avoid the situation of “wise older character comes and tells the young child characters all about how life works.” Kids get this all the time from parents, grandparents, teachers, older siblings, pastors, babysitters, etc. They receive a lot of the “should” type of education.
Incorporating Message and Theme in a Picture Book
This way of conveying your idea also doesn’t show your child audience the utmost respect. Why? It implies (even if you didn’t mean it to, and many writers don’t!) that the kid doesn’t know all that much about much, and that it takes a wiser (usually older) character to set them straight. This takes all the power away from the kid and gives it to an adult. Again. Just like what happens all over your average 3-7 year-old’s daily life. That’s not as sympathetic to their experience.
They come to stories for maybe another way of getting information. Maybe the “message” is buried in subtext, below the surface. It arises naturally from something the character might experience or realize as they journey through the story you’ve created. Writing child characters who come up with their own wisdom via life experience is key to creating a proactive protagonist.
I urge every aspiring picture book writer to try and stretch beyond this, maybe to the point where the character realizes some things, or better yet, comes up with the solution to the problem, all by themselves. Through seeing it experienced by a relatable character, kids will interpret your meaning on a deeper and more approachable level.
Do you want to make sure your picture book manuscript is compelling without being preachy? Hire me as your picture book editor and we can convey your message without moralizing.