One of the biggest challenges I encounter in my editorial practice is picture books that show character change in a clumsy or overbearing way. Picture books, more than any other category of kidlit, are about character change, a moral, or a lesson. A strong takeaway is expected because we want our young readers to be eating a little bit of medicine (the moral) with their syrup (the story). Like those cookbooks for moms who want to sneak veggies into brownies. But how do we do this effectively, without turning readers (and agents and publishers) off with too much lecturing? It’s all about character!
Picture Books That Show Character Change
As you may know from other posts about picture book lessons and writing child characters, I am not a big fan of morals delivered in a didactic way. I’m not alone. Agents and publishers cite moralizing as one of the main reasons they pass on a picture book project.
So how do we write picture books that show character change without explicitly stating the lesson? It’s a rather simple answer: let the character have some realizations and then act upon them. At the same time, do not explain what the character is learning.
Bad: “And Kim realized that sharing IS caring!”
Better: A scene of Kim sharing with her friends and finding satisfaction in it, but without this satisfaction being explicitly explained.
Better: Kim encouraging a younger sibling to share, but also without explicit explanation. (Kids love to play the teacher role, so showing a child passing on their new knowledge to someone else is a great solution!)
Use the moral you’ve come up with as a starting point. Then write three scenarios where the character can actively learn the lesson, enjoy the lesson, or pass their wisdom on. One of these will invariably be better than a straight explanation of the moral.
Unrealistic Character Change
One thing to keep in mind about picture books that show character change is that they should also be realistic. Even preschoolers know that people don’t change 180 degrees overnight.
Yes, we all hate bullies, and we all want kids to share, and we want our preschoolers to tell the truth. But you aren’t going to get anywhere near a realistic and nuanced character if: your bullies vow to never bully again; kids always share forever and ever from this day forward; and your character will never tell a lie in their whole lives, not even a little harmless one.
Honor your reader by not feeding them an overly idealized view of the world. This practice sets up false expectations. Kids are humans, too. They shouldn’t be held to these impossible adult standards for Victorian-era good behavior, not even in picture books.
Because that bully in the preschooler’s real classroom will, unfortunately, bully again. I’d much rather you strive to teach that transformation happens with little choices and in small steps, as that honors the real life process of behavioral change.
Want personalized advice on your picture book manuscript? Hire me as your picture book editor.