It was 1999 — the year when Prince’s hit and his ten inch heels were everywhere, and the end of the world was imminent. (We’re still here, BTW.) I was at the hallowed ground of my local library, looking for books that could entertain a group of kids from age eight down to swaddled and wailing at our upcoming family Christmas party.
I wandered around, rifling through the stacks without much luck, until finally a cover caught my eye. It was fantastic — bright and colorful, showing seven children gathered around a table in various haphazard stages of eating. Their body language and props shouted out their personality types, telling a story before I even opened the book. It was, The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman (Illustrated by Marla Frazee).
I eagerly started reading, and found that it was everything that I hated in picture books (it rhymed), yet, I loved it! The concept was original, the poetry wasn’t forced, and the illustrations…well, the illustrations blew me away. he pictures not only complemented the words, they told a story of their own.
While I had already started writing by this time, my work still felt a bit flat — it lacked vibrancy and polish. But, discovering The Seven Silly Eaters, as well as a multitude of other excellent picture books, helped my prose mature and come to life.
I learned to…
- Cut out Unnecessary Words: Well-written picture books are able to tell a great story in a minimal amount of space. They are succinct, complete, and never overly wordy — a goal for any writer.
- Read Everything Out Loud: Having four children has allowed me the opportunity to read many (many, many) books out loud. Reading your own work out loud can help pinpoint the places where sentences and plot prove confusing or awkward.
- Include Surprises on Every Page: Writers of books for young children know that attention spans can fizzle by the time it takes big sister to say, “Dora’s on!” Their words (and illustrations) work hard to keep their readers engaged. The same goes for longer works — every page must move the story forward with new information, insights, character introduction, or plot twists.
- Keep up the Pace: The length of picture books doesn’t allow for lolly-gaggers. You don’t have time to circle around until you finally get to the point. Let your readers know what the story is about from the first paragraph.
- End the Story: Picture books always end with a clear resolution. Books for older readers should do no less (exceptions are cliff-hangers in a series). Open endings or flat-out ambiguities rarely satisfy, and being mysterious and overtly vague will only lose readers in the end. Literally.
- Create Lasting Pictures: Studying illustrations in picture books can give clues as to what types of written descriptions are necessary to help your writing and characters move into the third dimension. If you can do that, your story will become one that your readers will never forget.
The Seven Silly Eaters was a hit at the party, and has been a favorite at our house ever since. Plus, those seven persnickety young siblings helped me figure out how to take my work to the next level, and eventually get published.
Even though I may still be immature…my writing doesn’t have to be.
*Find me on Twitter @amandahoving