Get Inspired Mondays, Writing

How Reading Like a Kid Helped Me Write Like a Grown-Up

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

47 thoughts on “How Reading Like a Kid Helped Me Write Like a Grown-Up”

  1. Great observations. The teacher in me beams when someone can pull so many applicable points from an unlikely source. I am enjoying your site. Also, you have a massive family! All those siblings and now you’re making so many of your own. Finding time to write can’t be the easiest thing eh?

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    1. I was always a tiny bit of a brown-noser, so I’m happy to please.

      The massive family comes from my husband, and I love it…makes for some interesting holiday stories. And, I just try to write more either very early or very late, but yes, sometimes it gets pushed aside completely.

      Thanks for reading~

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  2. I think your last point is the most valuable: it is a beautiful, full description that helps me go from reading a book, to entering a book.

    And, yes, we discovered this book, also, and the illustrations are fun to sit and look at and discover things over and over.

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  3. The interesting thing about a good picture book is how deceptively simple it is. I still try to write picture book manuscripts, but I haven’t been able to recreate the magic of a good one. I’ll keep trying though. (Until I do a good one, I’ll stick with YA.)

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    1. You are so right, Tracey! It’s hard to pack that much punch into so few words, and make it coherent and interesting.

      I also have several PB manuscripts hiding in a drawer. Like you, I really do hope to resurrect them (or something better) someday.

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  4. I always enjoyed reading to my kids, as long as the book wasn’t “boring” me! Helen Lester is a fun, engaging children’s writer we discovered…made us all laugh!

    Your ideas about applying “picture book techniques” to mainstream writing were bang-on!

    Wendy

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    1. Thank you, Wendy. Now that my kids are getting older, even my youngest is more into short chapter books lately. But, I insist on reading Picture Books — they are a short, fresh way to get a good reading fix. (And, some snuggle time).

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  5. Lovely. You’re right…you’ll find each of those elements in children’s books and works of fine literature, too.

    I’ll tell you what helped me to follow the six elements you listed above: I apprenticed under a former news reporter. I may still let the words flow, but at least I’m more succinct about it. Plus I know AP Style like the back of my hand.

    Don’t you marvel at Dr. Seuss? Talk about natural poetry! I love that about him.

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    1. Yes, a big fan of Dr. Seuss (although sometimes I question whether he was flailing for rhymes in the end “zizzer zazzer zuzz” etc.). The Lorax is my favorite.

      I would love to hear the story about your apprentice-ship some time…

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  6. I read a lot of books to/with the kids. For my younger son, I’ve really enjoyed the Skippy Jon Jones books – the illustrations are so fun. I never groan when he wants me to read him these books.

    Thanks for sharing the tips for “adult” writing – they are all great suggestions.

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  7. Great post, great insights! I love reading out loud to my kids. There are so many picture books to choose from, but you’re right — the really great ones are magical for all the reasons you mention above. It’s amazing how much we can learn, as writers, from every genre.

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  8. As a former elementary reading specialist and now a mom to three young children, I can honestly say that I LOVE LOVE LOVE picture books but I must say as a writer, I have never married the two. Thank you for doing that for me!

    Great points!

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  9. Great book, wonderful insights. I recently was handed pretty simple (young age) picture book and asked to read it on the fly to a class of third graders (tough crowd for the book level.) Using the pictures and surprises on every page to spur discussion and make it more interesting to them helped save me. The group participation along with an additional “super-surprise” ending (based off of their comments) sealed the deal.

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      1. It was “The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything”. I had the kids making lots of noise during the book (clomp, clomp, etc.), and the super surprise ending, which I pretended was on the page after the real last page, was “and then he ate the little old lady AND her house!” What I can say, the real ending (he became a scarecrow) was too tame for this crowd. It was fun to see how surprised they all were when I “read” that part, “WOW! Really?! We knew that was going to happen!” I had them going for a while (the teachers, too, I think.) Wasn’t much, but it worked.

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  10. Lovely post, Amanda. Now I know why you write so well… off to the library I go! I always loved reading to my boys when they were younger, and you’re right – it’s an art to capture and hold children’s attention. Thanks for this.

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  11. That’s a great list! I think, on some level, I knew I should be doing those. But in the excitement of writing . . . I forget! Thanks for the post!

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  12. You know, that Silly Eaters book sounds really really familiar…now it’s going to drive me crazy. As someone who’s not exceedingly fond of kids, I have only a passing acquaintance with children’s literature. But even hearing my friends read to theirs, I notice that some books really flow and some really don’t. You’re right: the hallmarks of good writing are the same in any age group!

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