THE TEL OF THE JRAGIN AND THE GOL: Five PICTURE BOOK Writing Tips from a Four-Year Old!

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“The Tale of the Dragon and the Girl” by W, age four

Look what I found today while rummaging through the third drawer in my desk. It’s the first book my son ever wrote – as a four year-old.  He’s written other things since, but this was the first. (Yeah, I know. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.)

I remember the day well.  My son announced one morning that, like me, he wanted to be a writer and that he was going to write a book. Next thing I knew, he had planted himself at the dining room table with paper and pencil. Then he wrote and wrote. He didn’t stop until he was finished. Once he did, he didn’t let me peek. Instead he ran to our craft drawer and grabbed construction paper for the book cover.  With my help, we stapled the book together. Then, and only then, did he let me read it.  I needed his help the first time through, but his imagined spelling makes total sense to me now and I love how he didn’t let his lack of spelling knowledge keep him from expressing himself.

Here’s the story.  I’ve translated it in the captions, but just for fun, see if you can figure it out for yourself first.  Then, take a moment to think about my writerly takeaways from this authentic 4-year-old writing sample.  Enjoy!

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“You might not think that nothing might happen to Annie, but something happened to her.”

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“It happened by a dragon.”

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“We don’t know why the dragon took her.”

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“The dragon took her because it was hungry.”

I find this writing sample especially fascinating because it reveals one four-year-old’s perspective on what makes a winning picture book. Now, inspired this find, here are five characteristics of effective picture books – as seen through the writings of a four-year-old.

TIP #1: Have an attention grabbing title. I just love W.’s title.  I mean who wouldn’t want to read a tale of a dragon and a girl?  For me, at least, it immediately evokes fairy tales and magic. So, here’s my takeaway. What’s the first glimpse you get of a book sitting on the shelf at the library?  The spine of course. And on that spine you’ll find the title. So, using my son’s catchy title as an example, I think it’s worth considering that if want your book to stand out, a catchy title is a must.

TIP #2: Employ suspenseful page turns.  Even at age four, W. understood the power of a page turn.  He even included page numbers within his text. And if you carefully examine story, you’ll see that each page ends with a little tease – almost a cliff hanger.  This, I believe, is a reflection of something he enjoyed most as young partaker of picture books – the power of a suspenseful page turn. As you analyse your own work-in-progress, be inspired by W. and take a moment to consider how well-placed page turns can enhance your story.

TIP# 3: Keep your text sparse but active. You have to admit W.’s text is pretty lean.  There’s no fluff to be found. Every word he uses pushes his four-year-old story forward.  In fact, his story is almost blunt in its intensity. Likewise, as we write our stories, we need to to shed every word that doesn’t push the story forward – relying on meaty verbs and vivid nouns to bring our tales to life.

TIP #4 Create conversation sparking content. You can almost sense that one of W.’s favorite parts of reading picture books as a preschooler was the conversation that each page sparked.  We never just read a story through. Instead, we asked each other questions, pondered the pictures, and wondered what might happen next.  W.’s text almost reads as an answer to those questions.  As such, his wording is a great reminder to the picture book writer in me that I, too, want to make sure my stories open themselves to lots of interactive reading.

TIP #5 Don’t forget the conflict! Even as a four-year-old, W.’s writing reveals that he had a strong sense of one of the fundamentals to a good story.  Conflict!  A good story needs to have a problem that the character faces, learns from, and hopefully overcomes.  Poor Annie was eaten, but we as the readers, figured out why.  It’s because the dragon was hungry and hopefully, from now on, you’ll steer clear of hungry dragons.  But seriously,  W.’s story is a good reminder that, like dragons, children do indeed hunger for good stories with plenty of action, conflict, and excitement.

Happy writing, all!

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BOXERWOOD FAIRY FOREST: Learning from the Experts

IMG_1875My daughter and I recently spent a week in Lexington, VA visiting my dad. One of the highlights was visiting the amazing Fairy Forest at Boxerwood Nature Center and Woodland Garden.  The Fairy Forest opened this spring and is growing quickly.  Garden Director, Faith Vosburgh, explained that this colony for fairy folk is meant to be a place where children can come to explore and build. She showed my daughter buckets containing prickly balls, pine cones, pods, acorn shells, twigs and other bits of natural building material perfect for building and adorning fairy houses.

But, before building her own fairy house, my daughter wanted to explore the woods for inspiration. She peeked into the structures previous fairy house architects and engineers had constructed.

She looked at this house and this one and this one!

And this one… and this one!

And as she did, she took mental notes about what worked, in her opinion, and what didn’t.

Next, with her own plan in mind,  Miss A. was ready to begin.

She picked her special spot and cleared space for her foundation. Then, using bits of nature and her wonderful imagination, as well as some of the fairy abode principles she had observed, she built.

She built and built and built!

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Until, finally, her fairy house was finished!

As a writer, think that the Boxerwood Fairy Forest is a wonderful, visual reminder that good writing should be grounded in a solid understanding of our subject/genre. Indeed, whether building fairy houses or writing picture books, it’s important to look to those who have built before us, or who are building alongside us, for wisdom and insight into what makes a long and lasting structure/story.

For me, that means reading, reading, reading! Each week this summer, I plan to lug home a bag full of picture books from the library. Some will be classics I knew and loved as a child. Others will be new books by contemporary authors. I will read them to myself, to the kids, to the dog and as I do I will analyze what makes them work or not. I will record my thoughts in a notebook for future reference.

Then, just as my daughter did at Boxerwood’s Fairy Forest, I will gather my own twigs, bark, and yarn, and build my own stories, applying what I’ve learned from the experts.

How about  you? What’s your version of a trip to Fairy Forest?  How do you plan to grow and learn as a writer this summer?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Happy Summer, all!