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!
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!