How to Write Stories That Appeal to Little Ones: Tips from the Trenches

By Margaret Welwood

A children’s book writer, editor, and grandmother offers her take, with links to some of her favorite stories for sharing.

Tenderhearted toddler that she is, Eliana loves babies. Here, she’s immersed in the photos of babies and drawings of dancing bees in Laurie Salisbury’s Nothing to Fear.

Thousands of Words

If a picture is worth a thousand words for adults, what value must be found in the pictures in children’s books!

Indie authors may have an advantage in that they can work with their illustrator to achieve the effect they desire while benefiting from the illustrator’s vision and expertise. In World Building with Your Picture Book Illustrator, I offer some tips on choosing and working with an artist.

Black and White for Tinies

The endearing drawings in Baby Animals Black and White held great appeal for two-year-old May. Indeed, her profound comments on that wordless little volume ushered in an illustrious career as Book Review Assistant, Toddler Division.

Perhaps May had done her research and was hearkening back to her earliest days. According to Gary Heiting, OD, she could only see in black, white and shades of gray for the first week. Heiting’s excellent article also contains other information useful for those marketing books to parents of ultra-tinies.

Make It Easy

Eliana and I have a deal of sorts. It can be hard to remember the terms of a deal when you’re a toddler, but here they are for the rest of you:

I announce, “I’m going to read a story.”

“Elly ’tory!” asserts my small charge.

Eliana can “read” from back to front, skip pages, and say much or little about the pictures. I do, however, try to keep the book right side up and out of her mouth.

When it’s my turn, I may or may not read the text as is—most often I just comment on the pictures. Eliana can turn the pages for me, but they must be turned one at a time, and only after I’ve given permission. I always keep the book right side up and never, ever put it in my mouth.

Following are some of the books that I’ve found work well with littles because of the possibilities for interaction. How many of these features can you incorporate into your books for children?

Growl, Meow and Roar

Franklin in the Dark offers great opportunity for grown-ups to hone their drama skills as Franklin’s would-be counsellors growl, roar, quack and chirp their sage counsel. Judicious use of ALL CAPS, animals sounds, and clues in the illustrations will cue your adult reader to insert drama into the story hour (or moment).

Move!

Little ones aren’t designed for sitting still, and many of the rest of us do too much of it. Does your story have simple actions that reader and child can imitate? Eliana and I like to yawn, stretch, and hug along with the parents and children in Bedtime.

Hands On

With bright pictures and page-by-page invitations to touch and feel, lift-the-flap books and those with textures keep little hands involved with the story. These books are expensive to produce, as are board books in general, but they are also very appealing.

 

Drama Kings and Queens

Acting out stories can be a lot of fun, whether it’s just a few lines or a full-blown production with props to perform for the family.

A special young man and I dramatized a highly-edited version of Leo Tolstoy’s famous Christmas story about Martin the Cobbler for a group of lower elementary children. This classic take on Matthew 25: 34-40 can be retold very simply for younger children, and it gives older ones an understanding of another era, and of hardships that few of us have experienced.

Not only do drama kings and queens enjoy acting out stories, but drama can also play a critical role in teaching children to be kind. According to Marie E. Cecchini, MS, “Children who participate in dramatic play experiences are better able to show empathy for others because they have ‘tried out’ being that someone else for a while” (Early Childhood News).

Imagining how children might act out the story could be helpful in your writing and editing. And if you have a focus group of young listeners, why not see what happens when you encourage them to “act out”?

In the Forecast . . .

Children love to predict, and what a great way to build suspense before you turn the page! In fact, children’s picture books should be laid out so that the suspenseful text is on the righthand page, prompting the young reader to turn. Knowing this will help you in the creation of your book dummy.

Here are some ways you can build curiosity and increase involvement with your story:

Use the plot and pictures to encourage children to make predictions

Franklin Wants a Pet is great for that. After all, what could Franklin possibly want other than a kitten or puppy?

The Monkey Goes Bananas is an unusual story with very few words and a wealth of opportunities for making predictions.

Where Is That Cat? is a perfectly predictable story—and perfectly delightful because of it. We all know that the cat will hide from those who would take him away from Miss Perkins. The only things we don’t know are where he’ll hide next, and when Miss Perkins will realize that he’s right where he belongs.

Use the facts to encourage predictions.

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? is the ultimate guessing book, and provides opportunities for questions like, “Does your mom ever tell you to roll up your pant legs so you can hear better?”

In the same vein, Whose HOUSE is This? has us guess what (besides termites) live in a termite hill, and what lives in a burrow, flaps its flippers, and screams like a donkey.

Use the language itself to encourage predictions.

Many of the Dr. Seuss books (Green Eggs and Ham, anyone?) provide opportunities to predict based on rhyme and pictures.

Little Bunny’s Own Storybook uses context clues (e.g. Little Bunny is sad, but his story is the “antidote”) as well as rhyme to encourage children to make predictions.

Be Astonished.

It’s hard to believe that the monkey will ever get the bananas, or that the picky eater will eat green eggs and ham in a house AND with a mouse. Who knew?

In the Know

Knowledge is power, they say. And isn’t it fun to be in the know? In Where is That Cat? only the reader and the cat know where he’s hiding. And when Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, the dog and the reader know what’s going on—the two diggers, not so much.

Harry the Dirty Dog features another savvy dog. Rebellious but beloved, white-furred, black-spotted Harry escapes for a happy day of grime time. Alas! He reappears as a black dog with white spots. Even artful renditions of old tricks cannot persuade the family that this “new dog” is their beloved Harry. What will it take?

What can your young readers see and understand that your main character(s) can’t?

Chamomile Tea

Sweet, comforting stories are just right for bedtime. Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon is a classic, and so is The Runaway BunnyI Love You, Daddy is an oversize board book with wonderful, comforting pictures. Study how the masters use loving themes, and repetition of gentle words and pictures. Perhaps you, too, have a pot of chamomile tea brewing.

Someday May and Eliana will learn that some books contain algebra problems, and history facts to memorize. And hopefully they’ll be fine with that. But as authors of books for young children, let’s aim to create treasures for them to share with family, or for downtime with a stuffed animal or blanket. Let’s lay a strong foundation of comfort and pleasure for a lifetime love of books and learning.

It is helpful to remember the Quaker saying, I shall not pass this way again. Trust me—today she’s in playschool, tomorrow she’ll be in junior high.

Author Bio

Margaret Welwood savored storytime with the five children she and her husband raised. She now delights in writing and editing books for children, reading and playing with her grandchildren, and tutoring English as a Second Language and literacy.

Please visit Grandma’s Bookshelf to learn about Margaret’s picture books for children, and her editing services. Margaret’s books are available on Amazon.

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