Flipping Pancakes with a Shovel: Crafting Compelling Books for Babies and Toddlers

This article was originally published in the 2003 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books). All rights reserved.

Getting to Know You

Arrive at my house unannounced and you might see something strange through the picture window. What’s a grown woman doing crawling around the house on her hands and knees?

Research!

Bookshelves loom like skyscrapers when you’re thirty inches tall. Imagine flipping pancakes using a shovel. Think about never getting to see all the interesting stuff that happens up on the countertop. These are typical experiences for small children who inhabit a grown-up sized world. In order to write compelling books for babies and toddlers, you need to meet them at their level: talk with them rather than at them.

To get a good sense of what makes babies and toddlers tick, spend time observing them: at the park, the store, or a child development center. If you’re brave (and patient), help out in a classroom or children’s library. Take note of interesting situations, phrases, and behaviors. These tidbits may or may not evolve into actual stories, but paying attention to details will breathe authenticity into your writing. My own stories WAKE UP, MAMA and DRIVING DADDY (both with Dutton, 2003) hatched when I noticed that children would rather climb on their teachers than on the fancy equipment that graces their classrooms and playgrounds.

The most compelling books for young readers feature children just like them. Infants and toddlers are egocentric, and they look for people and problems that are familiar. This is why “perfect” kids are a lot less appealing than imperfect ones like Maurice Sendak’s Max or Ian Falconer’s Olivia. Much of the conflict in very young picture books centers on developmental challenges: learning to share; separation anxiety; feeling powerless. If your main character waltzes through life without stumbling, she won’t be compelling to most kids who “stumble” on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Toddlers’ love for the familiar doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy books about new experiences or cultures, but those stories will be more engaging if they speak to universal themes and struggles.

Arts and Crafts

Well-crafted picture books for babies and toddlers can look deceptively simple, but great ones have all the elements of a classic story: interesting characters, lively language, and a satisfying beginning, middle, and end.

Beginnings must be immediate. Toddlers have short attention spans and only vague concepts of time and place. They live in the here and now, and that’s when your story should begin. Young readers find all the setting information they need in the illustration: the story happens inside, or outside. It happens on a farm. Etc. Toddlers also don’t need a lot of descriptive information about characters—they glean everything they need to know from the action. We meet Max the Wild Thing in the throes of a tantrum and we immediately know a lot about him. On the first spread of Nancy Shaw’s SHEEP IN A JEEP, (Houghton Mifflin) we meet the characters and their problem: “Beep! Beep! Sheep in a Jeep on a hill that’s steep!” If you get to the crux of your story quickly, even little wigglers will tune in. Another way to immediately draw the reader into the story is to write intimately. DO YOU KNOW NEW? by Jean Marzollo (HarperCollins) speaks directly to the reader in a playful, lyrical voice that is hard to resist: “Do you know knew?/Oh, my, I do!/Brand new, I do.” Books that speak directly to the child say, “This is your story, and you are the important person here.”

What about the middle of young picture books? Many young picture books do have clear plots or themes, but they tend to be much simpler than those in older books. “Slice of life” stories often depend on patterns for their structure. Repetition is one popular tool. Repeating phrases, incidents, and refrains let children predict what happens next—and thereby feel powerful. Call-and-response books are another kind of repetitive format. In BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR by Bill Martin Jr., (Henry Holt) a narrator asks each animal (and each reader) what it sees. Children are active learners and active listeners, so stories that require their participation are more likely to hold their interest.

In cumulative stories, each new scene includes a listing of all the events leading up to it, as in the folktale This is the House that Jack Built. In Mem Fox’s HARRIET, YOU’LL DRIVE ME WILD (Harcourt), Harriet’s mother corrects young Harriet’s missteps with an escalating, impatient refrain. She starts out, “Harriet…you’ll drive me wild,” and adds a line through each of three scenes until she finally loses her temper. The lengthening refrains underscore Harriet’s increasingly messy antics and her mother’s growing frustration in a great example of format that truly serves the story. Predictable stories also leave room for surprise when the established pattern is broken. The cumulative, rhyming refrain suddenly disappears at the peak of Harriet’s mischief: “There was a terrible silence.”

Children love rhyme because it’s predictable and challenging. Writing in verse provides structure, but it should complement a story rather than prop it up. Rhyme can be very engaging, if done well: it must have flawless meter and true rhymes, in addition to telling a great story. Choppy meter makes a story lurch and stall, rather than sing. A rhyming refrain or internal rhyme in prose (as in, “please don’t squeeze”) are fun alternatives to stories written entirely in verse. If you want to rhyme well, read all the rhyming texts you can get your hands on, aloud. Have people read your work to you to see if it scans. Even if your story is prose, it should have rhythm. Make sure that the natural flow of the text suits the story.

Young children enjoy experimenting with speech sounds as they learn to master them. Jane Yolen’s OFF WE GO! (Little, Brown) is a beautiful example of delicious language: “Dig-deep, diggity deep/Down where day is dark as sleep/Off to Grandma’s house I creep/ sings Little Mole.” Some very young stories take their entire structure from playful language. JAMBERRY, by Bruce Degen, takes the word “berry” and runs with it. There’s no particular conflict or plot, just a series of silly vignettes tied together by language play. CHICKA, CHICKA, BOOM, BOOM (Simon and Schuster) by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault is another popular book in this vein. The fact that all of these examples, originally published in hardback, are now available in board book format indicates their appropriateness for babies and toddlers. Use language “flourishes” (see below) judiciously. If they don’t enhance the story, they’ll distract from it. When a story really works, readers don’t notice the techniques that make it sparkle—they’re integral to the story itself.

So what about endings? Many popular books for babies and toddlers come full circle: the main character ends in the place where he or she began. The forward motion of the story needs to bring the main character all the way to his destination (a safe place, usually) and not leave the reader wondering if he’ll make it okay. Even though Mem Fox’s Harriet and her mom have had a row, we see they are fixing things. In NO DAVID! by David Shannon (Blue Sky/Scholastic), mischievous David finally hears the word “yes”—when mom says, “Yes, David, I love you.” Hopeful endings are comforting. Depending on the mood of your piece, it may need to wind down or close with a bang, so be sure to choose an ending that serves your story.

Shoptalk

Lovely language can make your story leap off the page. The following books are great examples of some popular “flourishes.” (For extra credit, note the other techniques that make these stories so successful!)

Alliteration: using words that begin with similar sounds, as in: “Dustin didn’t want to do it.” See: Castles, Caves, and Honeycombs by Linda Ashman (Harcourt)

Assonance: using words that have similar vowel sounds, such as “plate” and “bake.” See: Grump by Janet S. Wong (McElderry)

Consonance: using words with similar consonant sounds, such as “click,” “clack,” and “cluck.” See: Tickle Tum! by Nancy Van Laan (Atheneum)

Onomatopoeia: sound words that are spelled like they sound, such as “bam,” “tinkle,” and “crash.” See: All on a Sleepy Night by Shutta Crum (Stoddart)

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