If you’re a picture book writer, you’ve read hundreds of picture books. Maybe even thousands. (And if you haven’t, I’m sending you to bed without supper!)
I know you have favorites. But have you ever stopped to analyze why a picture book has earned your top rank? Is it the premise? The voice? The twist on the final page? Does the book’s heartfelt sentiment or cheeky sense of humor hook you? Is it all of the above?
Timothy Knapman’s Guess What I Found in Dragon Wood stands out among recent reads. Why? When I began Knapman’s story, I assumed it had a been-there-done-that premise: boy discovers a creature in the forest. But on the third page, I was thrown.
This is no ordinary boy-meets-dragon story. It’s dragon-meets-boy.
Told from the dragon’s point of view, Dragon Wood turns a common premise upside down. When the young dragon finds a boy “called a Benjamin,” he brings it home and asks his mom if he can keep it. Slowly the dragon uncovers strange facts about the human world—the Benjamin’s striped boots aren’t his feet, his eyes leak when he’s sad, and he loves a game involving a black and white ball. But the dragons have a tough time learning soccer. They just want to burn down the goalposts and eat the ball.
In Dragon Wood, young readers know more than the main character. And kids love that. Think about it—all day long they’re in school, being told how much they don’t know. When they can be smarter than a picture book character, it’s a fun feeling. (Just like when we adults are smarter than a fifth grader.)
Knapman’s book has several things going for it: surprise, humor, a unique voice, kid sensibilities and adult appeal. Let’s not forget that a picture book should keep the grown-up—the one with the wallet who’s reading—entertained as well.
When I boil this dragon tale down, it’s a story about friendship. I could also argue that it’s a book about the importance of family and finding one’s true place in the world. These are universal themes that will never go out of style.
As I come up with ideas this month, I think about the theme at its heart. Will my theme stand the test of time? Can I write this theme with humor and an element of surprise? What have I learned from Dragon Wood that I could apply to my own unique story?
In Cressida Cowell’s That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, the relationship between a little girl and her favorite toy is magic, a love that everyone can understand because they’ve experienced it, too.
In The Louds Move In by Carolyn Crimi, the author balances seven distinct characters—an entire family of Louds plus three quiet neighbors. Even the names are brilliant: Earmuffle Avenue, Miss Shushermush, Mr. Pitterpatter.
In Laurie Keller’s Arnie the Doughnut, I guffaw at its crazy, quirky humor. Arnie is alive—and the poor chocolate-frosted treat doesn’t realize that doughnuts are for eating.
Okay! Are you ready to try it? Go play with a favorite book. What do you love about it? How can you create something lovable?
So, how’s it going today?