by Tara Lazar
I have a daughter who recently turned five and her favorite saying is “Why come?” (She mixes up “how come” and “why”.)
You may have children like this. They want to know about EVERYTHING, even the most mundane.
“Why come we have to take a bath?”
“Why come we sleep with pillows?”
“Why come we eat breakfast first?”
And the perennial favorite, “Why come we have feet and not wheels?”
I dunno, kid, I dunno. Sure would make life easier.
Kids are curious. They want to know WHY. Like WHY they can’t stay up past 8:30. And then WHY they can’t get up for school. WHY they can’t have a banana split for all three squares (“hey ma, it’s got FRUIT in it!”). And then WHY their stomach aches.
Just as Karma Wilson asks herself WHAT IF? as she writes picture books, I constantly ask myself WHY.
Every character reacts to a situation in their own unique, quirky way. If I create a store called THE MONSTORE where you can buy monsters, I have to ask myself WHY a kid would spend his hard-earned leaf-raking cash on one. There has to be a reason other than the monsters just being cool.
(Oh, and if you know a kid who actually rakes leaves for money these days, send them to my house, please. There are no fifth-grade entrepreneurs in this neighborhood.)
Kids cannot be fooled. If you don’t have a good reason behind a character’s actions, or even the entire story’s being, kids will see right through it. You don’t want “Why come?” to be the first thing they ask after closing the book. You haven’t succeeded if you haven’t immersed your reader in a fully believable set of events.
When I create a new picture book premise, I sit in a comfy chair with a notebook and scribble potential answers to WHY. I develop a long list of reasons for the character’s actions.
And my next secret? Those actions are usually tied to an EMOTION.
I can’t tell you how many picture book manuscripts I read which are devoid of emotion. A character MUST be emotionally changed. The way they start the story is not the way they finish the story. They have grown. They have learned. They have been emotionally altered.
It’s important to include an emotion that is universally understood by children.
What it FEELS LIKE to be picked last for the kickball team.
What it FEELS LIKE to have an annoying sibling.
What if FEELS LIKE to lose your favorite stuffed animal.
Heck, I’m an old lady and I still haven’t gotten over the 1979 disappearance of “Yellow Puff.” She was so yellow. So puffy. So stolen by my little brother if you ask me. (Hey, I got TWO emotions in there.)
So if your picture book manuscript doesn’t feel satisfying, ask yourself, “WHY COME?” It might just give you the answer.
Tara Lazar is the creator of PiBoIdMo, the picture book writer’s alternative to NaNoWriMo. Her first two picture books will be released by the Aladdin imprint of Simon & Schuster. THE MONSTORE, illustrated by James Burks, opens in 2013 and I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK rolls into stores in 2014. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. She prefers cheese over chocolate and chai over coffee. Visit her website for children’s book reviews, writing tips and other fun kidlit diversions. Oh wait, you’re already there!!!