Writing books for children brings its own challenges. Writing books for children is in many ways very different from writing for adults, and yet, in many other ways, just the same. My guest contributor for this genre is Steve Barancik. Here's what he has to say on the topic:

Picture books are fiction! A shocking number of children's book manuscripts that come my way are missing an essential element: story. Maybe it's the fault of libraries! They separate books for teens and adults into Fiction and Non-Fiction, while books for small children tend to fall under the single heading, Picture Books. Or maybe it's the fault of overprotective parenting, aspiring writers somehow concluding that kids will be traumatized by a story featuring a character whose life isn't all cookies and gumballs. Whatever the reason, too many aspiring writers slap a few drama-free words on the page (assuming the illustrator will take care of the rest) and think they've created literature. No, no, no! With an exception here and there (like some Board Books, which may say, "This is a square, this is the color red, this is a flower, this is your sister's head!") picture books are Fiction. They have all the elements of fiction, for instance:

  • a protagonist
  • a three act structure
  • a struggle
  • suspense

Look no further than The Cat in the Hat if you don't believe me.

Act I: A latchkey kid and his latchkey sister are living the latchkey life on a rainy day when a suspicious cat in a bizarre hat shows up promising "fun" and "tricks." Against his better judgment (and the advice of a worrywart goldfish), the kid allows the cat entry.

Act II: Hijinks ensue, but every "trick" the cat does results in a mess. Damage to the home only accelerates when the cat lets loose Things One and Two. Our latchkey kid is finally persuaded by "Goldie" that he has to take action when it's noted that his mother is on her way home. Our hero manages to catch the Things in a net and assert himself to the chastened cat, who is persuaded that the fun must come to an end.

Act III: The cat exits, seeming leaving the kids facing an overwhelming mess to clean. But, in a forgivable bit of deus ex machina the cat reappears with a quite impressive many-armed cleaning machine. (Note that the machine doesn't appear in the text. It is the work of the illustrator, though the illustrator was of course also the author.) The house is rendered back to spotless, and the cat leaves just ahead of Mom's arrival. The book closes with a moral dilemma: whether or not to tell Mom what happened.

Can we agree that there's a lot of substance here? Can we agree that there is drama and conflict? Can we agree that it's a story? And assuming that you concur that very few cats own and operate many-armed cleaning machines, can we also agree that the story is a fictional one? And here's its moral... Apply everything you know about the writing of fiction to writing picture books. Just do it with fewer words than usual!

Steve Barancik

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