Writing children’s picture books is a fun way to get enough writing done that you don’t feel guilty, and taking a break from your main work. Sometimes your characters (and maybe readers) are so mad at you – you killed the nice boy off, Pretty Blonde kissed the bad boy when she’s supposed to be with Hot Ginger, or you burned a city of innocent people – that maybe it’s best to stay clear of them for a while. Maybe you’d like to try a new genre! Or, maybe children’s books are your full-time writing pursuit.
Whatever the reason, here you are drafting a manuscript that will soon be in the hands of toddlers and kindergarteners across the country (in the best-case scenario). Illustrations and other details aside, one of the most important things about your book is that it has a character who children are going to enjoy reading about. When I was a kid, my mom read me book after book after book, and I can’t remember disliking any. Of course, since I was so young, I can’t really remember any to begin with – it was over ten years ago! But since then I’ve read children’s books to my little brother, to children at our church, and to myself when I was about five or six. Then I decided to try and write one myself, though I never published or even illustrated it. So without further ado, here are five things to keep in mind when developing a character for your children’s book
This is more important in children’s books than in real books, in my humble opinion. If you’re writing a full-length novel, maybe you can get away with taking someone OOC (out of character, that is) if you only do it once or twice. But think of how disappointed a kid would be if, say, Amelia Bedelia or whatever her name was, that crazy maid who has a million books written about her, suddenly did something right rather than misinterpret everything. It’s part of her character to make mistakes, because little kids think it’s funny. So always stay consistent!
My children’s story was called “The Adventures of Sir Alfred Vöttenshnooder”. Or maybe it was “The Tale of Sir Alfred Vöttenshnooder.” I can’t really remember. I wrote it when I was twelve. The protagonist was a German strudel maker named, as you may have guessed from the title, Sir Alfred Vöttenshnooder. My 14-year-old, German-student self is cringing at that name, but anyway, I wrote a lot of disconnected stories about Sir Alfred. One of the things I wrote was a little ditty that started out:
“Sir Alfred Vöttenshnooder is a man with female lips.
He makes a decent strudel and he’s given decent tips.”
I know, horrible. But there’s the quirk. Sir Alfred is a man with female lips. So if the book had been illustrated, he would always have been drawn with female lips. (And no, he is not a woman in disguise. He is really a man.) The quirk you give your character can be physical, or it can be in their personality. Maybe they say “Cheerio!” at the end of every sentence, or maybe they always skip up staircases. It can be anything you like, so long as it is something that makes them memorable.
#3. Skip Descriptions.
Since this is a children’s book, you don’t really need a detailed description of the character. There will be a picture of them right above the words you are writing. Also, children usually are not interested in hearing about raven tresses and moonlight skin like young adult readers might be. A quick summary of the appearance, one that matches the drawing, should suffice: “Emily had blue eyes and blonde hair – a very pretty little girl, except that her teeth were the most horrid shade of green you ever saw” is much better than, “Emily’s hair was long; it came down to about her waist. She was dressed in a pink dress, white socks, and black shoes. Her eyes were bluer than the sky, bluer than Elijah Wood’s eyes, so blue that anyone who looked upon them was stricken dumb… until she smiled, and they saw that her teeth were green as moss, green as grass, like a thousand emeralds…”
“Mommy, I don’t like this book.”
A lot of children’s books will feature characters with names that are sure to stick in your head – names like Amelia Bedelia, the Cat in the Hat, or The Paper Bag Princess – or, of course, Sir Alfred Vöttenshnooder. These sorts of name roll off your tongue due to their rhyming, alliteration, or quick, smart syllables. Other times, you’ll see normal names like Paul or Suzie. If you’re trying to tell a funny story, you might want to consider one of the first kinds of names. If your story is a little more focused and calm – the sort of story you read at bedtime, like Goodnight Moon, then you might want to opt for a name that seems a little more simple.
#5. Working Together
It’s really key to make sure your illustrations match the kind of story you want to tell. If you’re telling a story about a girl who picks up a seashell and uses it to hear the ocean, you’d prefer a beautiful watercolor image on each page than a cartoony one. The way you space out the pages matters a lot, too – pacing is key. If Max from Where the Wild Things Are went from whining and being sent to his room to sailing the ship on the same page, maybe children wouldn’t like it as much. There’s something sort of magical about hearing a page turn, examining the new illustration, and then wondering what will happen next.
So there you have it! Good luck with your children’s story. And who knows? Maybe your character and Sir Alfred will share a shelf someday! If I ever get that idea anywhere, that is…