What do little readers want?
November 7, 2010 7:25 AM   Subscribe

What do your children delight in when you read them picture books? I'm a writer who has been commissioned to write the text for one, and not having children, I was hoping for some insight.

I remember well the books I loved as a child, have spent time with children of friends of mine, and spent a lot of time looking at the contemporary crop of picture books at the bookstore (some are truly wonderful; some awful).

I wonder, however, for those of you who have children: are there some general things that your children seem to delight in when being read to? Do you find, for example, that dark stories work just as well as funny ones? Is anything too scary? My (adult) fiction tends toward the dark side and I wonder how much is too much for kids.

Are animals more easy to relate to? Does repetition please especially? What seems to delight your child the most? What do you look for when buying books for your kids, and are there subjects / approaches you absolutely avoid?

I understand I'll have to write the story in my own way, but any thoughts or insight would help a lot! Thanks!
posted by PersonAndSalt to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
On "is anything too scary," read Emily Gravett's "Wolves" -- I remember that many of the reviews mentioned that it was edging over the line for sensitive readers, and I'd agree with that, though it's a picture book I like very much.

What's most overdone is moralistic tales, books for coping with common situations (first day of school, dentist, new baby, etc.) and I really need not to see any more "I love you more than that other book" books.
posted by Jeanne at 7:35 AM on November 7, 2010

Are animals more easy to relate to?

I just want to give you a head's up--the little I know about the picture book market suggests that talking animal books are a really hard sell these days unless you're either a celebrity or doing something exceptional.

You might consider going into the public library and talking to some children's librarians. They'd be a great resource for you, I think.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:39 AM on November 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

For younger children, pictures of children and words with rhythm. Aside from that, anything with a big BOO at the end that they can anticipate and anything to do with toilets, poop and nekkid butts. Children being VERY ANGRY or VERY NAUGHTY also go down well.

For slightly older children, adults being morons works.
posted by shinybaum at 7:46 AM on November 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I remember that with my brother and me there were several things that really got us going:

1) Clearly defined characters with dialogue so my mom could read to us in different voices
2) Rhyming, particularly with words that sound funny
3) Repetition was sometimes good (e.g. my brother loved this poem (warning, most obnoxious webpage ever) and That's Good! That's Bad!, but I got bored easily if the story didn't start going somewhere soon)
4) Dark stories were OK as long as they were resolved at the end (for instance, there was a book called The Talking Eggs that I really loved. I haven't read it in yeaaars, but I remember there was something about it that kind of freaked me out (maybe the illustrations more than the writing), but it ended well (mean girl got her comeuppance, nice girl won) so it didn't matter)
posted by phunniemee at 7:49 AM on November 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Go volunteer to read story time at the local library. This will be far better research than you can get here.
posted by humanfont at 7:50 AM on November 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

You might also give some thought to the number of words you use...

After writing The Cat in the Hat which used 225 different words, Dr. Seuss was famously challenged by his editor Bennett Cerf to write a book with 50 words or less. The result? Green Eggs and Ham.
posted by fairmettle at 8:07 AM on November 7, 2010

What age?
posted by k8t at 8:10 AM on November 7, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for all your really helpful thoughts so far. In answer to the question "What age?" I would say around the age of children who enjoy Madeline, Babar -- so not the littlest children.
posted by PersonAndSalt at 8:11 AM on November 7, 2010

As for scary, as a child I didn't like truly frightening things but my favorite picture book was A Woggle of Witches. If it had anything halloween-y - mummies, graveyards, witches, etc. I was all over it, even when not halloween time.
posted by pointystick at 8:38 AM on November 7, 2010

It would be helpful to know what age you are targeting.
posted by Tristram Shandy, Gentleman at 8:50 AM on November 7, 2010

This isn't quite answering your question, but it's not irrelevant either:

Whatever you write, parents of these children will have to read it more often than you ever will. If it happens to be the book that grabs a child's imagination at a certain time, they might have to read it aloud fifty times over ("You want Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie? Agaaaain?"). If not, it might only be ten or twenty times. In these circumstances--a friend of mine pointed out, when I'd been reading aloud to one of his two young children--you really, really notice the duds. A book that seems okay on the first read can be driving you mad by the nineteenth, while still provoking appreciative yammering from a learning-to-talk child who is concentrating on the pictures more than the words. Even a good book can lose its edge by the thirty-second time you get to that one page where the awkward wording always trips the tongue, or the rhyme doesn't quite scan. The mark of a really good picture book, from a parent's point of view, is when you can read it (out) over and over and over again, and it still sounds fresh every time. When you think about it, this is obvious: in a book whose entire text is only about as long as this paragraph, every word has to be just right.

So: when you've written your book, read it (are get friends, perhaps friends with kids, to read it) out loud over and over again. And then some more. And then some more.

And it was still hot.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 9:17 AM on November 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

unless word play is your thing and you're very experienced in writing verse for kids, I'd suggest steering clear of rhymes. rhyming picture books are almost a joke in the kids' book industry, because everyone tries to write them, but almost nobody can write them well. (that also goes for anthropomorphic animals, like PhoBWanKenobi said. and anthropomorphic helicopters, etc.)

Editorial Anonymous, written by a childrens' book editor, was a fantastic resource for anyone breaking into the younger kids' book industry. it's been defunct since summer, but everything's still pertinent. since you're commissioned you can skip through most of the publishing stuff and concentrate on the content posts and questions.

also, don't be afraid of the absurd -- embrace it!
and remember, the art is the true focus in a picture book, and when it comes to the writing, less is more. best of luck!
posted by changeling at 9:37 AM on November 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Our 2.5 year old loves loves loves
Richard Scary "busy town" esp for the "piggies"
Choo Choo, THe Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Engine (esp. Choo Choo)
The red caboose (golden book)
Dr Meow's Big Emergency
Where is the Green Sheep / Barnyard Dance

What she seems to love is that the pictures are complex but not too crazy / realistic.
She can find new things as we read them more

She likes Madeline and the cats the rome (maybe for the cats and dog) but I have to say its my least favorite for some reason.

Our girl likes animals, likes trains/trucks/cars/fire engines

I hate stupid morals, preachy books, though the "I love my mommy" book is cute (nice pictures not too preachy)

She's starting to like books with the a little bit of danger (e.g. the red caboose)

Choo Choo is pretty dark at the end and she loves it, it was also one of my favorite books as a kid, I had totally forgetten about it until I found it at a store and it all came back. It's totally black and white but the story was really fun and a little scary at the end, and the artwork was just charcoal but really expressive.

I would love a new book like that.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 9:46 AM on November 7, 2010

I have found that with my little one and my nieces/nephews, that when the words have a rhythm and some repetition, they really get into the book. The Bear Snores On is good example of what I mean.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 11:04 AM on November 7, 2010

When I read books to children, they like the stuff that (as others have noted) has a great rhythm and repetition.

As a person who picks out books to read to children, I like the ones that have little to no gender essentialism and heterocentrism, and show a wide array of skin colors and body types. That stuff seems to be a little harder, but not impossible. I also avoid books with deaths in them unless I'm explicitly trying to teach the kids about death or certain types of death (parent death, sibling death, grandparent death, etc.; there is a market for well-done books about that stuff, but it's not the same market as the people who read books to kids at bedtime or whatever).
posted by shamash at 11:12 AM on November 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

After much experimentation, I've come to the conclusion that the best meter for a children's picture book is Dactylic Tetrameter, the one with the thu-bu-da thu-bu-da rhythm, like hoofbeats.* It gives the story a certain momentum that you'll never be able to squeeze out of an iamb or even a trochee.

Reading aloud to the kid comes a poor second to me and the kid reading aloud together. Using questions, repetition or call and response encourages them to contribute and start reading aloud. They can be pre-literate and still point out that under no circumstances should the pigeon drive that damned bus!

Listening to somebody who talks in a monotone is always boring, right? So write your book in a way that makes a monotone impossible. You want to stretch Mommy or Daddy's chops as a thespian and include at least one extra-challenging moment for their star turn. After multiple readings, the kid will be bouncing up and down in their seat, eagerly anticipating the page on which Mommy or Daddy is going to have to roar like a hippopotamus.

* Test results may have been compromised by Subject A's obsessive love of pony rides and the sheer awesomeness of Hairy MacLary from Donaldson's Dairy.
posted by the latin mouse at 11:58 AM on November 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

If your character talks, I beg you, rely on the useful and inobtrusive word "said" instead of the sad bouquet of faux-original semi-synonyms bad writers love.

Also, in my opinion, far too many creatures scamper in children's books. What's with all the damn scampering?

Furthermore, yay! Books!
posted by Sallyfur at 2:41 PM on November 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

The book I immediately thought of in our house is "Hushabye" by John Burningham.

Each page's rhyme scans perfectly, and it's a dreamy read. The momentum builds with simple sentences and pictures: "There's a cat with a stroller/who's had a hard day/ and now needs a place for her kittens to stay. Hushabye..."

Each page has a small problem ("There are three tired bears climbing the stairs..."). Midway point is a small layout with bedtimey statements like "it's time to lie down". Then the slow resolution of each problem. "The cat's found a place for her kittens to stay/Out of the wind and the rain" -- showing them nestled in the hay in a barn. Each animal and person finds their place for the night. You can feel the child with you relaxing as each problem is solved. Then the final page sends the child off to sleep with "Hushabye, hushabye, hush..."

To sum up: deft illustration, some mild tension with all these tired characters who need shelter and rest that gets solved bit by bit, and perfect scansion and rhyming that really does relax you as you read. We never, ever tire of this book!
posted by mdiskin at 6:10 PM on November 7, 2010

Every single child that I babysit (actually all boys, currently ranging in age from 2-6) has loved the "Jillian Jiggs" stories. They really like the rhymes ("A long time ago when she was quite small, Jillian Jiggs wore nothing at all!") and the chorus ("Jillian, Jillian, Jillian Jiggs! It looks like your room has been lived in by pigs!") because they like to "read" along (and shout on the "pigs!" part). Each story has a problem/situation that Jillian solves with great creativity (she's just awesome, and one of my fictional adhd role models).
posted by purlgurly at 6:37 PM on November 7, 2010

Dialog. I think kids love it when the reader does exaggerated, funny voices for each character in dialog. And face it, what reader doesn't enjoy hamming it up for the child s/hes' reading to? As Sallyfur noted, using "said" keeps them focused on the exchange and not the prose.
posted by klarck at 9:33 PM on November 7, 2010

All four of my kids have liked the Oliva books and "Click, Clack, Moo" (et seq.). These books all use pretty spare dialogue to tell their stories, and they also credit the child with being able to comprehend irony, understatement, etc.

Rhymes and assonance that build up to a crescendo are also fun.

The Carl the Rottweiler books are fun because I and/or the kids construct the story each time.

Most books tied to licensed characters lack this kind of interactivity and sophistication (in language, complexity, and pacing) -- and IMHO pretty much all suck, too.

The Eric Carle books that make kids get up and do stuff ("I am a cat and I arch my back. Can you do it?") were popular with the little ones.

And even though we have done them ONE MILLION TIMES, my boys both still (age 8 and 6) love the "I Spy" books (which I must admit have some very celever visual jokes and are also pretty darn complex). They hate it when I ask them to find stuff not mentioned in the text -- whichh, oddly, is what I find keep the things fresh. *shrug*
posted by wenestvedt at 9:06 AM on November 8, 2010

One more thing: books that don't explicitly describe everything in the pictures are neat because they leave somethign to be wnjoyed on subsequent readings.

Betsy Bowen's GREAT books about Minnesota and the upper Midwest are wonderful examples of this. In her calendar/counting book, "Gathering," the pictures are simple woodblock prints but there are details that inspire my own stories to tell. For example, on one page she mentions making "bluebarb" jam -- so after the kids and I talked about this, I emailed Bowen and we discussed the recipe.

And in her alphabet book "Antler, Bear, Canoe," she uses just enough words that when my kids get older they can ask why the car has to be plugged in overnight, and I can go on ot tell them about my cousin living in Bemidji who pulled the dipstick out of her frozen engine one winter morning only to see a tendril of oil strrrrretchh out and then snap off and fly away in the howling wind.

So in short, books that don't use up all the ideas in their illustrations (see also Jan Brett) have longer lifespans and reward close attention.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:12 AM on November 8, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for all your really helpful answers! There was something really useful in every one of them.
posted by PersonAndSalt at 2:47 PM on November 15, 2010

« Older Setting the Herbal Supplement vs Prescription...   |   Help my nephew get even more 'animated' Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.