When you think of a picture book being read, what--- or more precisely, who--- do you see? A child snug on the lap of a beloved parent or grandparent? A teacher, perched on the edge of a tiny classroom chair, reading aloud to a rapt class seated criss-cross-applesauce on the rug? A toddler, alone in their room during quiet time, studiously turning the pages and reciting a favorite book from memory?
Or is the audience . . . you?
Sometimes, in our journey to become writers, we study so much advice and so many mentor texts and blog posts and craft books that we lose sight of our own voice, our own relationship with books, our own relationship with words.
We write for children, after all, many of us in a particular genre or format. Picture books present their own unique set of challenges, with the industry standard of 32 pages and that ever-fluctuating “sweet spot” for word count. And, of course, you have other considerations: room for the illustrator. The child. The reader. It can be enough to crowd out why you’re doing this in the first place.
And, selfishly, it is okay if that’s you.
Allow me to back up for a moment: In my daily professional life, I work as a teacher-librarian in a school that serves grades seven through twelve. My entire career, I’ve only worked with tweens and teens--- never with elementary or preschool-aged children (and, may I just say, bless those early childhood and elementary educators). When social conversations wind their way round to writing, teens and even other adults often express surprise that I don’t write YA. After all, that’s who I interact with on a daily basis. And there is incredible work for young adults out there. I love reading it and talking about it, especially with young people.
But it isn’t what my brain reaches for right now, emotionally or structurally, in terms of my own writing. As someone who wanted to write novels for a very long time--- and never, ever finished a complete draft--- I found myself circling back to picture books. As I rediscovered them through my own young children, and through using them in classroom instruction with middle and high schoolers, I realized I also enjoyed them for my own aesthetic reasons. I loved how wordless titles felt like a silent movie unfolding. I loved the deceptive simplicity of clever refrains or circular structures. I loved the lyrical language and pacing of others, as metaphorical and gorgeous as any Mary Oliver poem. And yes, I’d read them with a child snuggled on my lap, or to a classroom of students (albeit at tables, not criss-cross-applesauce), but the aesthetic experience was a personal response for me. And eventually, I found myself reading them . . . by myself. When I had the itch to write after many years away from it, I allowed myself to consider the possibility of picture books.
As Ann Whitford Paul notes in Writing Picture Books, picture book form is unique because they are books written for people who cannot yet read, “usually read by an adult reader to a nonreader . . . The pictures are there to entice the nonreader to listen and also help construct meaning from the words.” And she’s right, but I also think as writers we can expand our vision beyond that, while still respecting it. After all, aren’t all good stories, regardless of form, about the experience of constructing meaning?
While it’s important to write with your primary audience in mind, remember that you can also have multiple audiences. I’d encourage aspiring writers to not only focus on how children might experience their book, but teens and adults as well. There are so many books I have used or want to use at the high school level--- from Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach to Yuyi Morales’s Dreamers. Seeing teens, often stereotyped as cynical or disaffected, engaged in a picture book with the same wide-eyed wonder as a kindergartener reminds me that these stories serve a purpose for everyone. We just need to allow for that possibility.
So my challenge to you is this--- when you’re writing, and especially during those free writes and first drafts--- allow yourself to let go of that image of the lapsit reader or the elementary classroom. Disregard that editor voice in your brain that questions things like appropriateness and marketability and Lexile level. And, just for a little while, allow yourself to play. Swim around in words that make you feel like you’re engaging in a beautiful piece of language that isn’t cataloged “E” because it’s Easy. It’s “E” because it’s for everyone. And maybe, in that space of openness and play, you just might surprise yourself (and ultimately, your reader) with something beautiful.
Angela Burke Kunkel's debut picture book, DIGGING FOR WORDS: JOSÉ ALBERTO GUTIÉRREZ AND THE LIBRARY HE BUILT (illustrated by Paola Escobar and published by Random House/Schwartz & Wade) releases in Fall 2020. In addition to being an author, Angela works full time as a school librarian. She is a graduate of Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. Angela is represented by Liza Fleissig at the Liza Royce Agency. You can contact her here. You can also connect on Twitter and Instagram.