I read some exchanges recently between picture book authors in which one posed the question (and I’m paraphrasing here) as to whether she could do whatever she wanted with her main character in her manuscript, or whether it was better to perhaps “play it safe.” DON’T PLAY IT SAFE! message and this got me to thinking, if any authors are out there assuming they have to play it safe for picture book age readers, my position on how detrimental that way of thinking is deserves a bit more space than a Facebook comment box allows.
As someone who’s edited and published hundreds of picture books, my position has never flagged on one particular point about what makes a great picture book: whether your characters are human, animal, or otherwise; whether your story is realistic or fantasy; whether your story is contemporary or historical; whether your approach is serious or funny; whether your story is practical or completely off the wall…anything goes as long as a very young child will be able to relate to your main character’s emotions, perspectives, and world view.
A story can open with our main character in a kitchen with mom and dad and dog all safely and soundly situated—to many readers, that’s familiar, but to other readers such a scene will be a fantasy and not familiar at all—not by a long shot. A story can open with our main character caped and masked and flying through the trees—to many readers, that will be familiar because it’s exactly how they think of themselves all the time, but to other readers it will be a brand new idea, maybe a little scary, but maybe a little fantastic, too. As long as the trajectory of the picture book story taps into the emotions and feelings a very young child will find familiar, that’s as familiar and “safe” as a picture book needs to be. As long as the emotional needs, interests, and resolutions of the main character in a picture book resonate with the very young reader’s emotional knowledge and capacity, that’s as familiar and “safe” as a picture book needs to be. As long as that’s solid, the trappings and settings and structuring of the picture book can be whatever your imagination can conjure—and here’s the very place where I see most new picture book authors not pushing themselves enough.
Authors need to allow their imaginations to take them all over the place, particularly out of safety zones—if authors play it too safe, we end up doing a disservice to ourselves and a disservice to our young readers. Where but in stories can we allow our youngest readers to not play it safe, to try new things, to explore, to roam, to make mistakes and make amends, to reach higher, deeper, and further than we ever thought possible? And where but in stories can we allow ourselves the very same? And if we don't do all this in stories for children, I shudder at the cost that will take on our collective imaginations and creativity.
We wrap our children too tightly in bubble wrap sometimes—and sometimes, indeed, it’s completely necessary, but not in stories. Stories are where we must let our children play and dream and imagine roles and lives forthemselves that they’ve never thought about before; that’s how stories help children explore their sense of empathy, sharpen their resolve, enrich their dreams, and expand their imaginations. There’s no harm in that at all as long as the stories we provide as the vehicle for this ride carry within them the emotional core young children will be able to understand as their own.
If we push ourselves out of the familiar to ask "what if?" and to find the magic in the world, think how much more interested our children will be in doing the same. The safest route is rarely the most scenic. So feel free to explore creatively and imaginatively in your stories so children can explore the world in the same way. And if you find yourself spinning your wheels in a safety zone, go listen to young children telling each other stories and have them tell stories to you. I promise, the emotions will be familiar, but the stories will be out of this world--and that's a trip well worth taking.
(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC