IDEA #12. Write a children’s book. Illustrate it yourself, or ask a friend to help. Field test your book by reading to children of the right age; ask them for feedback, and make changes until you have a book that kids really like. Once you know have written something appealing, find someone to publish your book.
What was your (or your children’s) favorite children’s story? Do you still have a copy around? There is no better place to start imagining writing one’s own children’s book than by carefully examining the form and structure of another.
The secret to most great children’s books is that they combine a great simplicity of form—relatively few words to a page, short sentences, few characters—with a wonderful complexity or open-endedness. The book suggests or evokes rather than spelling out aspects of the character or the story. Goodnight, Moon, for example, provides a prop-filled setting but almost no context; the story could be about, and for, anyone, so every child—and every parent—feels included in the narrative, even if the great green room does not look much like home.
The next Goodnight, Moon might be a bit much to hope for, but creating a storyline and illustrations that might entertain a young neighbor or cousin is simply a great way to harness imaginative power. Which comes first, the pictures or the text, makes little difference, but the story should above all appeal to the writer, and if there are opportunities to introduce whimsy or humor—even irony—by all means take them, as even toddlers know a good joke when they encounter it.
Reassure the young author that the illustrations do not have to look professional—even many published children’s books are a bit rough in the visual department, as evocative is perhaps even more effective than precisely representational. An important physical characteristic for a children’s book is that it can be seen by the listener even as it is being read aloud—larger drawings are better than smaller ones, although some detail is always welcome.
The proof of the pudding, so to speak, will be the first time the story is shared with a young listener. Think of the first audiences as being like focus groups—gather feedback, and make changes as necessary, at least up to the limit of artistic integrity. A final, presentation copy can be made as a gift for a young friend, although the author may want to run off a color photocopy (although this can be expensive) to keep—or to submit to a publisher!