At the Mo. SCBWI conference on 9/26, someone asked Brianne Johnson (Writer’s House) about creating picture books with inanimate objects as characters. Her short answer? Don’t do it.
Then she went on to explain the difficulties of this type of story using The Day the Crayons Quit as an example. In this story, the crayons are not inanimate. They run around. They have adventures. They want things. They do things. They may look like crayons but they are stand-ins for children.
This means that whether your character is a cookie or a toaster, animate it. Make it three-dimensional. Make what it wants matter so that the reader will care about your character. A truly inanimate object, be it a balloon, a baloney sandwich or a back scratcher is going to be really, really dull as would any other flat, lifeless character.
It doesn’t matter what picture book rule you are trying to break – no inanimate objects as characters, no animal characters, no rhyme — if you do it well, editors won’t mention it. If, on the other hand, you fail at your attempt, expend the editor or agent readng your work to tell you not to break this rule. Not that it is carved in stone but because you tried and failed in your attempt. Your story just doesn’t work.
If you want to write a story featuring inanimate objects as characters, study recently published books that do it well. Your list should include The Day the Crayons Quit, The Day the Crayons Came Home, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. The last one is a chapter book but this character is as layered and nuanced as any child character. And that is what you need to do, create an animated inanimate object that truly walks and talks and lives.