Character Agency and Picture Books

If you aren’t familiar with the term, one way to think of character agency is power. A character who has no agency is an observer or a victim. Things happen around this character and to this character but not because of this character.

Agency can be tricky in picture books especially if you have a child character. Children don’t have a lot of power and one way that some writers attempt to solve this problem is to limit the number of adult characters in the picture book. The reason being that if adults aren’t there, they can’t take over.

But I’ve also heard complaints about this approach especially from African American writers. They content that creating picture books about their community demands adults and even large complex families. That is, after all, reality. And it is worth nothing that this can work and work oh so well.

In Soul Food Sunday by Winsome Bingham, the family gathers at Granny’s every Sunday. The day of the story is the day the first person narrator is declared old enough to help. Granny teaches him how to wash and chop greens, prepare the meat for grilling and so much more. It is a real family experience but the young narrator still has agency.

How can he possibly have agency with Granny in charge? He could do the job poorly, but chooses to do it well. And in the end he goes above and beyond, using the skills he’s learned from Granny, to make something on his own – a cool, pitcher of sweet tea. The tea is the key because he does this all on his own.

That’s the key to character agency in a picture book. Your character has to take action. That action can work well and come toward the end of the book as it does here. The action could also be a series of bad choices such as if your character tries to sneak a snack or get dressed herself.

There are other work arounds. You can write a story with an animal character. You can also write a story with a childlike adult. The important part is to create a story that works.


How to Avoid Writing a Preachy Picture Book

Name a problem that a kindergartner might face, and there is a right way and a wrong way to tell a story about how to deal with it. Take, for example, the difficulties that a child might have if they have an unusual first name.

Possible solutions include:

  • Going along and answering to the wrong name.
  • Correcting fellow students but not teachers.
  • Shouting “that’s not my name!”

It isn’t just coming up with a good solution that is tricky but also weaving it all into a good picture book manuscript. Do it wrong and you end up preaching a sermon. I see this a lot when a writer wants to teach young readers about manners, hard work, or being good to the Earth.

It isn’t that what they want to share is bad or wrong. But the way that they do it doesn’t draw young readers in.

The best way to deal with these kinds of themes is to create a character with a problem that they need to solve. That’s what Anoosha Syed does in That’s Not My Name! When Mirha goes to the first day of kindergarten, she can’t believe how much trouble her classmates and teachers have with her name. She’s a kind person and doesn’t want to get in trouble with the teachers so she keeps quiet but is frustrated and sad by the time she gets home. Mirha doesn’t solve this problem on her own. Her mother explains the meaning and importance of Mirha’s name and helps her devise a way of dealing with everyone.

This works because young readers are going to sympathize with Mirha. Even if they don’t have an unusual name, there isn’t a child on this planet who hasn’t been called the name of another child or the cat. Mirha is realistic and interesting and someone that readers young and old can empathize with.

And that, my friends, is how to craft a picture book without preaching.


Loosing their temper and yelling at the person who calls them something other than their name.

Preparing to Write a New Book? Read the Competition

You’ve got an idea for a new book. You’re eager to start writing, but there is something that you need to do early in the process. You need to check out the competition. I always tell my writing students to do this because it is the best way to know that there is room for your book in the market.

Recently, I’ve been working on a new picture book. Broadly, it is about pet adoption. When I first started playing around with my idea, I wasn’t sure what shape it would take. Because of this, I started writing before I did much research into the market.

As I wrote, I realized that the point-of-view character is the cat. He may start out as a cute, cuddly kitten but by the end of the book, he’s a bruiser. He isn’t tiny or cute. In fact, he’s a bit of a punk.

When I had a fairly solid draft, I decided I better do my market research. I checked out an impressive stack of picture books about cats. There are so many books about kittens finding homes. There are books about stray cat rescues.

As I read, I breathed a sigh of relief. None of the books duplicate my own idea. Most of them aren’t even close. Then I saw the cover of Mr. Wuffles, the nearly wordless picture book by David Wiesner. Oh, no.

But I’ve checked it out and although Mr. Wuffles does look an awful lot like the star of I am that Cat, the two stories are nothing alike. Phew. What a huge relief.

Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, a picture book or a young adult title, always check out the competition to make sure that there is space in the market for your idea. The earlier in the process that you do this research the better. Why? Because you’ll have time and energy to reslant your project.

Not sure how to reslant? Not to worry. I’ll write about that tomorrow.


Themed Word Lists for your Picture Book

Photo by Valeria Boltneva on

Yesterday I blogged about how to make your picture book a fun read aloud. I’m embarrassed to admit that I forgot to write about themed word lists!

A themed word list is any word list full of words that focus on your picture book’s topic or theme. Maybe you are writing a book about dogs and you use terms like dig, dug, or dogged. Your characters might bark their responses, wag, romp or fetch.

As you can tell, you aren’t necessarily going to be using typical words or even using common words in typical ways. But you are going to create a sense of fun. It is a great way to guarantee a second read as listeners keep their ears open for “dog” words or whatever your particular theme is.

One of the picture books that I’ve been working on has been problematic in terms of making it a fun read aloud. It has a chorus but I’ve yet to manage any fun word play. But a themed list? I could do that.

Photo by David Bartus on

What kind of words will I be looking for? My main character is a cat.

Hmm. I just realized how fake that may seem since my earlier examples revolved around a dog theme. In reality, it was a doggy picture book manuscript that reminded me of themed lists and prompted this post. Rita, if you are reading this, I still love all of the doggy words in your story.

My story, on the other hand, is all about a cat who as a tiny kitten finds a home. As a full grown cat, he is rough and tumble and various people encourage his family to get rid of him. Obviously, I’m going to need a collection of cat words. I could use yowl and prowl, stalk and leap, slink and stealth. But because he’s a big cat, I can also use words that you might use in describing a giant or an elephant. Possibilities include lumber and loom, massive and vast.

It will take time to come up with a suitably cat-like list, but I’m confident that this will help give me story read-aloud appeal.


Should You Write in Rhyme?

Creating a good read aloud can be a lot of work.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

One of the most common pieces of advice given to new picture book writers is not to write in rhyme. “But why?” they say. “We see published picture books written in rhyme. Obviously these manuscripts sell.”

And that’s true. But to sell, rhyme has got to be spot on and flawless. And that means that it has to work when I read it aloud, when you read it aloud, and when that guy over there reads it aloud. Here are some things to remember:

Make the story work.

First things first, get your story down. Don’t worry about creating spot on rhyme until you’ve created a plot and characters that work. Otherwise the temptation is to put the rhyme first. And really? It doesn’t matter how good the rhyme is if your story stinks.

Don’t play with word order.

Once you started working with the rhyme, be careful not to force your word order. What do I mean by that?

The other day I met a fellow.

He wore a hat that was yellow.

Never mind that the rhythm is wrong. First things first, you would say “he wore a yellow hat.” Don’t goof with the word order just to make your line rhyme.

Avoid near rhyme.

If you are going to write a rhyming text, you have use rhyming words. That seems like an obvious thing to say but a lot of people substitute near rhyme. Sometimes the words look like they should rhyme but they don’t went read aloud. Examples include love and move, rough and plough, or lead (led) and seed.

You don’t have to make a story rhyme for it to be a fun read aloud. I like to play with internal rhyme – green, steam, and trees. I’ll use alliteration, using words that start with the same sound – cat and caught, mountain and meadow, hill and holly.

Admittedly, this is easier with some stories than with others. Some stories are lyrical and sweet to read aloud from the start. Others are clunky and it is a struggle to make them work. But when you do? The struggle was well worth the effort.


Fact and Fiction in Picture Book Form

If picture books are your form, take a moment to read Luli and the Language of Tea by Andrea Wang. There are other children in the play room but Luli always plays alone. Each child sits in isolation because none of them speak the same language. Their parents are in an ESL class and the children are simply biding time.

But that isn’t going to work for Luli. The next time she comes, she brings a treat to share – a pot of tea. She calls everyone over and begins to pour. I’m not going to tell you the two marvelous twists in this story. You’ll have to read it yourself.

This is a story all about tea and the fact that the names for tea worldwide are variations on a closely related theme – tea or chai. In the author’s note, Wang explains that the similarities in the word for tea worldwide have always fascinated her.

She could have written about this in a nonfiction book. That’s what Ann Morris did in Bread, Bread, Bread. I haven’t discussed this with Wang but perhaps she didn’t choose a nonfiction route because it would be too similar to the many books written by Morris on bread, hats, shoes, homes, weddings and more.

Many topics can be approached either way. But a straight nonfiction approach, handled less artfully than Morris does, can feel at worst preachy and at best like a lesson. “Hey, kids! I’ve got something you need to know.” With skill, Morris has created numerous books that show of the joyous variety found in our world.

Wang’s fictional story does the same thing while also demonstrating the compassion of the young characters and just a bit of humor. Do you have a nonfiction story that isn’t quite working? Could you spin the information into a fictional story?


How to Create a Picture Book Dummy

Snip, tape, edit and sketch. Yesterday I dummied a picture book. If you write picture books but have never dummies your work before, you really should. I dummy allows you to test out your work. You check to see if you have enough story to fill every spread. You may also discover that you story is far too complicated.

A dummy also helps you to see if you’ve made use of page turns. A page turn helps you conceal a surprise from the reader. Page turns are really useful when something is funny or shocking. A dummy really helps you make use of the picture book’s unique structure.

Each spread needs to be a unique scene. There has to be something for the illustrator to depict.

But what if you’ve never created a dummy? Here is how I do it.

Staple together 16 pieces of paper.  

Wait a minute. Isn’t a picture book 32 pages long. Yes, it is. But 16 pages stapled together gives you 32 pages front and back. You can use half pages or quarter pages. Whatever works for you. For this one I used half pages.

Mark off title page, etc.

End papers and the title page don’t contain any of your actual story.  There are generally three such pages at the beginning of a picture book. Sometimes the copyright info is on a page at the back of the book.

If this ambiguity makes you uncomfortable, look at some picture books from your dream publisher. Do it how they do it.

Cut my text into blocks.  

Next, cut your text into blocks. These blocks of text will become spreads. Some will be one page spreads. A one page spread is a single page with text and an illustration. It stands independent of the preceding and following pages. Some text blocks will become two page spreads. Two page spreads are one block of text and the accompanying illustration that takes up two facing pages.  

One page spreads are often detailed. They are close ups.

Two page spreads are panoramic. They slow down the pace of the story.

Tape the spreads into the dummy.

I’d love to say that this step is easy peasy. That would be a lie.

Sometimes I have more blocks of text than I have dummy pages. I have to ask myself if each scene is essential. Or is there a scene that can be cut?

Sometimes I run out of blocks of text before I reach the end of the dummy. Have I left scenes out? Or it might be that there isn’t enough story for a picture books. Or I might need to add another attempt to solve my story problem.

This time around, I was trying to figure out how to squeeze it all in (all I needed was one more two page spread) when I realized that two pages of my dummy had stuck together. Also, remember that it is natural for this step to take multiple attempts.

Once you’ve got your text in place, look at each spread. Think of it as a scene. You may need to change a word or two. There may be something you can cut. This might also be where you note that something doesn’t flow or that your verbs or your action needs to be more dramatic.

It is far better to figure these things out for yourself then to have someone else point it out to you. Now off to make my story sound more like a picture book.


Beginning at the End

Sometimes it helps to start at the tail end.

Last week, I roughed out a new picture book manuscript. Before I started actually writing, I knew the main character inside and out. I also knew the last two lines of the manuscript. They are so fun that they are actually what drove me to move this up my to-do list and get it drafted.

But, as so often happens, draft #1 was so-so. It just didn’t sing until I got to those last two lines.

So I rewrote it.

Draft #2 was less bad then draft #1 but not significantly so. I added another stellar line. That meant that I had three really strong lines and a whole lot more that were still so-so.

Sunday I had an epiphany. Read a stack of picture books. Find stories that you love. Then work back from the ending. Fortunately I had new-to-me picture books from the library. I read and read and read.

While I liked the ending, none of them really worked as a mentor text. Where had I just read something about endings? About how endings set up your beginning?

I sat down at my computer to work and immediately found a blog post from Jane Friedman that I had marked. In “To Nail Your Memoir’s Beginning, Stop Looking in the Wrong Direction,” she wrote “Your book’s ending must reveal the story’s resolution. Once you know what your resolving, you can establish a clear path for getting there.”

I took another look at those two amazing lines that started it all. They told me who the character was as well as what his story problem had to be. With this in mind, I went back to the beginning. With just minor tweaking and an addition, I had a beginning that set this up perfectly. I worked through the manuscript, creating the perfect set up for the line to follow. Set up and delivery. Wind up and the pitch. Again and again until I reached the end.

I’m not going to say that the manuscript is perfect but it is so much stronger than it was because now I’ve got the scaffolding on which I can build the rest of the story. All it took was a recognition of where those last two lines were taking me.


Picture Books: Depth in a Short, Tight Package

The vast majority of picture books are less than 500 words long. And, yet they include everything that a longer book has and often more. This was brought home to me as I read The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad.

Does the name Ibtihaj Muhammad seem familiar to you? Think Olympics. Think gold medal. She is the first American fencer to compete in hijab. The illustrator is Hatem Aly who also wears hijab.

This is the story of a young girl, Faizah, whose sister decides to wear hijab to school. Her sister’s friends and her own friends are supportive but there are other kids, kids who yell hateful things. For me, the best part of the story was how her sister deals with the hate. She simply shrugs it off. I have to tell you in this day when so many people chant and carry signs and post online, a girl simply living her religion was a breath of fresh air.

So what are the layers of a top-notch story found in this picture book?


Asiya decides to wear hijab and it would have been very easy to create a second girl, the younger sister, who was simply a reflection of the first. But Faizah is her own person wearing her light-up shoes and counting her steps. Still she is someone who cares about her sister and that comes through loud and clear.

Staying Power

Some books demonstrate this staying power through humor. They make the reader laugh aloud and want to revisit the book again and again. Other books are like a warm hug and this book is of the hug variety. The sisters’ love for each other and their willingness to explain things to their classmates and friends warmed my heart.

Windows and Mirrors

Young girls who wear hijab will find themselves looking into mirrors with this book, seeing themselves and their female relatives in the cast of characters. But it is also an excellent window for non-Muslim reader, allowing them to gaze into the why and how of hijab.

Adult and Kid Appeal

Young readers will see themselves in Faizah, who finds herself confronting feelings that seem too big to face alone. But adults will also be drawn to this book, especially if they feel compelled to provide windows and mirrors to the young readers in their lives.

Not all books for young readers need the same level of adult appeal that picture books need to have. The reality is that a child won’t sit through a picture book that doesn’t engage them but an adult won’t buy a picture book they don’t find engaging.

Check out The Proudest Blue and experience a picture book that works in so many ways.


Conflict Needed. Yes, Even in Picture Books

I hope that I didn’t visibly flinch. A new writer was sharing her picture book idea with me. “That’s a premise, but you don’t have a plot.” I never could get across to her that even picture books need conflict. I understand that she just wanted to write a sweet story but really? Even picture books need conflict.

Maybe it is easier to digest for this age group if we think of it as tension. Let’s take the premise that Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall and gets hurt. The plot comes in when he works to come back from it and overcome his fear that it might happen again. Only when he overcomes this fear is he able to soar. That’s essentially the plot of Dan Santat’s After the Fall. The tension is internal but there is definitely tension.

It doesn’t matter if your picture book character is trying to learn a new skill or get used to a new situation. Examples? Learning to tie their shoe or adjusting to a new blended family. If your character quickly learns to run the rabbit around the tree and through the hole or however that shoe lace rhyme goes, there is no tension. If instead, your character is anxious about failing and tries to get by with wearing flip flops, you still don’t really have that tension. If they want to play soccer and have to learn to tie their shoes, you’ve got tension because something is at risk.

You can write any number of age appropriate picture book stories and still have the needed conflict. A story about a picnic? What happens when rain is forecast and plans must be changed? A story about welcoming a new child into the classroom? What happens if that child also wants the red crayon, the red mat, and the red placemat at snack time?

A premise is a situation. A plot brings the needed tension even into a story for preschoolers.