August 6, 2018

Oh, the Mistakes We’ve Seen!: children’s picture books

By Madeleine Dodge

“Oh, the Mistakes We’ve Seen!” is part of a series of BlueInk Review blogs offering advice and insight into self-published writers’ most common errors, as seen in the more than 6,000 reviews of self-published books that we have provided since our inception in 2011.  Below, we have compiled excerpts from our more unfortunate reviews, each of which expose common writing blunders.

So what makes the bad review rear its dreaded, beastly head?  Here are some traps you should avoid at all costs when writing a children’s picture book:

Using vocabulary that’s too complex:

If you’re writing a picture book, impressive words simply won’t cut it. Kids don’t have time for words like “deplorable” or “scrupulous.” This doesn’t mean your choices can’t exceed one syllable, but remember your audience. Put yourself back in your size 4 sneakers and try to recall what you wanted to read as a kid.

If you’re having trouble assuming the perspective of a five-year-old, a good trick is to read your manuscript to children you know. Count the number of times they ask for the meaning of a word and note which ones seemed especially befuddling (“befuddling” is probably one of them). Having a few unfamiliar words is a great opportunity for kids to learn new definitions, but if you have too many, your young audience will lose interest.

Here’s what our reviewers have said on the subject:

“….While the text provides a refresher course in math language and operational properties, the language may be overwhelming to first graders. For example, exercises for subtraction ask students to fill in the missing “subtrahend,” “minuend,” or “difference.  While it’s helpful for students to learn such terms, parents and teachers would do better to focus on the number concepts, with less emphasis on math terminology.”

“Although the vocabulary is mostly simple and straightforward, words such as “dreaded” and “borage” may trip up young readers. “

Poorly drawn/inappropriate illustrations or photos:

In children’s books, the illustrations are just as important as the text. As kids listen to their parents read your book aloud, they will be eagerly studying the pictures for more insight into the story. You may think kids won’t notice little inconsistencies with your illustrations, but you’d be surprised by how quickly they become tenacious critics. If your book is called Clifford the Big, Red, Dog, he’d better be big and red on all 32 pages of the story.

Your illustrations must also be well-executed. Don’t skimp on the illustrator if it means your pictures will come out looking like a first-grade art project (unless that’s your goal). Kids know a good quality book from a bad one. 

Take these reviews as an example of what not to do:

“….The book is hampered by its amateur-looking illustrations that sometimes conflict with the narrative. For example, the blue water buffalo only appears blue on the cover and title page; elsewhere, it is white, outlined in blue. And although the text describes the dragon as having “huge wide wings,” the author has given the dragon relatively insignificant wings.” 

“While [the] illustrations charm with their authenticity (the child-style drawings are packed with bright color and whimsical detail), she varies Libby’s appearance so often that it becomes difficult to pick her out of a group of girls.”

“The crayon illustrations in this picture book are colorful, but the consistent overhead view prevents them from being engaging. Little is depicted other than the boats, whose expressions change very little throughout the story.”

Too much text for a picture book:

Kids love stories chock-full of captivating characters, action-packed adventure, and exciting discoveries. What they don’t love is paragraphs. If you don’t think you can fit your entire story into a few sentences per page, you have too many words. It shouldn’t take more than a minute or two to read each page. Children don’t need lengthy descriptions or background information to understand a story’s basic plot points.

Stick to the lines that communicate your message clearly, briefly, and deliberately. If you find yourself meandering into subplots and backstories, refocus and remember that attention span is not a strength of your audience.

Here are some examples of problems our reviewers found:

[T]he pages are dense with text that could have easily been trimmed. About one-third of the story concerns mundane details of Neeka’s day at school before she finds the squirrel.”

“Meandering and packed with text, this book spends so much time on description and explanations, such as the background information on alpacas and anacondas, that the plot and characters get lost. Young readers won’t care about many of the asides and subplots, including the extended story involving career issues.”

“Each chapter contains enough information for its own picture book. This format brings the book’s target audience into question, as the text-heavy, chapter approach makes it daunting for very young readers, and older readers might be put off by the picture-book format.”

Including inappropriate themes and ideas:

It seems self-evident that the ideas in a children’s picture book should be the kind that: a) children can easily grasp; and b) won’t shock the living daylights out of the little guys.

Yet we often see children’s books that discuss esoteric ideas in ways that are clearly beyond the grasp of this audience, or those that will frighten children so much that you can bet they won’t ever sleep alone again. (In other words, we’re not talking scary as in the benign monsters of Where the Wild Things Are; we’re talking evening-news, real-life scary.)

Here are some examples of both issues:

“(The author) clearly had good intentions when writing this nonfiction children’s book about the shooting death of her two granddaughters’ father. But the book makes for a disturbing children’s bedtime story, replete as it is with blood, guns, gangs, death, a coffin, a mortuary and a burial.”

“…  the story is inadvertently frightening for young children on many levels: from the princess’s random kidnapping to the savage and sudden piranha attack of the monkey.”

“Suggesting dreams are often mere illusion doesn’t seem like an uplifting lesson for the preschooler set.”

Madeleine Dodge, a BlueInk Review Summer 2018 intern, is a Rhetoric and Media Studies Major at Lewis & Clark College and author of the children’s book “Does A Giraffe Ever Feel Small?”

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