What Picture Books Tell Us About Writing

Have you ever taken a class or read an article about writing children’s picture books? One of the first things you learn is that the writer should only send the words, in the form of a manuscript, to the publisher. If the editor who reads the words likes them and can sell them, he or she will pick an illustrator to create the amazing art that also tells the story. With a few notable exceptions (like Eric Carle), there are writers and there are illustrators in the world of picture books.

Have you ever taken that fact a step further, to its logical conclusion? What about the children who read picture books? Aren’t some of them writers and some of them illustrators? Sure, each should learn a little bit about the other’s craft. Everyone should take art and everyone should study writing. What I am wondering, however, is whether the artists/illustrators should be forced always to express their stories in words, especially in our increasing visual world of computers and graphic novels?

Tell me what you think and whether you are a writer, an illustrator or one of the lucky few who can do both.

A Children’s Book For Boys and Girls

Have you ever had the problem that you loved a book and you want to recommend it to your preteen son or nephew, but the main character is a girl and you think that will put him off? On the other hand, you know your daughter/niece is a big reader, but will she enjoy a book with a boy as a main character? What about as a writer? Have you struggled whether your main character should be a boy or girl, in order to attract the most readers?

Writer Stephanie Tolan has solved this main character gender dilemma in a clever and elegant way in her book  “Surviving the Applewhites” (HarperCollins). Ostensibly the main character is a thirteen-year-old boy named Jake, with spiky hair and a less-than-stellar reputation. However, his narration alternates with that of E.D., a twelve-year-old girl. One character narrates a chapter and then the other character narrates the next. By switching back and forth chapter-by-chapter, the genders have equal representation. Although it must not have been easy to plot, the switch is smooth. It never feels forced or contrived.

Jake and E.D. have strong voices against the backdrop of E.D.’s funny and eccentric family. Both feel out of place. E.D. feels left out because she thinks she is the only non-artist in her artistic family, Jake because he is an outsider who was thrust into the family when he was expelled from yet another school. Both find out about their own unique abilities by the end.

This book would work well as a read-aloud for families with sons and daughters, for mixed-gender book clubs or for literature classes. Boys and girls can relate to the characters as they choose, rather than being forced to decide one or the other. I hope more writers consider this model for their fiction.