Tuesday, December 7, 2010

16 7 Lessons From the Youngest of Readers

When writing for young children, we often hear how important it is to stay in-touch with our audience. I have the rare opportunity to interact with the "little people" frequently because I teach first grade. Of course, sometimes it's unclear who's doing the teaching! Whether it's using a published read-aloud in the classroom or observing children in their element, I've honed in on some lessons that guide me as I write for youngsters.

1. Slapstick comedy really is that funny. At some point, we develop childhood amnesia and lose touch with the things that we thought were hilarious as kids. While some of the kids I work with “get” sarcasm or irony, the big laughs come from the obvious stuff like someone accidentally farting or a child with a quirk or hidden talent. Books that I’ve used repeatedly that pass this test include Steven Kellog’s retelling of Pecos Bill and Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.

2. Every day is brand new and second-chances are gold. Kids thrive on the safety of do-overs. Books such as The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns appeal to children because in their time of learning and growing, they want to know that it’s going to be okay when they make a mistake.

3. Friends are important. Kids seek a sense of comfort and belonging in life and in books. It seems there’s always an emphasis on crafting characters that children can relate to as readers. But friendships between characters that model loving partnerships grab children quickly, too. This year, I used a book from Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie series in my classroom. The response to the loving, playful friendship between these two characters was overwhelming from the kids. Not only did I immediately order several more from the series, the kids began getting their hands on their own copies and bringing them in to share. Another classic example of friendship can be found in Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series.

4. Clear expectations. Kids need to know that the world you’re creating and the characters you’re introducing them to are reliable. It helps to select a trait for your character and exaggerate it. Peggy Parish‘s Amelia Bedelia series magnifies Amelia’s tendency to be literal. Whatever setting or dilemma Parish puts her in, the kids know a wacky mix-up will ensue. Helen Lester’s Tacky the Penguin behaves in an oblivious and clumsy fashion, making these books well-read in my classroom year after year.

5. Surprise. From a silly twist at the end to an unexpected roadblock on your character’s journey, keeping young reader’s guessing is what keeps them engaged. Doreen Cronin’s Click, Clack, Moo features cows that face off with the farmer via type-written notes all throughout the text. As the books ends, the ducks unexpectedly begin to make their own written demands. Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard convinces the audience that they’re in on the secret that it’s Miss Nelson who was dressed up as Viola Swamp all throughout the story. Twists are exciting for young readers.

6. Musicality and rhythmic language (though difficult to craft as a writer) are highly engaging. Picture book author Carolyn Crimi recommended Julia Donaldson’s Room On The Broom at a conference I attended. I used it for the first time with my class this year and they were eager to interact and predict the rhyme. Way Out in the Desert by T.J. Marsh offers a song-like rhythm that stays with the reader long after the book has been closed. The kids beg me to re-read these books because they’re attracted to the language.

7. Happy endings are underrated. I recently read The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martina out loud to my students. This is virtually a Cinderella story with a Native American spin. Nothing clenches their hearts like a hopeful, solid ending where the underdog wins the day. Or if you’ve ever read The Empty Pot by Demi, you’ll know how the endings of these stories make you feel and you’ll know why kids are drawn to them. Crafting a satisfying, hopeful ending is practically a pre-requisite for picture book writing.

The lessons never end when you spend time with children. These guiding principles are particularly important when you write for the kid lit audience because they are the reason we write in the first place. What other lessons can you think of that guide you as a writer for kids? Share them in the comments!

Happy writing,


  1. So very, very true!! I adore the Stinky Cheese People and Amelia Bedelia - so much fun!!

    I teach older kids - this year grade 5 & 6 - and they do teach us so much - each and every day! :)

  2. So true. I loved reading Amelia Bedelia to my daughter. I could never stop laughing.

  3. You hit the nail on the head. I teach first grade, too, and I see each of these things every day. Kids LOVE familiar characters, like Kevin Henkes' Lilly, who show up in different books but have a consistent personality. I think this is why my kids have not particularly enjoyed Jan Brett's Hedgie Blasts Off... they love Hedgie in her other books in his usual wintery setting, where he still acts like an animal. When she put him in the space setting as an astronaut, it just doesn't resonate. (And we LOVE Jan Brett)

  4. This is a great reminder. I agree with the childhood amnesia. There's nothing better than spending a day in the classroom or even an hour on the playground at lunch time to remind ourselves of this connection to our audience.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  6. Sorry for the delete! Try again.
    Absolutely, all of this, but I was caught by satisfying endings. (So true at this age, but I like to carry that on to YA too.) It shows great examples of how things can work out, and that's what kids/people need.

  7. Great post, Marissa! Writing PBs is so tricky. But those are some wonderful ground rules. Wonder if my Vampire ABCs fits all those categories? He he he.

  8. Excellent tips here! I loved Amelia Bedelia when I was a kid. I'll have to pick up a few copies for my niephlings this Christmas.

  9. I don't currently write for children (I write YA), but I have a dream to do so one day. I just had to respond to this because you mentioned my favorite all time children's book, The Empty Pot by Demi. Hardly anyone I know, knows of this book and how beautiful the story is. Before becoming a SAHM, I was a kindergarten teacher (and before that, first grade like you). I LOVE CHILDREN'S BOOKS. And there are so many amazing, wonderful, funny, full of life lesson books out there. Some of my favorites when I was teaching were books by Ezra Jack Keats, Kevin Henkes, Leo Lionni, David Shannon, Eric Carle, Mo Wilems, and *sigh*. I could on and on.

  10. The great thing about well-written PBs is their appeal across grades. I used THE ROUGH-FACED GIRL (so happy to see it mentioned here!) in a fourth-grade unit comparing fairy tales from different cultures and the students loved it. Wish there were more PBs for struggling older readers.

  11. Great post, Marissa! Thanks for the reminders. : )

  12. Jemi, don't I know it! Those kids keep me laughing and crying all at the same time :) I give you such credit for teaching the bigger ones!

    Natalie, the kids always get a major kick out of Amelia Bedelia. She turns any story upside-down!

    Dangerous With a Pen, yay for first grade! It's easily my favorite grade to teach so far. I adore Jan Brett! Thanks for reminding me of other amazing reads.

    Angela, come on down! Anytime. LOL. The kids really are terrific to be around. They keep me young!

    Carol, I love your point. It seems so many books leave you with unanswered questions in the YA category. It drives me nuts! I crave closure.

    Lisa, you are hilarious! Keep those vampires g-rated! :)

    Laura, Amelia Bedelia is always a big hit! She is the perfect character to transition kids from being read TO, to reading on their own.

    Melanie, I first had the EMPTY POT read to me in a college course on teaching language arts. I couldn't forget it. It was one of the first books I purchased for my own classroom. Amazing!

    Kathryn, I know. The PBs start to become scarce after about third grade it seems. There are so many great ones for the younger kids!

    Thanks so much, Ara! I'm glad my non-writing daily routine can serve writers in some shape or form.

  13. I teach fifth and sixth grade and I am still CONSTANTLY bringing out picture books. Our entire grade level opens every year with MATH CURSE by Jon Scieszka.

  14. Marissa, what a great post! I work in my sons classroom (5th grade) and I'm always paying attention to who's reading what. Some of the girls read huge books like Harry Potter and the Twilight series (I know, right?)

    The boys consistently read things like Dear Dumb Diary, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Goosebumps.

    For boys, you can never seem to go wrong with a gross out book (for my boys, included. ugh)

  15. This is excellent. My sixth grader still gravitates to slapstick funny when he can find it. And every kid I know complains when there isn't a happy ending :)

  16. What a great blog you've got here!

    I'm a childrens writer (yet to be published sadly).

    So glad I found you :)


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