Writing Lessons from Picture Books: Character Development

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of your favorite picture books? If you’re like a lot of people, you probably envisioned at least one memorable picture book character. There’s a reason that many picture books include the main character’s name in the title, from Ada Twist, Scientist to Corduroy to Julián Is a Mermaid. Like the areas discussed in the first two letters in this series, crafting a strong picture book character may seem deceptively simple, but can offer all authors lessons in exceptional character development.

One of the qualities that can set a great picture book apart is knowing who the story truly belongs to. Many picture books focus on the experience of a single child or a child-like main character—think the school in School’s First Day of School, toys like Corduroy, or animals like The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Keeping a story laser-focused on its child character can be unexpectedly challenging, especially if you are new to writing for younger readers. I’ve seen many manuscripts that unintentionally prioritize adult characters and perspectives at the expense of their child characters. For example, a manuscript might focus on an adult character’s feelings or overexplain the reasoning behind their actions, both of which can undercut the central child character. Crafting a strong child character requires authors to focus on the child’s perspective, experiences, and emotions—even when that means ignoring our adult instincts.

A fantastic example of this is My Day with Gong Gong, written by Sennah Yee and illustrated by Elaine Chen. This story about May’s day with her grandfather, Gong Gong, opens with these lines: “Mom is dropping me off at my Gong Gong’s house for the day. ‘I wish you could stay with me,’ I say. What will Gong Gong and I talk about? I don’t know Chinese . . . ‘It will be okay, May,’ says Mom. ‘You will still have fun!’ I don’t know about that!”

First, notice what the text doesn’t describe: Mom’s perspective, including her reasons for dropping May off, or Gong Gong’s perspective, including how happy the time with May will inevitably make him. Instead, every line of Sennah Yee’s text highlights May’s perspective and feelings—her uncertainty and her wish that she had her mom with her. To May, the reasons why she must spend the day with Gong Gong are much less important than what she and Gong Gong will talk about or whether she will have any fun. The text also doesn’t chide or punish May for having these feelings, or try to talk her out of feeling this way. Rather, May is allowed to experience a range of emotions over the course of the story and to come to her own conclusions by the end.

While May’s mom and Gong Gong likely hoped for a more enthusiastic reaction, May’s hesitation also makes her a believable and multidimensional character. Every adult knows the feeling of wishing that a tantruming toddler would stop making a scene or that a sulking kid would just listen to reason. But the strongest child characters aren’t those who act like miniature adults or who shed all of their flaws by the end of the story. While it can be tempting to impose adult expectations onto child characters, crafting an authentic character requires silencing this adult voice and showcasing a character’s less desirable traits alongside their more likeable ones. 

Showcasing a character’s full range of emotions and flaws also creates opportunities for authentic growth that stems from their individual experiences. Strong picture book characters don’t end their stories in exactly the same places—literally or figuratively—where they started. In My Day with Gong Gong, May sees Gong Gong’s love for her demonstrated through his actions—from wiping pigeon poop off her coat, to noticing her favorite food, to zipping up her coat when it gets cold—long before her mom returns and translates Gong Gong’s “Ngo oi nei” to “I love you” for May. This gradual growth results in a deeper and more authentic connection between May and Gong Gong—and a more satisfying end to the story—than if Mom directly tried to teach May that Gong Gong loves her.

To apply these lessons to your own writing, consider asking yourself: Whose story am I telling? Am I focusing on that character’s authentic experiences, emotions, and perspective—especially if they may be different from my own? Am I showing my character’s weaknesses in addition to their strengths? Am I creating opportunities for my character to grow? Am I allowing my character to grow gradually over the course of the story?

Your Editor Friend,


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