I love reading. Unfortunately, I’m an embarrassingly slow reader and I don’t have as much dedicated downtime as I used to. As a result, my to be read pile is dauntingly high. When I do read, though, I come across some beautiful books, and the books I read with my children have really captured my heart the last couple of years.
I love reading with them as part of our bedtime routine, to wind down after a long outing, or simply as a good way to connect with those sweet little hearts. I cannot express my gratitude for the authors that have created such heartfelt stories that allow my kids and me to learn and grow together. Surprisingly, the things I learned while reading with my children also applied to my writing!
It is true, writers learn best by reading.
Read your genre. Read books with characters, POVs, and story structures like yours. Read them critically and often. Pay attention to things that touch your heart and ignite your curiosity just as much as the things that make your attention fade and leave you feeling disappointed. It will all help build your craft and make you a better writer.
I find myself in a season of life where I struggle to find space for those types of books on my limited plate. Should I bemoan the time I lack- if I can’t read I will never learn the things I must to become an author? No!
Instead, I’m looking past the limitation of time, and working with what I have at my disposal: the books that bring me closer to my children can also bring me closer to my writing goals, especially when read with a critical eye.
To prove it, I’ve rounded up 5 of my favorite children’s books. I want to share with you some of the takeaways I’ve found, and how I apply them to my writing.
“Giraffes Can’t Dance”: The Power of Internal Struggle
Giles Andreae’s story spotlights Gerald the Giraffe, the one animal in all the Savanah who is too clumsy to fit in at the Jungle Dance. My kids love pointing out all the different kinds of animals as we read, and we like to talk about the ways people can enjoy dancing. Of course this leads to some pretty entertaining dance parties.
For myself, I have uncovered a valuable writing lesson from Gerald’s experience: Internal solutions feel just as satisfying as external ones. When they laughed him away the dance, the giraffe didn’t go about trying to change the others’ minds or prove them wrong, though we have all seen that plot unfold. Instead, when Gerald changed his heart the hearts of the animals changed, too. Cue the standing ovations.
Andreae created a character arc focused on internal changes and, in the end, we felt so much pride in our giraffe friend and his new-found happiness. Why? Because we relate to inner struggle more than maybe any other form of conflict. An internal struggle lies at the root of every problem our characters face. Set your character on a path to resolve the internal struggle and the results of all the other struggles will feel more robust. As a writer, I sometimes get caught up in how my MC will change the world, and I forget to let my MC take a look inward for a moment. Also, because it resonates with the challenges we face everyday- the challenge of feeling included, for example- a change from within can be deeply inspiring. For these reasons, character arcs like Gerald the Giraffe's make for satisfied readers.
“On The Night You Were Born”: Every Detail Must Relate Back to the MC
Please, give this book to every mother you know. It must be the sweetest love story ever written-- a love story about the birth of a baby. The magnificent art matches the awestriking feel of all Nancy Tillman’s books. Best of all, I know reading On The Night You Were Born helps my children grasp just how important they are, accomplished, in part, by how well the author ties the occurrence of every day things to the very existence of the child. Grand things, little things, imagined things, and real things all happen just because they were born.
Though our created world may not hail the MC as all important, authors can create a sense of wonder for the reader when every detail of the book ties into the plot and character development. It adds depth to the story which so readers will enjoy the story not just once but over years and years of rereading as they pick up on more and more connections. Every detail must come back to your main character.
“But Not the Hippopotamus”: Side Characters Add Depth
Sandra Boynton and her adorable animal filled stories have become some of my favorites. Hippopotamus’ friends spend the day with each other doing a number of fun things, but she spends the day alone. When The Hippopotamus finally gets what she wanted from the beginning, the last page reveals that someone else feels left out, too. Pleasantly simplistic in its cadence and rhyme structure, art, and words, But Not the Hippopotamus entertains children of all ages and parents love it too. I appreciate that, even in its simpleness, Boynton implies there is more to the story when another character’s trial begins even after the Hippopotamus’ trial ends.
Any author can apply the same concept to their work in progress. We create complex worlds; a whole cast of characters exists separate of the MC, and each of them wants something. Even as we place focus on one extraordinary person, other conflicts occur and resolve in the background. If you can bring those to the surface, you may possibly find the key to leaving your readers wanting more! And it’s easy; Sarah Boynton does it with one simple line.
“The Wonderful Things You Will Be”: Unleashing Your Character’s Goodness
Emily Winfield Martin wrote a beautifully whimsical book. The artwork has an aged-wisdom feel to it, and helps the story communicate all any parent ever wished for their child-- a heart full of love, a brain full of dreams, and years full of endless possibilities. I hope this story sticks with my children, instills itself into their subconscious and leaks its loving truths into the way they see themselves even as adults, just the way The Giving Tree or I’ll Love You Forever did for me.
As an author, The Wonderful Things You will Be inspires me not to box my character into one thing. We want to create powerful characters. Though they must have flaws,they also must have endless potential. Let that potential come out! Discover your character’s unique talents, and let the character develop and strengthen them throughout the story. In the early stages of drafting ask yourself: what does the character’s mother (or loving parental figure) see in them? Discover their root goodness? Everyone’s got one.
“Be A Star Wonder Woman”: The Power of Juxtaposition.
I could not resist getting Michael Dahl’s book for my little girl. I love comic book characters, but I only discovered that love in my adulthood. I don’t think anyone ever thought to introduce my sisters and me to the Hulk or Captain America, let alone Wonder Woman. My daughter will have a different experience. I love the recent effort to include women in the comic book space, even in small ways likeBe A Star Wonder Woman featuring a little girl and the ways she acts heroically everyday.
The comic worthy art juxtaposes the day in a life of a preschool girl with the feats of Wonder Woman. This tactic makes it unerringly clear that the same principles that make Wonder Woman great are found in young girls who take the time to bring peace to friends fighting for a toy, or bravely conquer the heights of the jungle gym. What a tool to use! We could all practice taking something powerful and familiar and juxtaposing it with something in our main character’s life to help draw applicable connections with the readers.
What unexpected books taught you the most about writing?
The learning never ends for us, writers. You can find new knowledge and inspiration anywhere, so never stop looking. Even while you read your kiddos to sleep. I hope I have given you a couple of new books to add to your home library, and that you find your own lessons while reading them with the ones you love most. If you have any favorite takeaways from your own books, I’d love to hear about them below! What book taught you the most about writing?
P.S Don't you love really well crafted Author websites? Micheal Dahl and Emily Winfield Martin have spectacular ones. I linked them above, but in case you missed them you can find them here. Seriously, tell me that you're not impressed.
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.