Once upon a time, there was a single mother who had a little baby. That single mother didn’t have enough skills to get a job, so she had to request public assistance from the government. Her assistance check gave her enough money to rent a little apartment, feed herself and her baby, but not much more. In the winter, she had to keep the heat on through the night, but she had to turn it off during the day to save money. So, every day she would bundle her baby into the stroller and spend hours sitting in a café that was owned by some very nice people who understood how much she was struggling and let her stretch one teabag over many pots of hot water. While her baby slept, this poor single mother decided to write a story for her baby to read when she grew up. And so, in the warmth and kindness of a neighborhood café, on a simple pad of paper, a boy named Harry Potter came to be.
You’re an expert in children’s literature!
By the time your kids are school age – maybe sooner – you’ve already read every bedtime story in the world. You know what stories your kids like. You know what stories you like. You certainly know what stories one or both of you dislike. I’ll bet you’ve even made up stories to tell your kids on the spur of the moment. Why not take it a step further and write the stories you tell you own child as an actual book?
No matter what media you are writing for, a huge percentage are crafted around the question, “What if.” What if an alien got stranded on earth and found a little boy to help him get home? (E.T. The Extraterrestrial) What if a boy befriended a whale and decided to let him out of his tank so he could be with his family? (Free Willy) What if a rat got tired of eating garbage and decided to become a chef? (Ratatouille) For this example, I’ve used family films because if you haven’t seen them yet you can buy or rent them.
As a general rule, most children’s stories are built around the same dilemma – a little person or creature has to solve a very big problem.
A story is either fiction or non-fiction, unless…
A fictional story is completely made up. A non-fiction story is a truthful telling of something that actually happened. Clearly, there is a difference between fiction and non-fiction. Nevertheless, many stories fit into a hybrid of the two categories.
Sometimes, fictional characters are “witnesses” to historic events. They become the friend, student, professional colleague – or even pet – of a real life character that we all know. This literary conceit enables the reader to gain a deeper understanding of a historic figure from a different point of view than one might receive by reading about them in a history book.
A hybrid story may also take a specific event in history and place fictional characters into the midst of it in order to explain the event from a point of view that could offer young readers a deeper understanding of the event, as well as that particular period in history.
All stories fit into a genre.
According to the Miriam Webster Dictionary, a genre is “a category of artistic, musical or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form or content.” In many respects, Kiddie-litter is a genre. However, each story written for children will fall into a category of style that will constitute a specific genre.
Diaries and Journals
Each of these specific genres has its own set of character and story requirements. Rest assured that when writing kiddie-litter these requirements are minimal and you already know them.
All stories have a tone and a point of view.
In literature, the tone of a story can be divided into two broad strokes – comedy or drama. But, even within these two segments there are a number of subcategories. Comedy can range from the silliest slapstick to the subtlest wit. Drama can span from true tragedy to melodrama.
Given that there is a wide spectrum for a story in any genre, the point of view of your narrator becomes important.
All stories have a point of view. The character who is telling the story defines the story’s point of view. It is very important for you to determine whether a male or female character best serves the needs of your story. However, it is important to note that after a certain age (much younger than any of us would like to admit) boys turn off to stories about girls. However, girls are easily swept into stories about boys.
Every good story has a theme.
When you read a story that stays with you, the appeal is often found in its underlying theme. A theme is the big idea behind the story. It asks questions that make us think about life and ourselves in a different way.
The moral of a story is the lesson we learn from it. This is not to suggest that every story should be a cautionary tale. Sometimes, in kiddie-litter, the moral can be as simple as listen to what your big sister tells you to do, or you have to eat less and move more to stay healthy.
The overriding watchword with both theme and moral is that both need to be subtle. You don’t want you reader to feel as if the moral is jumping off the page shouting at them. The best way to deliver a message is to minimize it – to let the reader discover it.
Good stories inspire kids and teach them lessons. They offer hope when things seem bleak. They make difficult subjects palatable and understandable. Sometimes, they just make you laugh. No matter what direction your story takes you, always remember that entertainment is the key to success. Throughout the history of literature, all favorite books are enjoyable.
The problem with “Award Winning” books.
The biggest roadblock to successful writing is fear. Whether you’re afraid you can’t do it or that you can’t do it well enough, it doesn’t take much fear to stop you from even trying. That’s why I think the most dangerous minefield that anyone has to maneuver before starting to write kiddie-litter is that ominous gold seal that looms large in your mind when you think of the kind of book you should be reading to your children. Mind you, the awards the honor beautiful illustration don’t bother me. It’s the awards that are given to books that someone has designated as “important.”
As the mother of three sons, I grew frustrated by the fact that it was always a struggle to get them to read the required books for their homework. It led me to believe that in a lot of instances it’s not a matter of “Why Johnny Can’t Read” (to coin a phrased educators latched onto in the 1960’s) but “Why Johnny Doesn’t WANT to Read.” In the midst of my frustration, I once asked a politically incorrect question on Back-to-School night.
“Will there be any books about Americans in the 20th Century on this year’s reading list?”
While I expected to be told to sit down and shut up, I was instead supported by a rousing chorus of other parents expressing the same sentiment. Apparently, I wasn’t the only mother who’d fought and threatened and bribed and begged my son to sit down and read a book about a Chinese girl in the 3rd century because he was going to be tested on obscure terms that had no relevance to his life – let alone the reality of a 5th grade curriculum.
So (she said, stepping down off the soapbox) when you write your story do not feel that you have to be held to a gold standard that someone else has established. Focus your attention on creating en enjoyable experience for your reader and you will be on your way to success.
Know who you’re writing for!
When you’re writing kiddie-litter, you have to shape your story to the attention span of the target age group. Look at the length of the books that have been published for children in a specific age group and use that as a guideline for how long your own book should be. Obviously, the younger the child, the shorter – and simpler – your story should be.
If you’re writing a book that children can read to themselves, you have to be very mindful of the words you use. While you can certainly use the age and reading skills level of your own child, you can also turn to a local expert on reading – a teacher.
Every school district has an established list of vocabulary words for students in every grade. These vocabulary words are on standardized tests, and are just one way for educators to determine whether or not a child is reading at grade level. Some districts might post the information on their website. If you are not able to find a grade-level vocabulary list online, ask your school administrator to help you find a copy. When you decide the appropriate grade level for the story you want to tell, make sure that all the words you use are at or below that grade level.
One picture is worth a thousand words.
Illustrations are a key element of all kiddie-litter. It is so important that some upscale book stores specialize in selling the original works of art for significant sums of money. Certainly, children respond to the colors and images while they are hearing a story read to them, but the illustrations lend an “interactive” element to the storytelling. Illustrations enable the reader and the child to engage in conversation about “the story so far” and the way the characters are reacting to what happens in the story.
If you are going to submit your story to publishers, you need to present the entire package of words and pictures. There are a number of ways to handle illustrations.
You can draw the pictures yourself. If you don’t have artistic skills, you can find another mom who is artistic and the two of you can become partners in the effort. You can use photos to illustrate your story, or take a series of photos and create a collage image. Keep in mind, all photos must be suitable for publication – you must own the rights and have a written clearance form for all recognizable people, property and brands. Another technique for illustration involves taking photos and processing them through Photoshop until they resemble illustrations that have been drawn or painted. You might also consider asking your kids to draw the illustrations.
Remember, younger readers will respond better to vivid colors, simple illustrations and large facial expressions.
To rhyme or not to rhyme?
There is something quite comforting about the rhythmic play of words on a page, as you read them out loud and as you allow them to filter through your thoughts. But when you write kiddie-litter – or anything else – you have to focus on your skills set.
As a teenaged girl, did you immerse yourself in Love Sonnets for the Portuguese? Do you own a rhyming dictionary? Are you good at rhyming? Do you go through your day in the happiest way, squeezing limes ‘cause it rhymes? If not, you probably shouldn’t think about giving any story a Dr. Suess treatment.
The truth about the birds and the bees and the dogs and the rats…
The use of animals in storytelling can be traced all the way back to Aesop’s fables, and possibly further than that. Stories about talking dogs and cats and pigs and rats have become commonplace in kiddie-litter. When we write about animals or inanimate objects and imbue them with human attributes, personality and the ability to speak, we anthropomorphize them.
Anthropomorphic characters offer a great opportunity in kiddie-litter. When you have to make difficult points in a story, it is easier for children to experience the topic through the eyes of a character that is not human. This distance enables understanding without trauma. For example, it’s one thing when Bambi’s mother dies and something else when Billy’s mother dies.
When you’re writing for anthropomorphic characters you have to make sure that they have personalities that make sense in respect to the essence of who they are as animals or objects. For example, in Pixar’s CARS, the old racer who is retired absolutely had to be a historically classic car whose make and model would have been hot when the racer was in his heyday.
The most important thing of all…
Please include a mother in your story! Our kids are oversaturated in entertainment media that takes the mother out of the equation. In story after story – in all forms of the media – the mother has become invisible. She’s either dead, or abandoned the family, or she’s so inept or dysfunctional that the kids have to assume the adult role and run the family. As a result, we’re telling our daughters that motherhood is undesirable. Who wants to be a mother if it means becoming the source of crisis and sadness in others? We’re telling both boys and girls that they don’t need a mother to survive in the world – which completely demeans OUR role in their lives.
But let’s go one step further. Don’t just include a mother in your stories – show her in a positive light. Make her a loving, caring source of enrichment in your story. Remember – children learn from the books they read. Let’s make sure we teach them the lessons of a mother’s love and support.
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