What would a children’s picture book sound like if it were a children’s picture book for adults? What is a children’s picture book for adults? Yes I’m suggesting a little different way to think about the genre of children’s picture books. Let me borrow your logical understanding of picture books. Just for about 3 minutes. Don’t worry; I’ll give it back to you.
So why do it? Why even look at children’s picture books from a different vantage point? Because as I mentioned in my article, “Rhyme = Rejection Letter?” we aren’t writing for kids, ”We have to write for the adult deciding what another adult will probably think a kid might like.” If the kids actually like it, the adults buy more of your books for their kids.
So I started thinking about what that meant. What are the most successful stories for children that were purchased by adults but consumed by kids WITH adults? We can all rattle off dozens, and in doing so, I realized there was a common denominator to the success. Every Pixar film, Disney film, children’s story, or book that is successful - contains layered writing. There is a direct story for the child AND a little something for the parents. In one of the opening scenes of the movie Cars by Pixar, the line of cars outside the women’s bathroom is long as the boy cars zip in and out of the men’s room. Hilarious. Kids don’t get that but parents do. It’s really living up to the overused sales pitch “fun for all ages”.
So I started thinking about my past writing experience. I spent a good number of years in advertising writing ads, radio spots, jingles, and TV ads. Those are all stories for adults. You are entertaining the adult and holding their attention for 30 seconds to one minute.
What does that have to do with writing children’s picture books? Children’s picture books that are wildly successful accomplish layered writing wherein they tell the story to the child and simultaneously tell the story from a different vantage point for the adult. An example of this can be read in Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama series. In Llama Llama Red Pajama, The kids seeing the book are focused on the bedtime routine and the baby llama’s experience. The parents reading the book are seeing the interrupted phone call, dirty dishes, and their evening time being impacted in a funny way. There are two stories there, one for the child and one for the adult. And using the same text and the same illustrations, two stories emerge for two audiences of the same experience.
It is a form of layered writing.
So there really is such a thing as children’s picture books for adults, they are called children’s picture books. And your target for the bulls eye MS is going to be a layered story for both child and adult disguised as a children’s picture book. As authors, we spend a lot of time focusing on what kids want in books. Go look at Dewdney’s books again from this (maybe new, maybe not so new) perspective and you’ll realize just how smart Anna Dewdney really is.
I’m betting she understands the adult mind’s fun center as well as the child’s. Do you? Do I? It’s an interesting concept and one that has dominated much of my thoughts lately. To start to understand what the task involves, we first have to go to the fun zone of the mind of the adult reader of children’s picture books.
So I looked for examples in life where an adult reader or receiver of a story didn’t initially want to engage with the author, but then does, due to an extrinsic motivation. I thought immediately of advertising because it’s one of my backgrounds. OK, so now I’m starting to see how this can all tie together.
You will read an ad or listen to it, if you are standing around waiting for some mode of transportation. You have nothing to do anyway (pretend you can’t get 17G coverage*). You are a captive audience member. Just like you love your children and you’ll read them the book because it’s important to them (and you – its together time you cherish). You are again somewhat of a captive audience, you might as well pick out something you’ll enjoy reading as well (this is the moment that defines your success in repeat sales, or sales of other titles you’ve authored).
So let’s take a look at the pinnacle of the written word in advertising. Here is (in my opinion) the very finest radio ad ever written. It’s a 60 second spot with 146 words. It was written by advertising genius, Roy H. Williams author of the book series “Wizard of Ads”. He wrote the ad for a business called Justice Jewelers.
“You are standing in the snow, five and one half miles above sea level, gazing at a horizon hundreds of miles away. It occurs to you that life here is very simple: You live, or you die. No compromises, no whining, no second chances. This is a place constantly ravaged by wind and storm, where every ragged breath is an accomplishment. You stand on the uppermost pinnacle of the earth. This is the mountain they call Everest. Yesterday it was considered unbeatable. But that was yesterday. Rolex believed Sir Edmund Hillary would conquer Mount Everest, so for him they created the Rolex Explorer. In every life there is a Mount Everest to be conquered. When you have conquered yours, you’ll find your Rolex waiting patiently for you to come and pick it up at Justice Jewelers. I’m Woody Justice, and I’ve got a Rolex for you.”
THAT is what a children’s picture book would sound like if it were a children’s picture book just for parents. It was fun being on top of Everest wasn’t it? You’re really up there because he takes you there.
What I’ve learned from Roy H. Williams and the Wizard of Ads series is completely unrelated to children’s picture book writing in terms of direct subject, but it’s the finest training for understanding the fun center of the adult mind, something many call “the kid in all of us”. Ugh. I was trying really hard not to say that even once in this article. It snuck in. Sorry.
What I learned in advertising while writing ads is, when you are stuck somewhere in the text…. get up and go around to the other side of your mind and look at the whole thing from over there. You’ll see over here differently. If it helps, go write from over there about over here. Just walk around in your mind and relax.
My best ad writing elicited the desired response from consumers because I activated the fun center of the adult mind. Sales increased for my former clients. My task now is to repeat that while talking directly to kids in picture books. Then using the same text, talk through the kids to the adults, and give them both a fun story simultaneously. What do you think? Can we do it?
Tracey Preston Cook is the author & illustrator of “Poofa the Puffagoo”, “The Shapelets”, and “Glowbee & Tricycle”. All unpublished literary works in the genre of children’s picture books. Tracey Preston Cook is actively seeking an agent or publisher for his latest work, “Poofa the Puffagoo”.
*17G Coverage: Wireless Internet available for all smart phones in the year 2027. It’s an attempt to ensure my blog is forward compatible. It also sounds cool, like I’m aware of some emerging technology. I’m not. But only the “asterisk-aware” like you, know this.