The trick is learning how not to preach or talk down to our readers; learning not to underestimate their intelligence, their wisdom, and their sense of humor.
Recently I re-read a wonderful book, Storybook Mentors by Brenda Waggoner. She recalls classic storybook characters who have taught us amazingly wise lessons, just by being who they are. And the equally amazing authors who created them, did not preach to us at all.
Who is not inspired by the limitless imagination of Anne Shirley? Helping her through the most difficult times in her life, she took time to picture just about anything in her mind and found beauty and joy. “I’m going to imagine I am the wind that is blowing up there in those treetops…Oh, there’s so much scope for imagination in a wind!” She visualized her own home and a real family; always seeing the best in herself and her situations.
What better example of a friend is there than dear Charlotte to Wilbur? “Your success…was my success,” she told him. “I wove my webs for you because I like you.” She gave him hope, encouragement, confidence, and in the end, sacrifice.
The magnificent Black Beauty demonstrated humility and workmanship. He was forced from his carefree existence and made into a workhorse. He thought often about the love and teachings of his parents. “You have been well-bred and well-born. I hope you will grow up gentle and good, and never learn bad ways; do your work with a good will, lift your feet up well when you trot, and never bite or kick even in play.” Black Beauty was rewarded in his later life because he continued to be the best worker he could be under the authority of cruel and heartless masters.
The Little Engine that Could models compassion and confidence to children and parents alike. The Little Blue Engine pushed through her feelings of inadequacy because she cared about the children on the other side of the mountain and how they would never have toys and food without someone’s help. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can… ”
As I ponder over these classic stories, I also want to create timeless characters who by their very hearts and their nature will bring fascinating adventures to my readers as well as imparting (not preaching!) lessons they will remember for a lifetime.
Is it really possible to develop these characters within the restrictive word-counts of our picture books?
I’m thinking Wild Max, Snowflake Bentley, the boy and his Carrot Seed and at least a hundred more.
Yes! We are children’s writers. We can do it.
Waggoner, Brenda. Storybook Mentors (Grown-up Wisdom from Children’s Classics).
Colorado Springs, CO:Cook Communications Ministries, 2001.
Montgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne of Green Gables. New York:Penguin Putnam, 1987. (Originally published in 1908)
White, E. B. Charlotte’s Web. New York:Harper Collins, 1952.
Sewell, Anna. Black Beauty. New York:Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990. (Originally published in 1877)
Piper, Watty. The Little Engine that Could. New York:Platt & Munk, 1930.
Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. New York:Harper Collins, 1963.
Martin, Jacqueline Briggs. Snowflake Bentley. Boston:Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Krauss, Ruth. The Carrot Seed. New York:Viking Press, 1945.