Picture Books: What’s Your Character Going to Do? by Lola Schaefer

I’m writing a children’s chapter book series about a seven-year-old girl, Emily Clair, who has to move to her eccentric grandma’s farm when her mother becomes ill. (Her dad calls her Eclair because she has yellow hair and is sweet on the inside like a pastry.) Here’s a little sneak peek of what she looks like. Isn’t she a doll? (Melody DuVal is the illustrator.)

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Children’s book writing is TOTALLY different than my other fiction (adult and YA) so when I was at the Florida Writers Association conference I sought out the advice of a children’s picture book author, Lola Schaefer. I was able to ask her editing, publishing, illustrating, and overall children’s book questions. (This is another great reason to attend conferences. You meet professionals who are connected in ways you aren’t.)

Lola was delightful and shared her most recent book release, Lifetime: The Amazing Number in Animal Lives. She read it to the attendees and talked about the research that went into writing this book. I was amazed and entertained.

Here’s a little something about the book: In one lifetime, a caribou will shed 10 sets of antlers, a woodpecker will drill 30 roosting holes, a giraffe will wear 200 spots, a seahorse will birth 1,000 babies.

Count each one and many more while learning about the wondrous things that can happen in just one lifetime. This extraordinary book collects animal information not available anywhere else—and shows all 30 roosting holes, all 200 spots, and, yes!, all 1,000 baby seahorses in eye-catching illustrations. A book about picturing numbers and considering the endlessly fascinating lives all around us, Lifetime is sure to delight young nature lovers.

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Lola also taught a class on children’s picture books that I thought you might find interesting. I love how the outline below helps keep the whole book idea simpler. I also thought this outline could help all fiction writers.

What’s Your Character Going to Do?

Character-driven picture books are all about a likable, flawed character and a plot–a unique surprising plot.

Protagonist: Create a character who you know–know ALL about. You can make a separate list of character traits, quirks and looks and keep them in a list.

Naming your character: Select a name that your reader will remember long after the story. Fern? Chrysanthemum? Pancake? Fine Point? Gator? Spud? Elizabeth Ann?

Avoid popular names of today or names of your friends, children, or grandchildren.

What does your character need or want? (Make this something important, not a new video game.) A friend? A pet? A place to be alone? A spot on the basketball team?

Antagonist: What’s keeping your character from getting what he needs or wants? Low grades? Misunderstanding/Confusion? Close-mindedness? Needs to convince someone else? Needs to prove responsibility? The weather? A friend? Cowardice?

Plot: Plot = attempts where the protagonist tries to resolve the problem. (Not the parent, not the babysitter, not the teacher, not the older brother or sister). The protagonist needs to work hard to be able to grow. Plot is your characger facing the world by himself or herself.
Will your character be a bit braver by story’s end? A bit kinder? a bit more thoughtful? Resourceful? Clever? if there is no character growth, there will be no emotional turning point.

Emotional Turning Point: The place in the story somewhere between 3/4 and 7/8 into the story where the character digs deep inside himself and uses a skill, a talent, a trait to be able to meet the challenge, grow, and move on.

Emotional Resonance: Need to match the character, his problem, and the growth with the age of your reader. Emotional Resonance is NOT stating a moral. It is not stating a truth like…Children should obey their parents. Emotional Resonance is when the READER relates to the moment that the character rises above the struggle and find the strength, kindness, or cleverness to solve the problem. Young readers want to identify with the protagonist and take a sneak peek at the owrld beyond them through the struggle of the character.

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When I was a child I never imagined that one day I would be a published author. Reading was so important to me. I ran to the bookmobile every week and exchanged one tall pile of books for another. At school, I read every biography and novel in our small library. And at the holidays, a book was the most treasured gift. Fifty-two years later, I still have my original copies of BLACK BEAUTY, HEIDI and KIDNAPPED.

Today I’m still an avid reader. It’s impossible to keep up with all of the wonderful literature that debuts each year, but I try. While traveling in the car, I listen to audio books and marvel at how talented readers bring the words to life. At home, I read as many of the newest picture books and middle grade novels as I can manage. (Some for industry research, but most for pure fun!)

As you can see from my own published titles, I have a lot of diverse interests from geology to animals to humor to the teaching of writing and more. The best part about writing for children is meeting my audience. There’s nothing more rewarding than learning that one of my books is important to a young reader.

What do you think? I have to teach a gifted and talented group of ten year olds next month. Should I use Lola’s outline to help them write their own chapter book? 

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  1. This is great advice for adult books as well! I’m going to print it out and keep it by my computer as I plot out my next book.

  2. This is great advice for adult books as well! I’m going to print it out and keep it by my computer as I plot out my next book.

  3. I’m intrigued by E. Clare, too–want to hear more. I’m impressed and amazed at how productive you are, Michelle. And Lola, good stuff. Being avid readers seems to be the top criteria for becoming writers.

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