This post first appeared on the Children's Book Academy blog.
The “heart” of a picture book can provide an emotionally satisfying depth, an “a-ha” moment, and the truthful core layer of a story. That elusive heart can serve as a connection between the reader and the story. Other components of a story are important: plot, structure, character arc, voice, interplay between text and illustration, luscious language, theme, and more. But if the heart of the story isn’t clear and impactful, the story may not resonate with children or adults.
So how does a writer ensure that the “heart” layer is present?
First, read many picture books and notice the heart of the story. And when drafting a manuscript, identify the heart moment (or moments) as you would identify the character arc, theme, and plot. If you can’t locate a heart layer in your manuscript, revise until that component is as strong at the theme or the structure. When the heart of your story is compelling, readers will care about your characters and plot and the book will be meaningful long after the final page turn.
These debut picture books provide excellent examples of heart. The quotes below highlight the universal emotions present in these stories, but to gain a full appreciation of the text and illustrations, you’ll have to read the whole book:
1) “The world is so big! I want to go see it, Daddy. You and me together.” Alma and How She got Her Name, by Juana Martinez-Neal. Readers will identify with wanting to explore the whole world with a trusted parent, and they’ll connect with Alma as she discovers the story of her name.
2) “What’s happening? Is that applause? It’s my fans! They still love me, no matter what.” I Am Famous, by Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie, pictures by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. Children will connect with the idea of family and friends loving them, no matter what.
3) “When all the supplies were gathered, Ruby asked, ‘Who wants to help me cut the boards?’ ‘Not me,’ said Oscar Lee. ‘I don’t think so,’ said Rodrigo. ‘No way,’ said José. ‘I’m too busy.’ ‘Fine,’ said Ruby. ‘I’ll cut them myself.’” The Little Red Fort, by Brenda Maier, pictures by Sonia Sanchez. Children will relate to Ruby, who asks her brothers to help, but when they are too busy, she does it herself.
4) “The future is in your footsteps. Freedom is in your feet. Put one in front of the other, and greet your destiny.” This is It, by Daria Peoples-Riley. Readers will feel the emotion of a young ballerina, poised to begin her dance, and will connect with her journey.
5) “Kipling lined up his wishing rocks and made a wish for Mama on each one. He waited and waited, but not even one Wish Mama came home.” Love, Mama, by Jeanette Bradley. Young children will relate to Kipling, who is waiting for his Mama to return, and they will feel the emotion at the core of this story.
When drafting and revising picture books, include “heart” in your stories. This important element will help you build an emotional bridge to your readers, ensuring they will want to read your book again and again.