Sometimes I think one of the hardest parts of my job as a children’s book author is to keep my own voice in check when I’m writing. I’m constantly asking myself, would a kid say that? I think this is one of the reasons that creating a strong voice is incredibly difficult. We, as children’s book authors and illustrators, have this wonderful task to create meaningful literary experiences for children. We get to introduce them to new places, experiences, and voices. But in doing so create a new challenge for ourselves. How do we keep our own feelings, opinions, and reactions out of the voices in our books? How do you write a character that can make their own decisions, without your bias?
Now, that’s not to say you shouldn’t write your own experiences into a character. Obviously writers do that all the time. I myself do it. But what I’m talking about are the characters we write that aren’t us, who have an entirely different experience than we had, intentionally. It’s our job to offer up a fully developed voice in the context of the world we’ve created for them. And that’s no easy feat!
Many times, I have read manuscripts where I see authors infiltrate the text. A character starts saying or doing something that seems odd or inconsistent with what we know about them. It’s really easy to let yourself slip in under the radar without realizing it. I've done this many times. For me, it’s not until I read the words aloud that I can catch myself and make the correction. To avoid this, I try to get to know my characters as best I can so they become fully independent from me.
I start by determining who they are. What are their likes? Dislikes? Hobbies? What is their environment? Who surrounds them? What do they care most about? Least about? How do they fit within the story I'm trying to tell? The list goes on and on. I make an entire character chart with this information. Keep in mind I write picture books. I don’t write novels. But I try to approach my characters as if I do.
I can tell you that Dexter T. Rexter’s favorite ice cream is Mint Chip, with rainbow sprinkles. I’ve never used this detail about him in any of the Dexter books, but I’ve spent enough time getting to know him, writing and rewriting him, that I know without a doubt, he's Mint Chip all the way. This may sound silly. But there is a method to the madness. The more you know your characters the better you will be able to write them and, in my case, draw them, independent of yourself.
When I sit down to write Dexter’s voice, I don’t even feel like I’m writing anymore. It’s as if he’s sitting beside the computer, telling me what to type, and I'm simply listening. He's very indecisive, neurotic, and slightly bossy because that’s just who he is. It isn’t so much that I can hear his voice when I'm writing, but I can hear the pacing, syntax, and structure of how he would speak. I know immediately if he would or wouldn't say something and if he would, how he would deliver it. Which takes time to develop with a character. I’m three books in with Dexter and I’m still learning things about him.
Age is equally important in developing voice too. Especially when you write for kids. You need to understand the age group you are writing for. How old are they? Where are they cognitively and behaviorally? What is challenging for them? How can they connect with your story? If you’ve written a character, who's supposed to be four years old, but acts and talks like an adult, then you aren’t paying attention to age and you won’t connect with your readers.
Before I had kids, I wrote about my experiences as a kid. I am an only child, so my voice seeped into my work. When Blue Met Egg is my love letter to New York City, after living there one summer during college. I was inspired to write Please Bring Balloons because my parents met painting carousels at an amusement park. This worked for me then because that was the point. I was trying to speak to the type of kid that I was. My early books are all about adventure and escapism because that's what I loved to read about as a child.
But now, it’s become more about being a witness, than first hand experience. I’m watching my kids see the world for the first time. And in doing so, I’m seeing things in ways I haven't since I was a child. As an adult it's really easy to forget how small moments can be so impactful when you're young. I find myself writing about their experiences as I witness them unfold. My books have become more and more voice driven, because those are the type of books that make my kids laugh and connect.
Recently, I was reading Secret Pizza Party by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri, (the same creators of Dragons Love Tacos) with my oldest son, who’s three. He loves that book. The first time I read it to him, I thought, I don’t get this. Why does he think this is so funny? And then it dawned on me. Duh! It’s silly. There isn’t anything to get. That’s the point. It’s a ridiculous book about a raccoon who loves pizza but rarely gets to have any because he’s always being chased off by the pizza man wielding a menacing broom. Thus the Raccoon Sniffing Broom Bots. I could continue the synopsis…but you should probably just read Secret Pizza Party because it is silly, ridiculous, and your kids will love it. The narrator's voice is written in a way that not only makes my son laugh, but it makes me laugh too because phrases like 'sweet sassy molassy' are hilarious. If that doesn't make you laugh when you read it, then I don't know what will. When driving to get pizza recently, my son shouted "GET THAT RACCOON OFF THE TABLE!" I couldn’t stop laughing. It was random and completely out of the blue. Just like Secret Pizza Party. And I knew exactly what he was talking about when he said it.
My son also sings the Dexter song constantly (so much so there are days I regret writing it in the first place.) He doesn't understand that I wrote Don't Forget Dexter, or even the song for that matter. He doesn’t care. He’s three. But he’s my barometer now. He's in my target age group. If he likes it, then I must be doing something right. Right?
I mean isn’t that the ultimate test? Not how much you love your work? That's easy. But a kid. A real, live kid, who doesn’t get caught up in the bias. They just like it because they like it. It makes them laugh. Or think. Or feel connected. They are seeing your book for the first time, fresh and new, absorbing everything you have to offer them. And that's the best part about this job. Writing a book that a kid wants to read over and over again and becoming apart of their reading experience with their family.
I have read Secret Pizza Party more times that I can count. It's got 'pizza' and 'party' in the title. This book was always going to go over well with my son (who loves pizza). But the narrator's voice is what really sells it. It's the way the narrator tells Raccoon's story, empathizing with Raccoon's plight in life (lack of pizza), while pointing out the humor of it all. Kids connect with Raccoon. They get him. They are him. Because voice matters. Always.
So go out there and write some amazing voices.
Until next time, happy writing!