Ask a Picture Book Editor

So, you’ve found your UNIVERSAL theme, but what can you do next to make your writing really stand out from the crowd? Our next three blogs will focus on how to hone and refine your craft.

So how do you make your story child-centred? 

Your text needs to appeal to the child reader. It needs to resonate, engage and encourage readers to empathise with the characters and their story. 

Your characters are one way to immediately captivate your child reader. 

1. Know your character!

- picture them
- name them
- think of their personality and the sorts of things they might say. 
- think about what they eat, what they like, and what motivates them! 

Is your character a child? 

If they’re not, are they the sort of character that will appeal to a child? 
For instance, are they a pirate, a monster, an animal or an alien? 

If your character is not a child are they child-like? 

Do they think, speak and act in a fashion that a child might empathise with? Are they experiencing moods, emotions, difficulties and problems that are relevant and immediate to a pre-schooler and their world? 

Here are some examples where the protagonist is not a child, but shares recognisable characteristics with one:

From left to right . . .

Mr Bear Babysits by Debi Gliori: little bears get up to no good with the babysitter 
Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer: Olivia is a little pig who tells tall tales about her holiday 
Dr Hoof by Diana Kempton and Garry Parsons: the doctor is a donkey and the patients are all animals with child-like concerns - e.g. a dog has a splinter, a bunny has hurt his ear 
I Really Want to Eat a Child by Sylviane Donnio and Dorothee De Monfreid: the little crocodile is a fussy eater 
A Baby Sister For Frances by Russell Hoban and Lillian Hoban: Frances the badger is learning how to be a good big sister 
Harry The Dirty Dog by Gene Zion: a dog doesn't want a bath 

What motivates your character?

What floats their boat/rocks their world? 

Here are some great examples of books where authors have really got to grips with the dreams and aspirations of their characters: 

From left to right . . .
Duck Says Don’t! by Alison Ritchie and Hannah George: When Goose goes on holiday, Duck really wants to be responsible. But Duck ends up taking things a little too far . . .
Abigail by Catherine Rayner: Abigail loves to count more than anything. But in a busy desert it’s just tricky to find something that will stand still for long enough to be counted! 
It’s a George Thing by David Bedford and Russell Julian: All his friends are good at something and so is George. He’s just desperate to find out what it is.

What does your character really, really want/need and what will happen if he doesn’t get it? 
Some well-observed examples are . . .

From left to right . . . 
Eat Your Peas by Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt: Daisy does not want to eat her peas, no matter what Mum bribes her with. Instead, she turns the tables on Mum – she will eat her peas if Mum will eat her Brussels (but Mum doesn’t like Brussels!).
I Want My Hat Back by John Klassen: Bear’s hat is missing. He desperately wants it back so off he sets on a journey to find it. Nobody he meets seems to have seen his hat – or have they? One sneaky rabbit had better watch out! 
Rhinos Don’t Eat Pancakes by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie: Daisy just wants her parents to listen to her – but they’re always too busy. Too busy to notice the rhino that’s moved in, which is good, because he’s a fantastic listener! 

2. Make your characters’ voice believable: 

- listen to kids on the bus and in a playground 
- note down phrases and words you hear on kids’ TV programmes 
- watch out for interesting personality traits, mannerisms and quirks 

Some fantastic examples of writers capturing all of the above are: 

From left to right . . .
Mabel and Me by Mark Sperring and Sarah Warburton - wonderful child and child-like characters: “Mabel, you are my BESTEST, BESTEST friend because . . . you say the CRAZIEST things!” 
Then Mabel and Me laugh long and hard . . . the way that best friends always do. 
Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Conner and Robin Preiss Glasser - perfectly observed personality and quirkiness:
“I love being fancy. My favourite colour is fuchsia. 
That’s a fancy way of saying purple.” 
Poo Bum by Stephanie Blake - very funny use (or overuse!) of a phrase:
Little Rabbit has learned a new word and he is going to use it over and over again!
“Poo bum!”
I Will Not Never Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child - an extremely good depiction of child voice which immediately resonates with the reader:
“I have this little sister Lola. She is small and very funny. Sometimes I have to keep an eye on her.” 

3. Think about setting:

Make it relevant, familiar or at least shades of familiar.
Does your story revolve around the home, nursery or school?
Is it an outdoor setting? Again, is it familiar like a garden, park, beach or wood?
Is it somewhere further afield like a museum, a palace – the important thing is to make it immediate and appropriate to the child. Pre-schoolers' worlds are really quite small, though the realms of the imagination (pirate ship, alien spaceship or undersea mermaid palace) are often limitless. There aren’t many picture books set in a mausoleum, a betting shop or a graveyard!

4. Focus on relationships with other characters:

Think about the relationships that are going to happen within your story and make the interactions believable.
Think about:
- how the characters talk to each other
- what they do together
- the level and ‘type’ of emotion that occurs between them.
Here are some examples of believable relationships between child and:

parents - Not Now, Bernard! by David McKee
pet - WANTED: The Perfect Pet by Fiona Roberton
siblings - Any Charlie and Lola! book by Lauren Child

grandparents - Mile-High Apple Pie by Laura Langston and Lindsey Gardiner
teacher  - Totally Wonderful Miss Plumberry Michael Rosen and Chinlun Lee
friends - That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton

So here are just a few pointers and tips on how to help make your writing child-friendly and child-centred. Happy crafting and see you next month!

Natascha Biebow is editor, mentor and coach at

Ellie Farmer is Senior Editor at Little Tiger Press


  1. Great tips Natascha and Ellie. Looking forward to the monthly post on this topic.

  2. Thank you so much Natascha and Ellie - indispensable for new picture book writers. I love the titles you've chosen - especially 'Not Now, Bernard' What is it about the name Bernard that makes it so perfect for PBs?

  3. Marvellous summary, and it's great there are so many examples and some are new to me - thank you. On the courses I tutor I always mention Mo Williems' Pigeon character and Sam Lloyd's Mr Pusskins. Plus Wilfred (and the Moose, too!) makes me grin in 'This Moose Belongs to Me' by Oliver Jeffers.


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