PICTURE BOOK FOCUS Using Developmental Milestones to Create Authentic, Believable Picture Books


Experienced editor Natascha Biebow shares tips on how to use children's developmental milestones to create believable characters and an authentic picture book voice

If you want to write for picture book aged children, you need to be able to get into their shoes, to really understand the world from their point of view. A common mistake in picture book submissions is that the voice is too grown-up and the characterization is not believable.


In order to unpick what this means, it can be helpful to remember and really understand what it’s like to be 3-4 years old:


-       Egocentric – young children can’t yet put themselves in other people’s shoes

-       Literally-minded – they think literally and concretely

2-7 year olds' imaginations are developing,
but they are egocentric and so live in the moment.

According to developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, children during the ages of 2 to 7 years old are in the Preoperational Stage. At this time, memory and imagination are developing. Children are focused on themselves and their worlds, which means they have difficulty taking on anyone else’s point of view or thinking about what is happening to anyone other than themselves. They therefore don’t:


1.    Verbalize feelings, complex concepts or ideas – e.g “I am feeling sad today.”

FIX: the character could instead do something to SHOW they are sad. This is stronger in any case as it takes readers right into the main character’s shoes, their situation and uses the show, don’t tell technique.

2.    Make pronouncements about the world and their place in it, or see the world in the perspective of a larger context – e.g. “It is lonely when parents divorce”; “Life is precious”; “Is it right to feel sad and happy sometimes?”; “You are my forever friend.”

Instances where the main child character is doing something for a greater good are also unconvincing given the fact that young children are egocentric – e.g. if your character were to outwardly set out to save their troubled friendship; or s/he realizes that the plastic waste means they need need to start a world-wide recycling drive; or a child character is motivated to
cheer up other toddlers who don’t have toys like s/he does. These scenarios don’t work because they preclude that the young child protagonist understands their place in the wider world and have a degree of self-awareness that younger children don’t yet possess.

Consider the child's interests and their world
and use this to drive the plot.

FIX: consider your premise and avoid abstract or moralistic statements that are too sophisticated for this target age group. Use the story’s action to drive the plot so that young readers can experience the theme at a child-centred level, rather than be told it in grown-up terms.


3.    Put themselves in other people’s shoes and understand situations from another’s point of view – but note also that though young children are self-centred, they are not selfish. They are capable of empathy. So a child will try to comfort Granny if she’s upset, but s/he assumes that Granny will be consoled by the same things s/he thinks are consoling – e.g. a sweet or a favourite toy.

FIX: stay in your main child character’s shoes and visualize the world from a close point of view that is child-centred. 


Small children do show empathy, but they
can't yet imagine what it's like to be someone else.

Also in the Preoperational thought, Piaget discovered that though children are developing their ability to use symbols, they still tend to think about the world in very concrete terms.


Young children aged up to 7 years old, use reasoning based on what they can see, hear, feel, and experience in the here and now. Their world is small and close to home. So, it revolves around physical objects, immediate experiences, and exact interpretation. Young children aren’t yet able to process abstract concepts. 


Young children are enthralled with their immediate world.

In other words, young children take things literally:  so, for instance, they would associate ‘being blue’ with something actually being the colour blue. When you write that a character had ants in their pants, meaning they are jumpy, a younger reader will literally look for ants in their pants! Or if you say, “pick up your room” s/he might be confused – how can you pick up a room, literally?


1.    TIME: young children are just learning about time – daily routines and times of day – and so everything needs to happen in the order in which it happens and be concrete.  This is why flashbacks don’t work in picture books, or stories where there is a backstory explanation or aside. Young readers live in the moment.

2.    VOICE is too grown-up when it has a bigger perspective about the world. Your child protagonist is living in the now, and doesn’t yet have the life experience to take a step back and consider their actions in a larger-world context. So, if your main character is a little too self-aware and reflects on her life and flaws, this does not come across as believable.

3.   FIRST PERSON picture book narratives are hard to pull off convincingly.
By default, a first person narrator tells the story using the pronoun I. Your character (usually the protagonist) is telling the story through his/her own eyes and this is a limited point of view – the teller of the story can report only what he or she can realistically know in concrete terms. Remember, the teller is preoperational!


Young children are focussed on the here and now
and even small, simple things are a huge source of wonder!

Finally, CHECK:


Even if your character is not a child, but perhaps an animal or monster, 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? 

What motivates them? What floats their boat? What worries them? What is their world really LIKE?

Their world, actions and voice need to be authentic to be believable.

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 Kimpton 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 Dorothée 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 

For a small child aged around 3-4 years old, the world is small and literal, yet so big and filled with wonder! There are lots and lots of story possibilities, but they need to be child-centred to be believable.

Natascha Biebow is an experienced editor, mentor and coach, who loves working with authors and illustrators at all levels to help them to shape their stories. www.blueelephantstoryshaping.com

She is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons

Picture credits: Animals Baking and Badger Baking by kind permission of Lizzie Finlay
Child drawing with heart by axelle b
Photo of child playing with woods by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels
All other photos from pxfuel


1 comment:

  1. After another exhausting rough and tumble with three year old grandson on floor, I pulled my creaky legs up and staggering over to the sofa, said, I'm a little old grandma and should be sitting in my armchair, knitting. Grandson comes over with serious look on face and says, Grandma, where is your knitting? Very literal!! Great article many thanks Natasha.


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