PICTURE BOOK FOCUS Revision Tip: Explore Feelings to Create Stories with Heart

Experienced editor Natascha Biebow shares tips for how to create picture books

with heart by digging deep for the feeling you want to encapsulate.

The heart of a picture book, that sometimes elusive ‘aw’ or ‘wow’ factor, is something key but also intangible. A book must have heart to resonate and stay with the reader, even after the final pages have been turned and the book has been put down.


To evoke an empathetic response to the emotional arc in the story, a writer needs to:

• connect with the reader by creating child-centred books that are relevant to their young audience’s worldview and experiences. Only if the characters’ emotional journey resonates can children find meaning and emotion when reading and exploring picture books.


• put the reader in the protagonists’ shoes. To achieve this, it’s important to have a solid understanding of what motivates the main character, then set up the story to deliver a satisfying ending, using specific details to create vivid scenes. Using show, don’t tell will ensure that readers can invest in the main character’s emotional journey without needing to be told what to feel.


Often, heart comes as a result of sharing a personal truth or Aha! moment in the shape of a story. By writing from a place of knowing, authors and illustrators can add depth to the emotions their book evokes.

To do all these things, picture-book creators must find a way to connect with the reader. How? The author must leave space for the reader to engage with the words and pictures, thereby connecting with the story, creating meaning and evoking an emotional experience.

What if the author was to start with this emotional experience when writing the book? And what if during the process of revision, when evaluating whether their picture book really does deliver, authors were to start with the questions: “How do I want the reader to feel? What emotions does this book inspire?”

This is an interesting experiment — I decided to take a closer look at some mentor picture books and list the answer to these questions:


Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg

This is a playful novelty book that shows how mistakes can be turned into something beautiful and even useful. Here, a scrap of newspaper can be torn and painted and turned into a (pop-up) dog.

From Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg








    Five Minutes' Peace by Jill Murphy

In this funny, loving portrayal of family life, Mum is trying to have five minutes to herself — but not even the bathroom is a safe haven from the energetic kids!






Mile-High Apple Pie by Laura Langston and Lindsey Gardiner

From Mile-High Apple Pie by Lindsey Gardiner and Laura Langston

Grandma's remembering is not what it used to be, but she does remember how to make her special mile-high apple pie. The bruised apples are the sweetest bit . . .

From Mile-High Apple Pie by Lindsey Gardiner and Laura Langston

. . . just like her granddaughter.


Warm inside




Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

From Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

Trixie has been trying to tell Dad that her beloved Knuffle Bunny is missing, but Dad doesn't understand her babbling. After retracing their steps with Mum, they turn the laundromat inside out until . . .

From Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

. . . Trixie is finally reunited with her special toy and . . . says her first words ever: KNUFFLE BUNNY!






You Matter by Christian Robinson

From You Matter by Christian Robinson

Many different perspectives around the world are deftly and empathetically explored so young readers can see how everyone is connected, and that everyone matters.


Part of something bigger









The Fantastic Ferris Wheel: The Story of Inventor George Ferris by Betsy Harvey Kraft and Steven Salerno 

From The Fantastic Ferris Wheel by Betsy Harvey Kraft & Steven Salerno

In this picture-book biography, readers will be amazed by the inventiveness, persistence and vision that went into the construction of the giant observation wheel at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

From The Fantastic Ferris Wheel by Betsy Harvey Kraft & Steven Salerno

Built against all odds – doubt, challenging design, a tight schedule and bad weather— George Ferris’ inspiring design was a feat of engineering admired by many great visitors, including Helen Keller, Chief Standing Bear and maybe even Theodore Roosevelt.

Awe-inspired (wow!)







It seemed hard to pin down one main take-away emotion for each book as a whole. The reader will probably experience a whole range of feelings as they read, but by the last page, there is usually one that lingers (in bold). It may depend on the individual reader too, of course.

Start with a feeling to find the heart of your story.

Can you think of any examples of how this might work for a story you are working on, or a favourite picture book you love?



Natascha Biebow is an experienced children's book editor, coach and mentor and founder of Blue Elephant Storyshaping. She loves to help authors and illustrators at all levels to shape their stories and fine-tune their work pre-submission. She is the author of the award-winning nonfiction picture book The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayon.

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