Saturday, March 21, 2015

Beyond ABC and 123: 5 easy themes you can use to write picture books.


Do you love the light in the tiniest kids' eyes when they listen to a picture book?

"Theme" books, like ABC's and 123's are time-tested favourites for a reason.  The very youngest readers (and listeners) love seeing familiar patterns and concepts - numbers, letters, colours, shapes, sizes.  What would be deathly dull for us, as adults, is absolutely the hottest thing with little kids.

Lots of writers make the mistake of trying to mix things up for very young readers.  You have to keep them entertained, right?

Wrong.  Instead, make your life easier and try one of these five familiar themes.

Of course, if you want to sell parents on your idea, you'll still have to make it original to some degree.  But remember that it doesn't have to be all that original to charm buyers and knock little kids' socks off. 

A lesson about kids – from Malcolm Gladwell

image Malcolm Gladwell showed in his fantastic book, The Tipping Point, that when little kids had a choice, they would watch the EXACT SAME episode of the TV show Blue’s Clues every day for an entire week. 

Even the show’s creators were shocked. 

Not only were kids NOT bored, they were more excited and engaged every single time they saw the episode.

Why?  Because they were becoming “experts.” 

Who doesn’t love to feel smart?  Wouldn’t you hate to be bewildered and confused all the time?  Kids usually feel totally dumb, or at the very least, confused about what’s going on.  Just like with Blue’s Clues, when you create a book based around a familiar theme, you put kids in the driver’s seat, turning them into little “experts.”

For each of these 5 classic themes, I’ve offered a quick twist that’ll keep your mind active thinking up dozens of fun variations.  (You’ll also find a couple of recommendations of great books in each category.)


Little kids are obsessed with their fingers, and that’s where the magic begins. 

As soon as they can hold them up one at a time, they’re old enough to start counting.  As soon as they can sit with a bunch of Cheerios, they can start adding and subtracting.  I love math, but even if you don’t, early counting & math books can be just so much fun to read – and write.

ADD A TWIST:  Your book doesn’t have to go in strict 1-2-3 order.  Even very young children can start to appreciate a sequence like 2-4-6-8.  Or perhaps count backwards, from 10 to 1.  You can also introduce simple math concepts – like, here’s “2”… and along comes “1” to make… “3.”

image Recommended reading:


Any artist knows that the world is made up of a few basic shapes. 

Teaching kids to see these everywhere they look is a lesson that will help them for a lifetime.  But when I say lesson, make sure you do it in a fun way.  Squares, circles and triangles aren’t interesting in themselves.  But in the hands of the right author, with the right illustrations – they can be fascinating.

ADD A TWIST:  Look for the basic shapes in original places, preferably somewhere that mirrors the life of the child.  Or go the opposite way and look for shapes in the realm of fantasy:  triangles could represent dragons’ spines, and a cylinder, a magician’s magic wand.  Remember that food also comes in shapes. :-)

image Recommended reads:


Every kid is aware of size, because – let’s face it – they’re the smallest ones in the room almost everywhere they go.

Comparing sizes can be fun because almost everything exists in big and little versions.  Believe it or not, as fun as it is, learning big from little also qualifies as part of the child’s essential math learning for the early years.  Shh… I won’t tell if you don’t.

ADD A TWIST:  We all love underdogs.  Even though you’re just comparing sizes, any time you can introduce an element where the smallest of something “wins,” you’re teaching kids a lesson – even the littlest people have the power to do great things.

image Recommended reads: 


Colours can be confusing.  They’re not as straightforward as we think, and that makes them a great topic to explore with very young kids. 

What colour is this school bus? 


Lots of people would say it’s yellow, but to me, it looks very orange.  What do you think?

As much as we think colour is a simple thing, it isn’t.  Babies and toddlers might puzzle over why both of the first shirts are usually called “blue,” while the third shirt usually wouldn’t be.

image image image

Sort of arbitrary, if you think about it.

Because learning colours isn’t as straightforward as we grownup types like to think it is, babies like to “test” themselves with books that show them colours and let them anticipate what the right answer is going to be.  It builds confidence to know the primaries, and later, to start differentiating between some of the tricker colours (yellow and green, for example).

ADD A TWIST:  Popular colours like red, green and blue are fine.  But have you considered going outside the box a little and including less-popular colours?  I’ve never seen a baby book that introduces beige, but maybe it’s time.  And don’t forget black and white; too many colours books for kids overlook these two important ones.

image Recommended reads:


Little kids love seeing their basic daily routine reflected at story time. 

Since they've just learned the schedule themselves, it thrills them to see their activities echoed in a book.  Make sure everything progresses in an orderly way:  waking up, getting dressed, playtime, suppertime, bathtime, bedtime. 

ADD A TWIST:  Perhaps the child in the story is "teaching" a favourite stuffed animal what to do for each of these steps.  Or perhaps the main character isn't a child at all - what if the daily main character was a robot, going through all the regular motions of the child's daily life?

image Recommended reads:

You'll notice I haven't mentioned ABC's here.  If you happen to have a great idea for an ABC book, go ahead and write it.  But I'll warn you - it may start with a bang, but many ABC book writers run out of ideas fast.  Think hard ahead of time about what you're going to do when you get to the difficult letters like K, X and Z.

Whatever theme you pick, use simple language, but introduce playful elements.  There’s nothing wrong with sneaking in a few subtle surprises so your adult readers don't get bored.

Always ask yourself if your picture book has series potential.  Once the first one’s out, don’t be afraid to start playing around with ideas for another winning theme.

Just make sure kids hearing the story feel like true “experts.”  Put them in the driver’s seat.  Create a book where they’re predicting what comes next.  That way, they’ll ask for your book again and again and again… and parents will happily pick it up and read it to them.

Any great theme ideas that I’ve missed?  I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments section below!


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