The story comes first: teaching playfully in picture books

Picture book author Ann Bonwill on the key to tackling preschool social issues in picture books (without need of a soapbox)

annWhen my editor, Helen, expressed interest in a sequel to I Don’t Want to be a Pea!, I was thrilled. I had come to love my characters, Hugo and Bella, and the chance to write about them again was exciting.

hugo and bella

Endpapers for I am not a Copycat!, featuring Hugo the hippo and Bella the bird

But while their first story had come to me rather easily, the second one did not follow that same path. I found it challenging to stay true to the characters, voice, and tone of the first book while simultaneously crafting an original storyline and adding enough new elements to make things interesting.

Helen and I agreed that there were two aspects we wanted to keep consistent in the books. The first was the technique of telling the story almost entirely through dialogue. This proved to be enjoyable, as I have a lot of fun hearing the voices of Hugo and Bella in my head. The second aspect was less enjoyable – the task of examining a preschool social issue and (I shudder to say it) teaching a lesson about it.

As the mother of a four year old, I am surrounded by preschool social issues. Observing my son playing with a friend generates a laundry list of social skills that he is beginning to negotiate – how to share, how to take turns, how to open a juice carton without squirting the other person. I had no end of options for social issues to examine, but what did I want to say about them? What lesson did I want to teach? Or, more to the point, did I want to teach a lesson at all?

Teaching a lesson is the kiss of death in picture books. If you’ve read aloud to a group of children and tried to hold their attention, you know that making an overt point must be avoided at all costs. Children need story, not lecture. After all, would you rather relax in the bath with a juicy novel or a self-help book? (Please ignore that I’m writing this in January, when we’re all optimistically leafing through the pages of self-help . . . think back instead to the hedonistic days of December when all you wanted to do was avoid yet another family gathering by escaping into the world of a book, preferably with chocolate close at hand.) Children are no different from us. If anything they need less didacticism in their books than we do, as they are force fed it all day long by a culture that attempts to civilize them at every turn.

That said, the reality is that all my favorite picture books teach a lesson, in that they impart some basic truth about life and give us an example of how (or how not) to respond to it. Even a book that appears to be wholly about fun is sending the message that it’s good to let your hair down now and then. I Don’t Want to be a Pea! certainly has something to take away. It is, at its heart, a story about compromise, about putting friendship first, about making yourself happy by making someone else happy. But I didn’t set out to write about compromise, and therein lies the difference.

Hugo and bella falling out

Spread from I Don’t Want to be a Pea!. Hugo and Bella can’t agree on what to wear to a fancy dress party

In my mind, the distinction between a didactic book and one with a message is that, with a message, the story comes first. The ‘lesson,’ if we need to call it that, grows out of the story in a way that isn’t forced and preachy, it just is. If the story doesn’t come first, we run the risk of losing our audience, losing the magic.

So, imagine my surprise when I found myself trying to do just this – trying to craft a story around a moral rather than letting the story speak moralistically for itself. Usually when I write, the story drives me. The characters, tone, voice, and yes, message, evolve as I go. With the sequel, I already had the characters, tone, and voice, and I knew that I needed a similar type of message. Danger zone.

After abandoning a few drafts as hopelessly didactic, I returned to my rule. The story must come first. I stopped thinking about the issue I’d chosen to tackle (copycat behavior) and focused instead on the antics of a hippo and a bird at the swimming pool, doing synchronized swimming of all things. Writing dialogue helped immensely with this, as I was able stay in the moment through their playful language. I was back to my story.

hugo and bella synchronized swimming

Spread from I am not a Copycat!  

In the end, I am not a Copycat! does have a message. Sometimes it’s fun to be the same. Sometimes it’s fun to be different. Sometimes it’s just fun to make a splash. Oh, and don’t forget the chocolate.

ann
Ann Bonwill is the author of eight picture books, including Bug and Bear, Naughty Toes, I Don’t Want to be a Pea!, and I am not a Copycat!. She grew up in Maryland in the United States, surrounded by good books from her mother’s library and good food from her father’s kitchen. Books and food still bring a smile to her face, especially enchiladas with extra guacamole. She shares her life (but not her guacamole) with her husband, son, and crazy corgi dog.

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I am not a Copycat!, Ann Bonwill’s latest book, is out now, illustrated by the wonderful Simon Rickerty.

Hugo the hippo is annoyed about Bella the bird constantly copying what he does. But then, at the swimming pool, Hugo discovers that when his moves are perfectly copied by Bella, their friends are very impressed indeed . . .

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Hugo and Bella first appeared in I Don’t Want to be a Pea!, shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2012, and chosen by Julia Donaldson as one of her favourite picture books of 2011.

Hugo and Bella are getting ready for a fancy dress party. Because they both want their own way, they can’t agree on a costume and they almost don’t go to the party at all. In this laugh-out-loud comedy of manners children will discover that compromise is what makes any friendship tick.

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