Sunday 23 August 2015

What’s in it for the Adults? by Rebecca Colby, Guest Blogger

Hands up if you’ve ever done what I’ve done and hidden your child’s favourite picture book? This is the book they ask you to read over and over (and over!) to the point where you can’t bear to ever read it again. While I can’t see your hands, I’m willing to bet I’m not alone.

I admit this isn’t a kind thing to do, but neither is inflicting the same story on an adult every night for months on end—especially one that doesn’t appeal to them. And that is the trick to writing a good picture book—ensuring your book holds strong appeal for both children and adults.

So what elements help guarantee an adult reader will want to read your book more than once? In other words, what’s in it for the adults?

Regardless of age, everyone loves a good laugh. But humour is subjective, and certainly some forms of humour are more readily understood by an adult audience. One, in particular, is satire. Dr. Seuss did satire so well. 

As a young child I loved his book, The Lorax, for its nonsense words and fun rhymes. It never failed to bring a smile to my face and it was the one book I kept renewing from the library (and consequently asking my mother to read over and over).

However, it wasn’t until I reread this book as an adult that I appreciated Seuss’ wit and the satirical poke at environmental issues. Okay, so it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but there is a black humour to it that underlies a very important message, and as an adult this satirical humour makes me admire and appreciate Seuss’ work even more than I did as a child.

Humour can also come from intertextuality. This is when the author or illustrator makes references to other texts or images outside their book. For example in Margie Palatini and Guy Francis’ Mary had a Little Ham, the main character Stanley Snoutowski is a pig who seeks fame and fortune on Broadway. 

On one of the spreads, there are references to the shows Stanley performs in, like South Pigcific, The Pig and I, Pigmalion, Oinklahoma, The Pork Loin King, and Hamlet. Stanley even meets Broadway producers Hoggers and Hammerswine. While humorous for adults, these references often go over children’s heads.  

Here again, symbolism can also require readers to make connections to other books, artwork, etc. Anthony Browne’s Willy the Dreamer is a perfect example. 

As Willy dreams of being a film star, a sumo wrestler, a ballet dancer, etc, children look for the many ways Browne has seamlessly incorporated symbolic bananas into the illustrations. Adults may be looking for this also, but at the same time they will note visual references and symbols that children may not have been exposed to yet, including symbols and references to the work of Matisse, Henri Rousseau and Salvador Dali.

Sophisticated text
Picture books are aimed at our youngest of child audiences, but their language is anything but simple. In fact, picture books are often more sophisticated than early chapter books as they are intended to be read by fluent readers, rather than beginning readers.

Sophisticated text can be aimed at children as a means of extending their vocabulary, or to introduce them to literary devices. Or it can be employed to add something extra for the adults.

Here’s an example from Mini Grey’s book,The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon, where she uses sophisticated language that could be interpreted both literally by children and figuratively by adults.

But the dish was broken and so was I. I let them lock me up and turned away from the moon.”

The dish is literally broken, and children can see that the dish is in pieces. Adults, however, are able to take further meaning from this sentence. They understand that the dish and the spoon have been defeated by life.

Another Margie Palatini book, Bad Boys, illustrated by Henry Cole, uses sophisticated language in the form of word play. 

Two wolves disguised as sheep try to fool three ewes into letting them join the flock with a view to eating them. Margie uses appropriate sophisticated language that only the adult audience will understand, but in a context that won’t detract from the story or confuse children. Some examples include:

On the lam.
Fleece the flock.
Pull the wool over their eyes.
The two were in clover.

Interplay of text and illustrations
This is a strong feature of nearly all picture books, and contributes to them working on more than one level. More often than not, the illustrations portray information that is not provided in the text. And because adults are better able to analyse the interaction between the text and illustrations, it’s an opportunity to add another layer to a book just for the adult audience.  

A relatable one for parents is Boss Baby by Marla Frazee. 

At one point, the text states that “He [Boss Baby] conducted meetings. Lots and lots and lots of meetings, many in the middle of the night.” What we wouldn’t get from the text without the illustrations is that the baby is actually throwing lots and lots and lots of tantrums, flanked by both parents as they attend to his needs of feedings, playtime, and nappy changes.

And let’s not forget the contradictory interplay of text and illustrations where the text tells one story, and the illustrations tell another diametrically opposed story. A great example is Bottomley Cattery by Peter Harris and Doffy Weir. 

Bottomley isn’t happy about being left at the cattery while his human family go on holiday, but he tries to make the best of it. Or so he says. He claims to have made lots of friends and not to have caused a fuss. But the illustrations, of course, paint a very different picture. 

One more book I’d like to mention here is Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett and Matthew Myers. 

It’s two books in one, with the second story drawn and written over the top of the first. The main character, Alex, is given a book called Birthday Bunny, which he soon defaces and rewrites. In the new story, Battle Bunny is unleashing an evil plan which only Alex can stop. This new story is hand-written and hand-drawn in pencil over the top of the original. The interplay between the two texts and the two sets of illustrations makes for a brilliant concept that most adults will appreciate far more than children. Not to mention the fact that it is nearly impossible to read this book aloud. You end up reading only one story at a time, whereas by reading it silently, you can read the stories simultaneously.  

Strong emotional pull
Whatever you do, make your reader feel something! Engage them emotionally, be it through humour, joy, fear, or even sadness. Readers are less apt to forget a book—or want to put it down—if it has pulled at their heart strings or touched their inner core. Adults are no different this way. I may hide my children’s books on occasion, but I’d never hide Debi Gliori’s book, No Matter What

And that’s because it speaks to my soul. It has a powerful message about unconditional, never-ending love that elicits a strong feeling from me. Admittedly, that experience is one of tearing up—but that’s exactly why I pick it up as an adult over and over again. I want to relive that same powerful experience. 

Challenge readers’ expectations
There are lots of ways to do this. Two I’m going to mention are twist endings and using non-traditional story structures. Do you want to keep your adult reader engaged? Then surprise them. Keep them guessing the outcome of your story until the end. Children enjoy predictability to a certain extent but even they will probably prefer a book that surprises them with an unexpected ending.

A story that does just that is Waking Beauty by Leah Wilcox and Lydia Monks. 

It’s a fractured fairy tale and we all know roughly how the story is supposed to pan out--with the prince waking his beauty with a kiss. But although the prince gets his kiss, the ending is anything but predictable. (And because I want you to be surprised when you read it, I’m not going to spoil the ending here.)

Another way to challenge reader’s expectations is to give them a story structure they’ve not seen before. Most picture book writing advice recommends the use of the standard story structure with a beginning, middle and end, but as with so many writing rules, once you know them, you can start breaking them. And here are two that break them so well:

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers (structured as a series of letters from crayons)

and Shark vs Train by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld (structured as a series of competitions between a shark and a train without a decisive winner).

Before I wrap up, I want to thank the Picture Book Den for hosting me today! It’s been fun finding examples to share. And if there are any examples you’d like to share, or elements I’ve missed (I’m sure there are plenty!), please feel to tell me about them in the comments.

The bottom line is great picture books hold universal appeal. Make sure your own books offer something for everyone, regardless of their age. And bear in mind, your books need to hold a reader’s attention over repeated readings. Like this one…

Oops! That’s strange. I seem to have mislaid my favourite picture book. I just had it out last night reading it to my kids a few times. I was going to tell you about it and explain why it’s my favourite and perhaps read it to my children again tonight but it’s not where I normally keep it on the bookshelf. I wonder if they’ve seen it?!

Rebecca is a picture book author and poet. Her books include: It’s Raining Bats & Frogs (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, 2015) and There was a Wee Lassie who Swallowed a Midgie (Floris Picture Kelpies, 2014).

Before writing for children, Rebecca inspected tights, taught English in Taiwan, worked for a Russian comedian and travelled the world as a tour director. Learn more about Rebecca at or follow her on Twitter at @amscribbler.


Clare Helen Welsh said...

Thank you, Rebecca. A very interesting read and some books to check out of the library. And for the record I have never hidden my child's favourite story... honest! ;-)

Patricia Toht said...

Hands up here, Rebecca. My son's favourite for a long time was a book about a bear throwing tantrums because a baby sister was born and the mum reassuring him that it was perfectly fine to do so. (Direct reflection of our family at that time -- I'm sure my son wanted to switch me out for a bear mum.) Somehow the book found its way between the mattresses... Terrific tips for how to add adult appeal to PBs. Thank you!

Garden Girl said...

Most often parents and grandparents purchase picture books for children. And since the adult shares the book as a read aloud, I agree with your thoughts about a book that offers a delightful universal appeal. Thank you, Rebecca.
~Suzy Leopold

Rebecca C said...

I believe you, Clare! ;) Thanks for stopping by!

Jon Burgess Design said...

As parents are the ones that hand over the cash, they have to be part of the the equation ;-) I'm not a big fan of stuff that is over kid's heads though. You can appeal to the child within the adult if that makes sense. I love 'Battle Bunny' but a publisher friend was hugely offended by it. . . I think it was the disrespect to books or something. I like it's anarchic vibe myself ;-)

Rebecca C said...

Good hiding place, Patricia! Mine is under the bookshelf--which due to its proximity to the rest of the books helps assauge some of my guilt at hiding a book in the first place. Many thanks for your comments!

Rebecca C said...

Definitely! The adults are the decision makers when it comes to purchasing picture books and placing them into the hands of children and for that reason also, picture books need to hold universal appeal. Thanks for sharing the Kirkus link with recommendations, Suzy!

Rebecca C said...

I agree that you can appeal to the child within the adult without adding things that go over children's heads. On the other hand, I do enjoy so many of the books that do add these things, and because I've found no detraction from my children enjoying them, I continue to share them with my kids. 'Battle Bunny' certainly has an anarchic vibe! It's not everyone's cup of tea but we all love it at my house too and it's one that never gets hidden. :) Cheers, Jonathan!

Taurean Watkins said...

This is a great topic, and I had to weigh in!

I know the role of adults (whether in or reading) picture books in particular, and kidlit in general, is an often debated issue, but I do think the best books can appeal beyond their target audience. That's a big part of why most of Pixar's films are successful.

I love "Mary Had A Little Ham" (Reviewed it over at my site, "Talking Animal Addicts") and while I didn't read it as a kid, I probably would've known a lot of the "Old Hollywood" references as I'm the "retronaut" in my family, at times finding movies and cartoons pre my birth just as or more engaging than what was out when I was growing up.

As someone who didn't get read to in the early days, it's nice to visit with my "inner child" when I read/review picture books now.

To be continued...

Taurean Watkins said...

Some recommendations I'd make are-

"Dear Tabby" by Carolyn Crimi (illus. David Roberts) [See my review on T.A.A.]

Stories told through letters are a challenge to pull of, but this book does, and it totally works on both the kid and adult level. The illustrations have this pseudo-retro feel, and it's refreshing to see analog correspondence is this always connected "digital world" many families live today. (I love this book so much I made both a fan book trailer AND fan tribute!)

"The Blues Of Flats Brown" by Walter Dean Meyers (illus. Nina Laden) [See my review on T.A.A.]
This is one of those books that works for older kids (3rd Grade and Up) and the preschool set. It tells a poignant and hopeful story that touches on the issue of animal abuse (esp. given recent events such as the #CecilTheLion tragedy) that's honest without scaring younger readers, and would be a great conversation starter for the budding animal activist in your life.
(Also made a fan book trailer for it)

This is a tile that has "Strong Emotional Pull" for me as a pet parent of my beloved Pepper who died June 2014 due to digestive problems.

"Bad Dog" by Nina Laden (See my review on T.A.A.)
In addition to illustrating books by other writers, Nina's an author in her own right, and this is one of her best IMHO. Sadly, it's out of print, but it's worth hunting down (or seeing if your library network has a copy), this is one of the most lyrical books I've ever read, and is a great example of playing with reader expectations as the MC tells one story, and the illustrations tell another, and they intersect nicely.

"Letters From A Desperate Dog/The Desperate Dog Write Again" by Eileen Christelow (See my review on T.A.A.)
These books are great for luring your comic/graphic novel obsessed rattlings beyond the world of superheroes, ninjas, and pirates.
(Got a Fan Trailer for these books, too!)

"Big Mean Mike" by Michelle Knudsen (illus Scott Magoon) [See my review on T.A.A.]
LOVE this book as it tells a non-preachy story of not letting our self-image hinder us from being ourselves. I especially love the organic message it gives to our boys in particular that our "real friends" are those we don't have to put on airs with.
(Yep, made a fan trailer for this one too!)

To be continued...

Taurean Watkins said...

"Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam" by Tracey Coderoy (illus. Steven Lenton)
While cats and kittens may "rule the internet", dogs have always had a special and sizable role in kidlit, and this book is among the best I've read in recent years. The use of non-standard rhyme is enticing without drawing awkward attention to itself, some those of us who've tried (and failed) writing rhyme know is not an easy task.

Now that a second shifty and Sam book has released, I hope this'll be the start of a hilariously riveting series with more adventures to come.

If I had an animation studio (which I'm sadly don't) I'd have snapped up the movie/television rights by now. This would make an excellent animated series (I actually have a pilot script in my head), and the use of shadow and light just SCREAMS for 2D animation, despite CG being ever more the baseline for cartoons these days, I'm not anti-CG by any means, I just believe 2D animation should always have a place, and if you're going to mix the two, take a page from "The Legend of Korra" playbook. they do it right.
(Anyway, enjoy the fan trailer I made for Shifty and Sam's first book)

"The Snatchabook" by Helen Docherty (illus. Thomas Docherty) [See my review on T.A.A.]
This is one of those books that comes along every so often that blows you away on all fronts. This is one of those books. It's also the most original nod to Dr. Seuss that I've ever read, and that's not faint praise on my part, Helen's rhymes are on point and Thomas , but uses a wider color palette than was available to some of Seuss earlier books due to the expense of full color images (most notably "How The Grinch Stole Christmas")

Plus, the fact that it was created by a husband-wife team only adds to the charm. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, this is the most dynamic author-illustrator I've seen since veterans Julia Donaldson and Alex Schaffer (The Gruffalo and The Scarecrow Wedding), and recent contenders Ame Dyckman and Zachariah O'Hora (Wolfie The Bunny and the upcoming "Horrible Bear" in 2016)

To be continued...

Taurean Watkins said...

"WEASELS" by Elys Dolan (See my review on T.A.A.)
This book totally has kid-adult crossover appeal, as do many of Elys's books, including her most recent release "Nuts in Space"
"Picture Book Den" did an interview with Elys back in MArch 2015 on the "controversy" surrounding "Nuts in Space" and commentary on her process and the challenges and joys of off-color humor that's always had a place in the kidlit landscape.

While these books are middle grade novels, I'm mentioning them here for parents or teachers with older readers that might tickle a grown-ups fancy-

"The Wainscott Weasel" by Tor Seidler (illus. Fred Marcelino) (See my review retrospective on T.A.A.)
This once out-of-print gem from the 90s has been miraculously reborn thanks to "Atheneum Books for Young Readers" and I hope this second chance will bring it to readers for many generations to come. (I so had to make a fan trailer for this one!)

"Time Stops For No Mouse" [Hermux Tantamoq Adventure #1] by Michael Hoeye
I preach about this book (and the series in general, ALL THE TIME) for good reason, it's a great read and a nice alternative to the clan-based warfare of Animal Fantasy juggernauts "Redwall" and "Warriors."

The text has a sophistication not common in middle grade fiction post the 90s I'd have no reservations recommending this to teens who can look past the "Mouse" in the title and see the complex, riveting, and touching story within.

Too often animal stories (in the non-naturalistic category) get unjustly marginalized for being too "babyish" and there's nothing wrong with appealing to the 0-4 set.

But my main goal with "Talking Animal Addicts" was to showcase the titles that often get overlooked by the mainstream, and to prove once and for all you don't have to be under 6 to read and enjoy them. We often talk about YA/Adult readership crossover readership, but this is a book (and series) that is great MG/YA crossover appeal.
(Need More Convincing? Check out my fan trailers for all 4 books, because I'm THAT much a fanboy)

Hope these suggestions are helpful. Take care, All,
Taurean W.

Rebecca C said...

Wow! What a great list, Taurean! I look forward to checking out your own recommendations, as well as your reviews at T.A.A (and fan trailers). Thanks for weighing in!

Janet said...

Great post, Rebecca. Thank you!

Katherine Lynas said...

I saw a panel at the Edinburgh book festival that featured Debi Gliori and she was talking about how she made No Matter What when she was going through a painful divorce and wanted to reassure her youngest daughter that despite what was going on she would always be loved. I haven't read the book myself but it sounds like the emotion comes through. I would recommend listening to her talk about her books if you ever get a chance. Interesting post Rebecca, I think the same can be said for films (I think Pixar really have me in mind).

Kathryn Evans said...

What a fab and useful post - thanks Rebecca!

Candy Gourlay said...

What a wonderful post! I have to say Picture Book Dem is my favorite blog on picture book reading and writing! Thank you, Rebecca - utterly brilliant!

Rebecca C said...

Many thanks, Kathy! I'm so glad you found it useful!

Rebecca C said...

Picture Book Den is the place to go for picture book reading and writing info! I always learn so much from their posts and was pleased to be able to guest blog with them. Cheers, Candy!

Rebecca C said...

Thank you, Janet! I appreciate you stopping by and your kind comment!

Rebecca C said...

Thanks for sharing this, Katherine! I always enjoy hearing the story and inspiration behind a book's creation, and didn't know this about "No Matter What." Debi certainly put her heart into that book. And Pixar do a great job of keeping the adult audience in mind, while entertaining children.

Joyce Ray said...

This is a great post with so many titles to check out! Thanks, Rebecca, for the many examples of picture books that adults don't tire of reading.

Rebecca C said...

You're very welcome, Joyce, and thank you! It was fun going through my bookshelves and finding appropriate examples.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Great post, Rebecca.

I often slip in little in-jokes and references for the benefit of adult readers, although it is important to do it in a way that won't detract from a child's enjoyment of the story.

Having said which, adults sometimes spot references that aren't really there. A dad recently emailed me to ask if the opening line of THE PRINCESS AND THE PIG - "Not that long ago in a kingdom not far from here." - was meant as a reference to the opening line of STAR WARS - "Long ago in a galaxy far, far away." It's not, although both lines are a reference to the traditional fairy tale opening "Long ago in a kingdom far, far away."

Rebecca C said...

Thanks, Jonathan! Yes, it needs to be done in a way that doesn't detract from a child's enjoyment of the story. I loved your own personal story! I think too often readers tend to spot references and symbolism in books that just aren't there, or weren't intended as references by the author.

Catherine said...

Really enjoyed reading this post Rebecca. I have never hidden a book but when one story gets too much we read a 'Mummy's Choice' book alongside so that we're still enjoying other books.

Rebecca C said...

Great idea, Catherine! I need to do the same, as well as just 'grin and bear' the book they love so much. At the moment, we've probably read 'Mother Goose' almost nine months running with very little deviation--hence my forthcoming book title 'Motor Goose,' which was inspired by the Mother Goose rhymes. :) Thanks for sharing!

Rebecca C said...

Thank you for stopping by!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Rebecca! All very good advice. As long as the references primarily for adults are in no way condescending or inappropriate for children -as they obviously aren't in any of your suggestions. What I find really uncomfortable are pantomimes that are mostly aimed at children but have double entendres for the adults. It seems really disrespectful to children to be in on a secret that they're not meant to know about. Good picture books that appeal to adults, too (like Mini Grey's Dish and Spoon...) are done with proper respect and appreciation of children. And huge congratulations on Motor Goose -at least SOMETHING good has come out of your having had to read it hundreds of times over the past year...

Rebecca C said...

Thank you to you and the other Picture Book Den members for having me as a guest blogger! I take your point about double entendres. And yes, I think I need to find another book to read hundreds of times this year. It may do my head in but it's bound to inspire an idea. :)

Lily said...

These all sound like fun ways to make picture books enjoyable for both children and adults. :)

Penny Parker Klostermann said...

This is a wonderful post, Rebecca. I'm familiar with a lot of the books you mentioned but there are some that I put on hold at the library. You made excellent points and gave great examples. Thanks :D

Rebecca C said...

It's important to make them enjoyable on two levels for both audiences. Thanks, Lily!

Rebecca C said...

So pleased that the post was useful, Penny, and that you were able to find some of the books at your local library. Thanks for stopping by!

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