Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

A Question of Style

Fotolia_4067927_XSA major question to consider when developing an idea for a children’s book is what the style of the book will be. Will it be lean and simple, or rich in imagery and ideas? Will it be matter-of-fact, lyrical, or tongue in cheek? What about narration – what voice will the story be told in? First or third person?

Whose point of view the story is told from is one of the most important decisions an author can make. But how to determine the best choice?

Consider these questions:

  • Can the central character be present for, and actively involved in, all the events of the story, or must they be elsewhere during some of the scenes?
  • Does he or she have a stake in the outcome of this story?
  • Is he or she the central focus, more or less on every page, with everything happening to them?
  • Is it helpful to see the events that are happening to them through their eyes?

If the answers to these questions are mostly yes, then first person might be a good choice.  If not, a third person narrator’s voice may give you more freedom and flexibility.

There is also the question of tense. Will it be past or present? Is it going to be “once upon a time” or “he says/she says”? There is a great trend toward immediacy in the picture book market right now. Publishers like books in present tense, the thought being that it engages the reader more actively in the story. They’re experiencing it as it happens, rather than being once removed from something that happened before.

oliviaIf you’re telling a story that is specific to a certain event or time – for example, “so and so saved the day in the school play” – you might want to tell it in past tense, because it’s a finite event that took place once upon a time. If you’re telling “a day in the life of…” story, where the events are ongoing, or could happen more than once, then the present tense might more engaging. For example, in Ian Falconer’s wonderful “Olivia” books, the first one – Olivia, which focuses on introducing the character and describes Olivia’s average day – is in the present tense. Subsequent books such as Olivia Forms a Band, in which Olivia celebrates the Fourth of July, are told in past tense.

There is no right or wrong approach. It’s all a question of style.


Series NavigationQ: Who’s Your Hero? (A: Your Reader!)Icing Vs. Cake (or, Verse Vs. Prose)


4 Responses to “A Question of Style”
  1. Heilan Yvette Grimes says:

    This is all excellent advice. I’m learning a lot from your blog.

    I remember in acting you always said to pick the choice that ups the ante. Seems to be good advice for writing, too.

    I’ve edited a lot of books and have always referred to people with troubled tense as time-travelers. One moment their character is here, the next they’re back there. Sometimes in the same sentence.

    I hope in future blogs you’ll be specific about things like who-whom, who-that, that-which, their-they’re, its-it’s, etc. I know, seemingly simple stuff, but I see mistakes with those terms all the time.

    Can’t wait for #3.


  2. Mary says:

    I’m working on a children’s book. Although it rhyme’s it does not have perfect meter. It is not a poem, just a cute tale. Does meter still matter??

  3. Emma says:

    Mary – If it rhymes, meter matters. It’s a HUGE part of what makes a verse picture book both saleable and marketable. Meter is just as important as rhyme in verse. You should definitely work on unifying it. Hope that’s helpful!

  4. Kay Nelson says:

    Hello Emma,

    I have written 10 chapters of my first children’s book in the third person. As the story evolved, I strongly believed that all the characters were equally important. The central theme is the joy of friendship.

    After reading about point of view, I rewrote 8 chapters in the first person. Each character is introduced in their own chapter. I realize that I have gone way “out on a limb” for a rank beginner.

    Discovering the pros and cons of each choice has my head is swimming…..but I love the process.

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