Monday, March 21, 2011

Child Development & Picture Books: An Interview with Joanne Rocklin

In preparing to teach a writing class, I've been thinking about some of the common problems of student manuscripts. Many are too descriptive and internal, many are "slight" stories, or they don't have "universal appeal."

Would a familiarity with child development help beginning writers with their picture book stories?
Acclaimed author/ teacher Joanne Rocklin, who has a doctorate in psychology, graciously answered my questions on this topic.

How could a knowledge of child development benefit a picture book writer?

Our main goal as authors is to delight, move, and envelop kids in a world they can escape to--in other words, get them to love books. And the easiest way to do this is to understand the children themselves - their humor, their conflicts and needs, and their particular intellectual and social development.

What kinds of books meet the MAIN needs of the pre-school and early elementary age child?

BOOKS FOR TODDLER AND PRESCHOOL: As authors, we want to enhance the conditioning process by which the book remains something warm and comforting and wonderful, (a "transitional object" like a blankie or favorite toy) simply by its association with the parent who is reading and holding the child. What kind of book does this?

-Books which emphasize the senses, using bright, simple images so the baby can focus. Tasty, textured or smelly ones, like Pat the Bunny (Kunhardt, 1998)

-Books emphasizing Repetition, Rhythm and Rhyme, to give the child a comforting, secure feeling, making the world seem less chaotic. There is a security and increased sense of control when the rhyme and refrain reappears. The child is learning about "object permanence", a phrase coined by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget-- that objects still exist, even when out of sight.

-by the end of this period, Piaget's sensorimotor period, the toddler can hold an image in her mind for longer periods, and can anticipate what will happen next. And that's what's needed to understand story, and leads us to

PICTURE BOOKS: These books also reflect the developmental needs of the child (ages 3 and up):

-They are short! They should be able to be read in one sitting, because of the child's relatively short attention span.

-They are child-centered, i.e. there's a simple plot based on everyday situations in the child's life.

-There is a "rehearsal for separation" as defined by E.M. Roberts in The Children's Picture Book: the parent is often in the background, but nearby, as the child has adventures, as in Where the Wild Things Are (Sendak)

-Piaget and others have shown, and parents intuitively know, that children endow inanimate objects and animals with feelings and opinions (animism), that they believe the whole world thinks and feels as they do (egocentrism) and that they believe in magic. So it's natural for the child to accept storybook characters who are animals or fantasy creatures, and even anthropormorphic creatures (The Little Engine that Could/Piper, 1978)

- BUT-the main character is almost always a child in disguise! Animals behavior is species-appropriate (eg. bears hibernate) but with child-like feelings and needs. Mice are popular--they are small, cute, scared and mischievousness, and kids identify. Even main characters who are adults are child-like (Strega Nona/dePaola). All this disguise gives the listener some distance from the weighty issues brought up.

-And the issues are weighty: separation, fear of loss, sibling rivalry, shyness, and many more. There should be a conflict that the main character solves herself; nothing is solved by coincidence, magic, a parent. This allows for growth by the character, and thus the identifying reader. (eg. Henke's Julius, The Baby of the World.)

-Humor in the p.b. reflects what the child himself finds funny at this age: slapstick, surprise, silliness. (Hattie and the Fox/Mem Fox)

-Endings are important: funny, surprising, quiet--but there must be a sense of closure. The adult doesn't want to send the child off into the scary dark void called Sleep with loose story-endings.

-There should be a melding of words and pictures. The words have to be lovely, but spare, with few adjectives and lots of descriptive verbs, to leave room for the illustrator. The child is a beginning reader at this stage, and is learning to go back and forth between words and pictures as he enters the next stage--reading on his own.

What was one of your favorite books to read when you were a child? Why do you think it was meaningful to you at that time in your life?

My favorite books of all time were middle grades, so that's what I write today. Little Women and especially, Anne of Green Gables (I'm a former Canadian) are imprinted in my memory.

I sold my latest book ONE DAY AND ONE AMAZING MORNING ON ORANGE STREET, I was told, because it was a quintessential middle grade. I like to begin a middle grade novel on "a day that is different", and in this book a troubling orange plastic cone appears on the street, as does a mysterious stranger.

Middle grade is all about character and introspection, lots of introspection, and I love writing about that. I have several characters in my new book, each focused on their own particular conflict, but also worried about that orange cone, an old orange tree, and that stranger. I had fun changing points of view--something you can't do in a younger work. But older readers like peeking into the heads and homes of several characters and can keep everyone's perspective in mind. I even have the old orange tree telling its story, and get inside the mind of a dog, a rodent, and children from other eras.

In a middle grade, you don't have to disguise or distance the reader from the conflict--it's right out there in the open. I laid out all the conflicts and was marvelously surprised and moved when everything came together at the end, and everyone's best self was realized --that's the scary magic of writing a novel--it does come together at the end, but you don't often have the ending until you get there. I think it's fair to say that a picture book author needs to have a clearer sense of the ending almost from the beginning...but that's a writing issue and not necessarily a child developmental one!

Any suggestions for reference books or websites about this?

I've mentioned Piaget. I just love his work and he seems to have started it all. Then there are lots of other books out there that codify the age needs and characteristics. Brazelton, The Gessell Institute (Ilg, Ames and Baker's book). I'm sure there are hundreds of more current ones, but not necessarily better ones.

Thanks so much, Joanne!


  1. Great interview. Joanne, thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

  2. Great interview, Michelle! Very helpful for anyone approaching a picture book. Joanne, I love the way you talked about your process in writing your new novel. I can't wait to read it!

  3. What a fabulous post - so much to think about!

    I am looking forward to reading One Day and One Amazing Day on Orange Street

  4. My son is in ESE Pre-K. He loves shorter books that grab his attention. I agree with everything you said. I have noticed a lot of books that are much longer recently. I also wanted to say that not all kids fit into the "normal category" so it's nice to have picture books that are for our child's age that isn't for infants.

  5. Thanks for the great feedback. Michelle asked questions that excellently probed a topic especially dear to my heart. There is so much that we have to be aware of and sensitive to, when writing these books.

  6. I appreciate the positive comments. Joanne, once again thanks for generously sharing your insights with us. Really helpful to keep these in mind as we shape and revise our manuscripts.

  7. Great interview! I appreciate any deeper level of understanding that helps me write more effectively for young children.