I read a lot of picture books. And so many of them are good in so many ways. Nice, tight, writing. A clever idea. Commercial appeal. Funny, quotable lines. Characters you wish were your friends.
All those things are necessary. Good, even. But I’ve come to see that what elevates perfectly nice, good picture books to oh-my-heavens, tuck-it-under-your-pillow perfection is something that’s simple to say, but hard to achieve.
All the picture books I really, truly love have it. But heart can appear differently in each. It can be the one page turn that sets up the moment where you actually say, “Awww” out loud. Even if no one is there to hear you. It can be the sentence that makes you tear up. The character that represents such a universal human emotion — fear, sadness, loneliness, joy, accomplishment, sacrifice, love — that you’re taken to a moment in your own life where you felt exactly the same.
Heart can be big or small. It can hit you over the head with an emotion or subtly sneak into your psyche and set up camp for the long haul. And your story can and should have it even if the rest of it is mostly funny or mostly scary or mostly educational. If you want your story to sing, it’s got to have heart.
Here are two recent picture books that have heart to spare. Let’s see how they pull it off:
In MY GRANDFATHER’S COAT (Scholastic, 2014) author Jim Aylesworth tells a simple, progressive story about a young man who travels to America. He becomes a tailor, makes himself a coat and then, as the years pass, turns that coat into a jacket, vest, tie and toy.
Where’s the heart? It beats softly in the life events that mark each of the coat’s transitions. The man wears the coat on his wedding day, wears the jacket while pushing his baby on a sled, wears the vest when his tailor shop opens, wears the tie at his daughter’s wedding and his granddaughters’ graduation and gives the toy mouse to his great-grandson. The whole story drips with soft, constant, family love without being at all sappy. (And, I must say, Barbara McClintock’s illustrations pack a lot of lovely heart, as well. The family’s joy in life and each other radiates off the page.) A rhyming refrain connects all this love, saying:
My grandfather loved the coat, and he wore it and he wore it. And little bit by little bit, he frayed it, and he tore it, until at last … he wore it out!
TWO SPECKLED EGGS by Jennifer K. Mann (Candlewick, 2014) is less sweeping. It focuses on one important afternoon in Ginger’s life. Her birthday party. She’s unhappy because her mother said she had to invite all the girls in her class or none of them. This means including Lyla Browning, who is a bit odd. As the party progresses, Ginger finds the other girls are the problem. They don’t listen, don’t follow the rules and don’t like her all-time-favorite birthday cake.
Where’s the heart in this book? It’s the universal human emotion of feeling like you’re left out, unseen, a third wheel at your own birthday party. This book’s “Aww” moment is when Ginger is sitting by the uneaten cake trying not to cry. The text says:
Maybe “none of them” would have been a better party after all, Ginger thought as the girls ran off, giggling. She scrunched up her eyes, but the tears fell out anyway.
I’m not sure you could find anyone who hasn’t felt like Ginger at some point. And this book brings it all back. You’ll be happy to know it ends well. Not only does Lyla Browning like Ginger’s favorite cake, she also likes ladybugs and malted milk eggs, which is really all you can ask for in a friend.
So the next time you’re reading a picture book you love — look for the heart. And the next time you’re working on a draft of your own, ask yourself, “Where is my story’s heart?” If you’re not sure, dig a little deeper and look for the emotion. And, if it isn’t there, add it.
Your story will have a whole new layer of love.