All effective picture books have some amount of heart. Something in their story that connects with readers — whether they are four or 94 — and makes them think: “Oh! I’ve felt like that. I understand.”
My favorite picture books have lots of heart. They tell stories that inspire lots of feelings — happiness, sadness, hope, love, laughter, strength and more.
A brand-new picture book I just read with heart to spare is SATURDAYS ARE FOR STELLA, written by Candy Wellins, illustrated by Charlie Eve Ryan and published by Page Street Kids.
I special-ordered it from my local independent bookstore after hearing about it online, and I read it in the car on the way home. (Don’t worry: I wasn’t driving.)
By the end of the book, I was crying. Lots of books make me choke up a bit, but very few have left me with actual tears on my face. (JANE EYRE, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, LITTLE DOG LOST, FISH IN A TREE and CLEMENTINE are the others I can immediately think of.)
Because I frequently talk to other writers about how to effectively add heart to picture books, I thought it would be helpful to break down what makes this book so successfully heart focused.
First, a disclaimer: Books don’t have to make readers cry to successfully have heart. A book has heart if it make its readers feel any strong emotion and remember points in their life where they’ve felt the same.
SATURDAYS ARE FOR STELLA just happened to make me cry.
First, a summary: This book is about George and his family. George has a mom, a dad, a grandmother named Stella and a new sibling on the way. Every Saturday, George hangs out with Stella, who adores him. They make cinnamon rolls, visit the dinosaur museum, pretend to be ninjas, play video games and go downtown. Then, Stella dies and Saturdays seem empty. When George’s new sibling arrives and turns out to be new Stella, George knows how to take all the love he got from the original Stella and pass it on to her namesake.
What makes it work?
Universal emotions. This book is full of emotions all readers will recognize. There’s family love. Traditions and routines. The wonderfulness of having someone see the real you and celebrate it. Loss. And hope. Even if readers aren’t fortunate enough to have someone like Grandma Stella in their lives, they will instantly understand what she means to George and how she and their Saturday activities are anchors in his life.
Relatable examples. The book is written in third-person and has a very good understanding of things a child would value. For example:
“Normally, George did not like going downtown. Downtown trips without Stella meant waiting in boring offices, eating strange foods, and trying on scratchy clothes.
But with Stella, George ate frozen yogurt, threw pennies in fountains, and rode on carousels. Whenever they passed a toy store — and they always passed a toy store — George went home with something fun.“
And, after Stella dies and George realizes that he’ll never have another Saturday with her, he crosses out all the Saturdays on his family calendar, which seems like something that would make sense to a kid.
A full-circle story. This book has a great sense of completion, which makes it satisfying. All the things George and Grandma Stella did together, are things George shows baby Stella. And Charlie Even Ryan, the illustrator, does a great job of creating art that shows them doing the same things in different ways. Stella is a baby, after all. (For great examples, compare the art on the dust jacket to the art on the book’s hard cover.)
And, there’s a line “Saturdays were for Stella,” that appears at the beginning, middle and end of the book and means something slightly different each time. It helps the story hang together and gives it a very satisfying conclusion.
Growth. George grows as character. Yes, there’s sadness, but George learns how to cope with it and how to take all the wonderful things Stella gave him and share them with someone else. So while the story did make me cry, sadness isn’t the feeling that stayed with me after I closed the cover. The feeling that stayed was love.
I hope you’ll read this book and also tell me what books you love that have heart to spare.