How Children’s Books Teach Us to be Terrible Writers #MondayBlogs

And why we need to read more of them.

Energizer Girl is sick again so I’m spending lots of mornings reading books to her. I’ve got a couple of favorites and a couple I want to toss in the trash and burn because they’re so badly written. But most of them follow a distinct pattern. If romance novels have a formula, children’s picture books have a definitive style. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

They repeat words – Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar? (That would be me.) My number one rule of writing is never to use the same word twice in one sentence, paragraph, and sometimes on the same page. Children’s books repeat the same word over and over and over… until my brain goes numb. This is an effective method for teaching vocabulary, but it’s a bad habit for a writer.

They use too many dialogue tags – I’ve pretty much abandoned dialogue tags in my writing. (He said, she said, etc.) One of my daughter’s books is so loaded with ‘kid said, mommy said’ that I skip them when I read it to her. Children being read to need this device for clarity, but adults have developed the ability to infer from context. I’ve learned to shake this bad habit and use the character’s actions to show who’s speaking.

They use weak verbs –The above-mentioned books I want to burn are loaded with was, were and other non-action verbs (along with tense-shifts, practical impossibilities, and terrible sentence construction). My publisher calls these state of being verbs (SOBs), and my editor slashes them mercilessly. Children benefit from this simple, direct approach. Cutting the weak links from your sentences adds the excitement adult readers crave.

We grow up reading repeated words, dialogue tags, and weak verbs, so when we start writing, that’s what we use. So why not burn all the children’s books? Because the really good ones do more than teach us basic reading and writing skills.

They teach us about differences between people. Giraffes Can’t Dance, one of my favorite books, says, “Sometimes when you’re different, you just need a different song.” I’ll read that book to my daughter over and over and over until she learns how to find her song.

Sometimes-when-youreThey teach us about our world. The dialogue tag overkill book tells how a rainbow is made. Simple, direct, and smart. Look for a rainbow the next time a storm passes. What colors do you see? And that leads me to my favorite lesson.

They teach us how to imagine. Bridge to Terabithia. Cinderella. Snow White. Peter Pan. These stories and others sparked my imagination long before I started writing. Reading to my daughter keeps that flame alive.

Imagination makes us great writers.

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  1. It has been 35 years since I read to my kids. When my oldest learned to read, he then read to his baby brother. Both were sent to much higher grades in 1st for reading as soon as the teacher learned their skill level.

  2. Thank god we have graduated up to chapter books now. Still can’t convince my boy to let me read Wizard of Oz though. He’s stubborn.

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