Monday, June 27, 2011

Picture Book Characters--According to Lisa and Alexandra

Week of June 26—Reflections from SCBWI, Orlando
Monday, June 27—Picture Book Characters—According to Lisa and Alexandra

If you like someone, you want to hang out with them. It’s as simple as that.
—Lisa Wheeler

I suppose it’s no secret that I think Lisa Wheeler hung the moon. So you won’t be surprised that I was thrilled that she was a featured speaker at the Picture Book Intensive. Alexandra Penfold, editor at Paula Wiseman Books/Simon and Schuster, was also a terrific presenter. Together, Lisa and Alexandra were a dynamic duo!

Lisa launched the session entitled “Creating Terrific Story Book Characters” by saying, “If you like someone, you want to hang out with them. It’s as simple as that.” The characters we create should be the kind that people want to hang out with over and over again. Lisa then led a discussion of different kinds of characters:

Many main characters in picture books are naughty, but they still must be likeable. Mean Jean in The Recess Queen by Alexis O’neill and Laura Huliska-Beith and the wolf in the The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith are examples of naughty characters. You know immediately that kids are going to love the naughtiness of the character, but just remember they also have to relate to and like the character.

Anthropomorphic characters are universal and are on a level playing field with all readers despite the a reader's gender, age, race, religion, and so on. Anthropomorphism also allows your characters to do things and go places that “regular” children can't and can put characters in situations that can be made wilder and more hilarious than real life. For instance, if Marge and Lola from Chicken Dance had been actual children, the author could not put them in danger by having them fly off a roof or go swimming when they couldn’t swim. Finally, anthropomorphism can allow characters to be naughtier than human characters. Readers aren’t as caught up in what is fair and right and just when they are reading about a cuddly puppy or silly pig.

Personification is a hard sell and must be done well to be successful. A great for-instance is found in the characters in Robot Zot! by Jon Scieszka and David Shannon. Other examples are When Moon Fell Down by Linda Smith and Kathryn Brown where the moon is personified and Avalanche Annie by Lisa Wheeler and Kurt Cyrus which has a personified avalanche.

Adults who are characters in picture books are generally childlike in some way. They must be endearing adults

1.  Don’t be stereotypical with animals—busy beavers, proud peacocks, etc. Be unique.
2.  Avoid cutesy alliteration names such as Timmy Turtle.
·  Characters should seem to have a life before the book and possibly a life after the book.
·  Characters are what make you want to come back to a book again and again and they are what cause you to turn from page to page in a book.
·  Characters must be compelling and well-rounded.
·  Characters are the heart and soul of a picture book.

Alexandra led us through the process of developing a character profile for a character we were creating or a favorite character from an existing picture book. You can find character development tools through a simple online search.

It’s Your Turn!
1. If you have not yet joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators you need to do so TODAY. Visit the SCBWI web site at Then find the web site for your regional SCBWI. I believe very few of us will ever be published without attending SCBWI-sponsored events and meeting industry professionals.


Renee Taprell said...

Hi Rob,
Thank you for your thorough research into picture book characters! I'm a huge fan of your blog and I've added your link to one of my blogposts about picture book characters. Your blogposts demonstrate your love for children's literature, picture books, and providing children with what they deserve-a wonderful reading experience!


Books for Little Hands

Rob Sanders said...

Thanks, Renee. I'm so glad to meet another children's lit lover! Keep up your good work!