So You Want To Write A Children’s Book: Reading Like a Writer: Characters

An important part of my class, and my own process, is learning from current literature.  There is a great difference between reading books to begin to understand the literary landscape (an important facet of your 10,000 hours), but a different thing altogether in doing a close reading.  I call this experience “reading like a writer.”

I tell my writers that I will choose different books of varying levels so that they can get a sense of the many developmental levels included in the literature.  We got into a bit of a side conversation about these levels.  It’s important knowledge for a children’s book writer to keep in mind, but I am reticent to give hard and fast rules about word counts (you can find them on the internet) and quick to note that children’s reading levels vary much according to how much they’ve been read to, have experienced and their excitement for what they’re reading.  Because of their requests I’ve produced a long resource…contact me if you want a copy!

I try and dissuade my students from writing for a certain age level.  I think it’s much more important to let your natural writing voice lead. I’ve seen again and again that the what my students write is most often a perfect match for their material.  And my favorite books are those that do the same.

I learned much about this from a student with whom I worked one-to-one.  During our first appointment she described a book she wanted to write and it sounded like a picture book.  I pulled out oodles if books to further her understanding. “Would you mind if I read what I’ve written?” she asked.  And when she did, immediately I heard a strong middle grade voice and got a much better sense of her story!  So just write your story and let it go where it will. Shoving a book into a category is another sure fire way to murder your muse.

It’s a different thing altogether to begin to know the literature by seeing what’s really working in books. Every class, I read a book aloud and we discuss it within the framework of the class’ focus.  In the first character, I started with a book for very young children by master storyteller George Shannon, Turkey Tot  (Greenwillow, ages 3-5).

 Turkey Tot, a bird with big ideas and heart, is determined to reach the juicy, sweet, blackberries over his head despite his farm friends’ nay-saying. Their silly repeated refrains make reading aloud fun!

This book is a great example of a first story.  They are:

  • roughly for preschoolers and will be enjoyed by those in the early elementary school grades
  • the writing, characters, plots and themes are simple
  •  the language is fairly uncomplicated
  • children at this age level read pictures as much as words
  •  these books will of then have rhythm, rhyme, wordplay and sometimes a refrain that allows small children to join in the telling.  (In fact, I fell in love with this book when I shared it in an unruly kindergarten and their chorusing was so much fun.)

Turkey Tot is a marvelous example of how even a simple character functions importantly in a story.  In all the structure classes, I use forms that I’ve devised for “reading like a writer” and discussion.  My wish is three fold:

  • We use these to aid focus and discussion.
  •  Students can use these same questions to examine books that they borrow from me or discover in a library, or bookstore.
  • And last, they can apply these same questions to the stories they are writing.


Here’s a sampling of the questions we used to view  Turkey Tot and my memory of their answers:

How do you know this is the main character?

His name is in the title, he’s the one who solves the problems, he’s the one you care about. (I have also been taught by wise children that the main character is the one who’s on the most pages.)

The main character’s most important trait is:

Here we were torn which proves that even the simplest unique character has dimension.  Turkey Tot is creative, determined, and perhaps a bit of a people-pleaser.  We could make cases for all these as his most important trait.

This character is convincing/not convincing because:

So here’s this totally unbelievable turkey who bangs together nails and tin cans and constructs stilts to reach the juicy berries for his friend…and yet he becomes convincing because we all knew how one could be changed by wanting friends and his way of approaching his friends is quite endearing.

A sampling of other questions we examined:

  • How does the author make you care about the character?
  • Is there another character who is strong?  ____yes  ____no
  • Does the character change?  How?

Every class I send out an annotated list that complements what we have read.  Here are a few other unique characters in simple books that are well-worth examining:

Kelly Bingham, Z is for Moose (Greenwillow, 2012; grades K-2)

Janice N. Harrington, The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County (FSG, 2007; grades K-3)

Michael B. Kaplan, Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake (Dial, 2011; grades K-2)

Keiko Kasza,My Lucky Day (Putnam, 2003; grades 1-3)

Mo Willems, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!(Hyperion, 2003; grades K-3)

Part of the homework assignment is to find a book and read like a writer.  Would love to hear results from you, intrepid readers!

Then the class turns to writing and the question of how you get to know your character?  My suggestion is by interviewing.  (This is the schizophrenia-producing behavior I talk about in my video.) I believe if you have a character who is interesting enough, and ask that character what you want to know, the story begins to emerge.

I once had a student who got so lost in communicating with a magical character during a dinner out that she became convinced it was sealed in a wall next to her table. Characters can make you THAT delusional! Another student was shocked when her character’s favorite book was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.  She hadn’t read that book in 30 years, but when she did, she knew exactly why her character loved it.

Thinking about my students’ characters, my mind started popping with questions:

  • Where did the little purple poodle came from?
  • How did the grandchildren become so bonded by their grandmother that they willing to fetch her glasses?
  • How did the rooster felt about the fact that he didn’t speak like the others?
  • How will the historical heroine be able to figure out how to build an airplane?
  • Does the little French car come to America or stay in France?
  • What kind of relationship do the grandfather and grandchild have around storytelling?

I send students home wondering and promise that in the next class, IF they do their homework, I’ll share a list of questions I’ve developed. But their questions and the questions of their characters MUST come first!

Recap: Homework from this first session is all about wondering:

  1. Try some of the character questions from “reading like a writer” on a book you love or one that’s new
  2. Interview your character!

Let me know what you find out!
































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