So You Want to Write A Children’s Book: Motivation

Checking In: Reading

At the end of every class my writers borrow books and we begin by speaking about them. One writer voiced a negative reaction to a book because “It was just too long!”  This raised an interesting point, it’s almost more important to note what you don’t like about a book as what you do!


Checking In: Writing

My writers have had time to think about their characters and I want to know how their knowledge has grown.

  • Several in this class interviewed their characters and saw the worth of doing that. One writer felt a new character tap her on the shoulder and is putting aside a story she’d written previously that was going to be her focus.
  • Another writer complained of non-stop house guests, but said she thought about deepening characters all week and she wanted to re-think the characters in the book she’d previously written, making them more well-rounded.  Her comment brought two thoughts to mind. First, sometimes picture books don’t have rounded characters. Second, I corrected her about not writing, as I told her: “One of the most important things a writer can do is to spend time thinking about a character and I guarantee you even if you haven’t put fingers to keyboard, you’ve been letting your character simmer!”

Not everyone had interviewed, but having compassion (and a desire to have my writers have all the tools I can give them) I agreed to send everyone my list of character questions.  Here are a few that you might want to consider:

  • How old is your character? (Why this age?  What advantage does it give your character? (ie a five year old can write, a ten-year-old can walk to town solo)
  • What makes your character cringe?
  • What does your character find pride in?
  • How does your character react to stress?

And last, add: what’s your character’s motivation?

Motivation In Brief

Motivation (what a character wants more than anything) is the most important character trait.  It both deepens characters and leads to stories. Generally a character’s motivation is a strong human value like love, respect, safety, or hunger. I sometimes describe it as taking an X-ray of the character’s heart.  Motivation is responsible for every action the character takes. No one just does something, in life or in stories. There is always a desire that encourages one’s actions.

Motivation became clearer to me in the context of Cinderella. I’d always thought of her as a weak character until I saw her through the lens of motivation. Cinderella wanted love more than anything after her mother died. Then her father brought her into an unloving family before he, too, died.  And when she hopes to attain love at a ball, at first she’s denied. Understanding her motivation gave me compassion for Cinderella.

Motivation can change or stay consistent, either of which shows a new facet of a character.  Strong motivation is key to character believability. Sometimes a character can have more than one motivation at the same time. It’s also intriguing to see if the character’s motivation is met by story’s end, or if it changes somehow because of the path s/he travels.


Motivation: Reading Like A Writer

We begin our discussion of motivation by remembering Turkey Tot, the character we studied the week before.  What was his motivation?  Very obviously he wanted friendship—a simple motivation for a simple story. Though we decided he might have had a complimentary motivation that further explains and deepens his character—he wanted everyone to like him.  Saying he wanted the juicy berries is skimming the motivational surface—motivation is found at deeper levels.

To examine motivation, I choose a book that’s a bit developmentally older than Turkey Tot, Maribeth Boelts’  Those Shoes (Candlewick, 2007; grades 1-3) Jeremy, the hero, dreams of owning a specific pair of sneakers.  When more and more of his classmates come to school wearing the shoes he wants, he burns with yearning. The only one who doesn’t seem to own “those shoes” is Antonio Parker.  He’s also the only kid who doesn’t laugh when Jeremy’s sneakers have to be replaced and school and the counselor gives him a pair with a cartoon character only appropriate for kindergarteners.  Finally Jeremy finds the pair of shoes he desires in a slightly-too-small size at a thrift store.  Limping around doesn’t make him happy, but his motivation is so strong he buys them.  Finally, he hands off the too-tight “those shoes”  to Antonio and they fit him perfectly.  This act solidifies the friendship the boys were building.

Motivation: Reading Like A Writer

We examine this book by “reading like writers.”  Here are some of the questions we considered:

What is the main character’s motivation at the beginning of the story?

On the surface it would see Jeremy wants “those shoes.” But if you think at a deeper level, he wants friendship and this has different facets; he wants to be included, or to be like everyone else, or have friendship, or to maybe he even wants to appear that his family can afford what everyone else has. Perhaps all of these occur at once and any of of these similarly related motivations could be possible. Part of what’s remarkable is that this is a book for fairly young children and the author leaves a lot of room for them to imagine what might be driving Jeremy.

Does the character’s motivation change?  How?

Jeremy’s motivation does and does not change.  He begins by wanting the friendship of everyone (“those shoes” being his ticket to popularity) and he still wants friendship at the end and finds it with Antonio.  His act of giving “those shoes” to Antonio is motivated by his feelings of friendship. The story is simple, but one can imagine Jeremy has shifted from his need to have lots of friends to having just one deep relationship.

What does the motivation reveal about the character?

His economic background, the strength of his desire, his determination, his understanding of how to adapt to situations around him, his feelings of not fitting in are all revealed by examining Jeremy’s motivation.

Here are a few other questions to consider:

How does the motivation increase your caring about the character?

How does motivation add to your understanding of the character?

Do other characters have strong motivations?  Explain.

More Motivation-strong books:

Deborah Blumenthal, The Blue House Dog (Peachtree Publishers, 2010; grades 3-5)
A young boy begins the story by wanting to tame a stray dog to save him from a dogcatcher. Gradually, through the boy’s actions and responses, readers learn that he has a second motivation he’s reticent to admit. His own dog has recently died and he longs for another.

Kelly Cunnane,  Deep in the Sahara (Schwartz & Wade, 2013; grades K-3)
“Deep in the Sahara, sky yellow with heat, rippled dunes slide and scorpions settle.” Cunnane’s lyrical writing evokes both tone and setting before introducing Lalla, who longs for a malafa. The others in her life suspect Lalla’s motivation behind her  desire for the veil that gives her mother beauty, her sister mystery, and that expresses her grandmother’s honoring of tradition. But it’s when Lalla realizes her desire to have one so that “I can pray like you do,” that the women welcome her understanding of faith.

Marguerite Davol, The Paper Dragon (Atheneum, 1997; grades 2-5)

A painter puts the love of his community above his own safety and risks the wrath of a dragon.  You would think he’d care more about art than people, but this unexpected motivation leads to the book’s conflict and resolution.  This is a riddle book whose ideas will inspire prediction and guessing.

William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Dial, 2012; grades 2-5)

Based on the true story of William Kamkwamba’s life we learn of the many wants that changed his community.  When the drought causes his family financial strain that makes him quit school, his desire to learn and make a difference leads the creative, dreamy 14 year old to invent “electric wind” that can be harnessed to water his dry land.

Susan Goldman Rubin, The Anne Frank Case: Simon Wiesenthal’s Search for the Truth (Holiday House, 2009; grades 5 and up)
This long picture book actually follows three stories: Simon Wiesenthal’s search to discover what happened to Anne Frank, as well as biographies of both Frank and Wiesenthal. Why was Wiesenthal so motivated to find the truth? Wiesenthal, by luck and chance, escaped death at the hands of the Nazis on at least four occasions. He also survived 12 concentration camps. This gift of life motivated Wiesenthal to remember those who were not as fortunate. It’s also easy to see his motivation to discover Anne’s full story when you learn that he was inspired by neo-Nazis who believed that her whole story was a fraud.

Sarah Stewart, The Gardner (FSG, 1997; grades 2-5).  This story takes place during the Depression and is told in letters written by Lydia Grace Finch when she’s sent from her poor, but loving rural home to an urban bakery apprenticeship with her unsmiling Uncle Jim.  What does she want more than anything?  Probably to go home, but that’s never mentioned, she wants to make Uncle Jim smile.  He never does on the outside, but he certainly loves her more.






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