One of the nice things about a group like the Emus is that while we’re all talking shop here, a fellow Emu may say something that lodges in your brain and helps you think about your own writing. A while ago, Kevan talked about adding dimension to his Monster of the Day series by trying to make sure each monster conveyed some emotion or feeling. (For the whole lovely discussion, click here.)
This started me thinking about how picture books are a delivery system for an emotional hit. I had the opportunity to read Jules Feiffer’s Bark, George to an audience recently and I saw that principle in action. It was a group of preschoolers at a book festival but they had older brothers and sisters and parents in tow. Bark, George delivers a hit of Funny. As I read this book to them, I realized that it was working for all three groups. But they were laughing at different things.
When you read Bark, George to preschoolers, they scream with laughter over the fact that the dog does not bark, he moos (or quacks or oinks or whatever.) I am not two, I do not remember being two, but I promise you, at two, this dog mooing thing is hilarious. Every single time it happens.
The older siblings are laughing too but they’re laughing at the visual gags. They get that it is impossible to pull a full size pig out of a very small puppy. Yet it’s happening. And as the animals get bigger, the joke gets funnier. They are also laughing at the vet. They love the “Ewww” factor when the vet puts on his longest latex glove. That moment leaves them a little helpless with joy.
And, oh, the parents are laughing. They’re laughing at their kids’ reactions and the sight gags and the vet are amusing them too. But where are they laughing the hardest? At that poor mama dog and her expressions. They get it. They are the mama dog.
I’ve long loved that book but reading it to that audience was like watching it be analyzed in real time—seeing exactly what worked for whom.
One of the joys and challenges of picture books is the dual audience—child and adult. A book can survive if it only appeals to kids but the parents may succumb to the temptation to shove the book under the couch cushion rather than read it one more time. A book can (unfortunately) survive if it only appeals to adults. They own the wallets.
But the best books are the ones where both audiences are absolutely delighted. Then the shared experience of reading the book becomes as important as the book itself. Then a book has a chance to become beloved. And one way of making that happen is to make sure that both audiences are getting a custom-mixed emotional hit.
What are your favorite books that reach both audiences?
Mylisa Larsen is the author of Instructions for Bedtime (Katherine Tegen Books) and If I Were A Kangaroo (Viking.) You can visit her online at mylisalarsen.com.