The Delivery System for An Emotional Hit

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_email_2-2 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


Filed under craft~writing, Picture books

11 responses to “The Delivery System for An Emotional Hit

  1. I was just talking on the phone to my niece. Her son (age 2) has been requesting Hug by Jez Alborough every night. He actually hugs the book with each spread. Talking to his mom, I could tell she was delighted with the emotion conveyed in the book. So, I have requested this from the library because it obviously appeals to both audiences. I read Three Ninja Pigs to a kindergarten class last year and they begged to hear it again. I never tire of reading this book so it appeals to both audience. My list could go on and on. I love this post, Mylisa!


  2. Lindsey Lane

    Off the top of my head (and because I’m too lazy to go upstairs and get lost in picture books) the book that does that for me is not a picture book but Neil Gaiman’s The GraveYard Book. I love the simple straightforward story and the adult revelations tucked in. And it is beautiful to read aloud, for that very reason, because the kid in you is riveted to find out what will happen while the older part of you sinks into the thoughtful wisdom of the book. Timeless.


    • I was thinking about this last night–how the novels that do this become the great read-alouds. WHAT CAME FROM THE STARS works that way for my kids and I. And we’re in the middle of reading THE GHOSTS OF TUPELO LANDING together and that one’s hitting both audiences too.


    • kevanjatt

      Yes, yes, Lindsey!! Though I’ve never read this book TO someone, I can imagine that it would be a wonderful example of engaging different audiences at the same time. And like you suggest, different audiences within ourselves.


  3. carolegerber

    My daughter (now in her 20s) and I both loved reading THE NAPPING HOUSE (1984) by Audrey Wood and illustrated by her husband Don Wood. “And on that granny / there is a child / a dreaming child / on a snoring granny / on a cozy bed / in a napping house, / where everyone is sleeping.” The writing and the visual sight gags are hilarious, as more and more critters pile into the bed. It’s one of her treasured books I have packed away for her to enjoy with her child when she becomes a mother.


  4. kevanjatt

    Yes! When all audiences are engaged and delighted! Or moved. Or touched. Those are the best books! That’s what I dream of making…
    Great post Mylissa!


  5. Excellent post, Mylisa! I love Bark, George, and your observations about how it touches different “readers” in different ways are so insightful and spot on.

    One of my favorite recent reads that fits this so well, I think, is Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt. For young listeners, it’s a story about friendship and keeping (and breaking) promises. For adults, it’s a story about the problem of childhood hunger. And I think both audiences will come to appreciate both storylines more with each subsequent reading. It has so much depth, but works just as well at the surface level, too.

    I also love The Scraps Book by Lois Ehlert. Children will love the colorful artwork and playful encouragement to express themselves. Adults will appreciate the scope of Ehlert’s life work as well as the deeper explorations of what creativity really is and where inspiration comes from.


  6. So true! Great post, Mylisa! I have so many read aloud favorites, both picture books and middle grade, for the dual kid-adult audience.

    Some picture books that quickly come to mind:
    Herman & Rosie by gus gordon
    Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio (illustrated by Christian Robinson)
    Chris Barton’s Shark vs. Train (illus. by Tom Lichtenheld)
    Knock Knock, My Dad’s Dream for Me by Daniel Beatty (illus. by Bryan Collier)
    Me, Jane by Patrick O’Donnell
    My Father the Dog by Elizabeth Bluemle (illus. by Randy Cecil)
    Little Red Writing by Joan Holub (illus. by Melissa Sweet)
    The Right Word by Jen Bryant (illus. by Melissa Sweet)

    Middle Grade:
    The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate—one of my all-time favorite read alouds that packs a ton of emotional punch is. I LOVE this book on so many levels!
    Jennifer Holm’s Turtle in Paradise
    Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman
    OK for Now by Gary Schmidt

    And many more!


  7. This doesn’t really qualify for a group setting, since it’s a wordless PB, but Marla Frazee’s latest, The Farmer and the Clown, is so moving and funny, that I laughed and wept. And I’m not a fan of clowns, only those of the Cirque du Soleil variety 😉


  8. This is such a great post. I’ve also been fascinated to see, as a mom of a 2.5 year old, how my son has continued to love the same books but what resonates with him seems to change at different developmental stages. Someone mentioned The Napping House above, and that’s one example where he loved that story very early on but I think he liked it because I read it in a sing-songy voice, and we’d rock together in his chair, and he liked the colors and movement in the illustration, but now he’s starting to understand the story and the humor of all the characters piled on top of each other and how silly that is. Another one is Goodnight Gorilla, which he loved as a little baby, largely because of the balloon and he would follow the balloon through the pages and have so much fun spotting it. (Same thing with the red truck in ALL THE WORLD by Liz Garton Scanlon, another favorite of both of ours.) Now he understands the story of GOODNIGHT GORILLA and finds that funny. Other books that we have both enjoyed reading are ALL THROUGH MY TOWN by Jean Reidy, RED SLED by Lita Judge, MR. TIGER GOES WILD by Peter Brown, EASTER CAT by Deborah Underwood, GOODNIGHT GOODNIGHT CONSTRUCTION SITE . . . There are so many more.


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