The Common Experience

1930, 1939, 1947.

The respective years that children’s classics The Little Engine That Could (Watty Piper), Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (Virginia Lee Burton), and Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Brown) were published.

Wow. I sit here and read these books (and others) to my children today, and they were written over half a century ago.

So what is it about these books that continue to charm new generations of children? What is it that makes my children smile, and ask to read them again and again?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been reading Leonard S. Marcus’s biography of Margaret Wise Brown, called Awakened by the Moon. I have now finished it. It is part biography, and part history lesson on the beginnings of the picture book market. I borrowed the book from the library to learn more about Margaret Wise Brown. I not only now know more about this creative, eccentric, and talented woman, but it has also given me pause to consider what is at the core of great picture books, old or new.

At the SCBWI Conference in New York in January of this year, several speakers encouraged the participants to find the commonalities of the childhood experience. The idea is that regardless of background, culture, gender, ethnicity, or education, all children share certain common feelings and experiences in their development.

The desire to be independent, while still feeling safe.

Forging his/her own individual identity

Figuring out how the world works

Fear of the unknown

Feelings/Emotions (for example, love)

Interaction with their environment (urban/rural, natural/man-made)

Imagination and dreams

Looking up to someone else

Needing and giving help

Caring for others

Feeling wanted/needed

Trying new things

Wonder

This is just a list I started brainstorming. What else do you think are universal experiences in childhood?

So our goal as children’s writers should be to tap into these experiences. We should attempt to create a story that a child will identify with. That will make them laugh. That will make them want to be that character (or glad they are not!).

As those classic books demonstrate, if you can effectively reach a child at a fundamental level, perhaps your book has a good chance to be around to delight children for many years to come.

Sounds aspirational, yes? I hope so. I’m off to work on a new picture book idea!

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