from the teaching files of children's author
Barbara Jean Hicks
In preparation for a workshop I once offered at a writer’s conference, I interviewed a private practice child psychologist who uses bibliotherapy in her practice. Here’s her take on what characteristics a book must have to appeal to kids on a deep psychological level and draw them to a story over and over again. Notice the similarities to Bruno Bettelheim’s list of essential qualities a story must have in order to both hold a child’s attention and enrich her life. (Check out last Friday’s post if you missed it.)
1) has a central character the child identifies with.
2) matches the child’s experience and emotional and cognitive development.
3) uses language that matches the child’s emotional and cognitive development.
4) takes the child’s experience seriously.
5) expresses a wide range of emotions.
6) creates tension that leads to resolution.
7) expresses both the child’s inner and outer life by presenting a mixture of realistic and fanciful elements.
8) introduces concepts that pull the child toward further development, creating feelings of security and familiarity along with the excitement of novel experience.
9) depicts experience without passing judgment, allowing the child to project, interpret, and personalize the story to his or her own life.
10) instills confidence and/or expands the range of what’s possible as the child identifies with a central character handling a difficult situation, allowing the child to practice in thought what she or he may not yet feel able to do.
Wow! A lot to aspire to! Think about the books you were drawn to as a child and the books the children in your life are drawn to now. Did they/do they serve children in these ways? Do your stories serve children in these ways?
On a surface level, what kids want in a book varies as much as children vary, but I think that looking at our works in progress from the perspective of a child’s psychological needs can only deepen our stories—and that’s a very good thing.
Next Friday, tune in for What Publishers Want in a Book: An Editorial Perspective, with insights from editors at Knopf, Dial, Dutton, Little-Brown, Farrar Strauss Giroux, Hutchinson Children’s Books and Henry Holt.