Posted by: Kathy Temean | November 14, 2012

Picture Books – What Do We Tell Children?

What Do We Tell the Children?

by Simone Kaplan

Everything. We tell them everything. I think that what picture books do—the best books—is say, “Here is the world, and here are some of the things that could happen in it.” And along with the wonderful things the world contains—the enveloping love and parties, the balloons and the new puppies—are the not-so-wonderful ones. The uncomfortable emotions—the anger, frustration, sadness—that overwhelm and the intense events—the pet that dies, the balloon that pops, illness, separation, and loss—that destabilize. If we’re going to be fair to our children, we need to address those too.

It’s never easy to deal with complex emotions and sensitive situations. As adults we want to—and must—protect the children in our care from harmful, painful knowledge, and experiences wherever and whenever we can. But we also need to acknowledge that we can’t always do so. Children are very familiar with uncomfortable—they’re small and powerless and unfamiliar with the way the world works; they deal with difficult emotions every day. And however much we might try to protect them, stuff happens. There were children who saw the Twin Towers collapse; there are children who have experienced the devastation of natural disasters and political failures, and children who have experienced the disruption caused by more personal storms. Good picture books are just one of the means they have for coming to terms, one of the ways they can learn they are not alone, one of the ways they can process their experiences and  restore some sort of equilibrium.

We’ve come a long way since the time when books for children were meant to instruct and exemplify appropriate, suitable behavior. Attitudes about what is suitable for children have changed radically over the years. New York Times  Children’s Books Editor Pamela Paul has pointed out that “Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein and Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, are so much a part of the childhood vernacular today that it’s hard to imagine their books were once considered by some to be wholly inappropriate for children. . . . Children’s literature was not supposed to shine a light on the way children actually were. . . . Seuss, Sendak and Silverstein ignored these rules. They brought a shock of subversion to the genre—defying the notion that children’s books shouldn’t be scary, silly or sophisticated.”

And things keep shifting. The runaway success of John Klassen’s I Want My Hat Backis an indication of just how far we’ve come. Along with praise for the undeniable brilliance of the book as a creative whole, there has been a lot of discussion about whether it’s appropriate for children. While it’s certainly possible for Klassen to have written a book in which peaceful discussion and conflict resolution took place, that’s not the book he wrote. And I think the world is a better place for it. I don’t think Klassen is suggesting that it’s okay to eat the thief who stole your hat. But what he has done, subtly, humorously, and slyly, is to acknowledge the existence of the murderous rage that exists in bears and, if truth be told, in many human beings—and the fact that sometimes peaceful resolution just isn’t possible. That very acknowledgment opens a discussion that’s important for adults to have both among ourselves as well as with the children we care about.

“Do parents sit down and tell their kids everything? I don’t know. I don’t know,” Maurice Sendak said in a 2003 NPR interview. “I’ve convinced myself—I hope I’m right—that children despair of you if you don’t tell them the truth.”

I think that the absence of truth causes despair in adults too. As a writer, you need to start off by telling the truth to yourself. Often it involves a courageous quest to find what the truth is—or at the very least to find out what your truth is. And once you’ve done that you need to fumble around to discover the story that is greater than your idea of that truth, the story that exemplifies it and raises it above the everyday ordinariness of things.

There’s an enormous amount of value in going into the dark places where the truth might be hiding. The point is not to get lost there but to illuminate the darkness so that it’s not quite as strange, quite as scary, quite as dark. The authors who get in there, discover, and engage end up with stories that have more integrity and that move the conversation forward.

Very practically, as a picture book maker, you can only tell the story that you can tell. You don’t have to be subversive; you shouldn’t become didactic. Everyone has different goals, experiences, and worldviews; and you get to draw on those as you decide what to write.

Telling the truth to children—it’s a big job. And it’s one that has to be undertaken with respect and awareness. There are no easy answers, no simple techniques, but it’s important to start the conversation. Even if it’s just between you and your muse.

Grab a complimentary copy of the “Write A Dynamic Picture Book” ebook and discover how to improve your writing and develop as a writer so that you’ll grab the attention of an editor. Learn more and download yours now at

Simone Kaplan is a picture book lover, editor, consultant, and writing coach, and is dedicated to making you a better picture book writer. You can find out more about her work at, or reach her at ro read more about working with her at

Talk tomorrow,



  1. OK, as I was reading this article, I was thinking it was making some pretty valid points that we, as writers for children, already know. I was OK with what was being said until…

    …the author, in my opinion, very strongly exaggerated what was implied by John Klassen in I WANT MY HAT BACK by stating it was “murderous rage.” Here’s the statement again so no one has to go back to find what I’m referring to:

    “I don’t think Klassen is suggesting that it’s okay to eat the thief who stole your hat. But what he has done, subtly, humorously, and slyly, is to acknowledge the existence of the murderous rage that exists in bears and, if truth be told, in many human beings—and the fact that sometimes peaceful resolution just isn’t possible.”

    I purchased this wonderful book maybe a month ago. (In my opinion, it is so funny and perfectly executed, I couldn’t NOT buy it.) I don’t know if any of you have read it yet, but you should if you like humorous picture books 🙂 The ending’s already been mentioned, so I won’t be spoiling it by saying more. Yes, it shows there was no peaceful resolution. Yes, the bear eats the thieving rabbit, but it’s in the same way ridiculous “violent” stuff is portrayed in some cartoons. The majority of kids get that it’s a cartoon, a book—a joke—meant to be funny, NOT “murderous rage.”

    This reminds me of an instance, back when my son was in preschool (about 24 years ago) when, at a parents’ meeting, one of the teachers spoke to the large group about the content of picture books and she actually said “what are we telling our children?” Same deal. She sited a puppy book. In it there was a black puppy, a white puppy and a white puppy with brown spots. She actually stated she believed we were teaching our children to be racist through this book, based on the fact that there were three puppies of different colors! The suggestion was so absurd, my friend and I rolled our eyes at each other in disbelief. They also had a curriculum focus on “acceptance of diversity” which was taken too far for 3-year-olds, in my opinion. At that age children are not thinking on a “racist” level. They may be noticing we have different skin color, etc., but not in a detrimental or condescending way—at that age it’s curiosity.

    It seems to me that, with many things, people/society can go too far with its over-analyzing, creating problems that don’t exist, through opinions that are “over the top.”

    We definitely do need to represent positive and negative things in the world, through picture books, too, to help our children understand, but to interpret the bear eating the rabbit as “murderous rage” is a bit much, I think.

    Has anyone read that book? I’m really curious to hear other opinions on this.
    Thanks for posting it, Kathy! 🙂


  2. Wonderful article and equally great response from Donna Marie. Kathy your blog is such a great resource!


    • Glad I didn’t incite a battle! My opinions sometimes can lol


  3. This article was intriguing. And Donna Marie I am so happy you shared your views on the matter. First of all I really enjoyed the article, and I think the author poignantly described the challenge and at times heavy responsibility on the shoulders of picture book writers. Picture book writing for children is a privilege, and to master it is an art that takes enormous skill. But just like you, I was most intrigued with his perspective on Jon Klassen’s I WANT MY HAT BACK. I have read this book several times. And the words “Murderous Rage” baffled and stunned me as I read them. You hit the nail on the head in your comments above. Picture Books are like sitcoms/cartoons. At this past NJ SCBWI June Conference, an editor said it best in one of the sessions held. He said they are like sitcoms, meant to entertain and intrigue the little ones, and move them in some way. I think the author of the article did a fabulous job talking about picture books overall, but I don’t think Jon Klassen’s intention was to infer deep murdrous rage with his surprise ending. Now we may have to ask the author to settle this once and for all, but I believe he meant to show children in a very humorous entertaining way that sometimes things don’t always end perfectly. I think the author is right when he talks about picture book writers needing to explore the darkness that exists, but darkness in terms of temperament, anger, and unhappiness over a situation under circumstances that a young child can relate to. Like a classmate or friend taking their hat. Or a child wanting to play all day and run wild rather than listen to their mother. That’s why Jon Klassen and Maurice Sendak are brilliant. Because their writing speaks the language of children NOT the emotions of adults.


    • So well said, Wafa 🙂 I wasn’t aware of the editor’s comment on picture books being like “sitcoms,” but they really are! Honestly, when I write (though more with the novels), it’s always been imagined like a movie playing out 🙂 When I work on picture books, I know I’ve always referred to them as “still animation.”

      You’re so right about Klassen and Sendak and their gift of being able to portray the “less than perfect” behavior in the ways they do. And I think, depending on who’s doing the reading to the child, it gives opportunity to talk about good and bad behavior from that perspective…and sometimes it’s purely for the giggle! 🙂


    • Donna and Wafa,

      Great discussion.



  4. I notice the author is listed as “Simon” but I believe it is “Simone.” I bet it was an automatic spelling correction. I have a love-hate relationship with mine.

    Excellent article, and great observations by those who have read Klassen’s book. I have not, but I’m adding it to my list!


    • Oh, Shonna, to me Klassen’s book is a “must.” 🙂


    • Shonna,

      Yes, you are correct. It is Simone, so thanks for pointing that out. I added more info about Simone at the bottom, which I had wanted to include, but missed doing. I appreciate your eyes and taking the time to let me know.



  5. I have to say that, as much as I love Klassen’s illustrations, I’m in the minority in that I cringed when I realized the rabbit had been eaten. Ick. Eww. Funny. It’s like a single Looney Tunes gag–it’s clever without depth. I have no problem with kids reading this book, but, as an author, I wonder if I need to just come up with a situation with a single punch line to be a successful PB writer.


    • Mary, I’m thinking the single “punch line,” as in Klassen’s book, is for that kind of book, right? It’s just that particular version and style of the “resolution” we all have to find in all our writing and it’s the specific story being told that determines the type of resolution—in this case it was funny and “bad.”

      The reason my opinion is his book is SO perfectly executed is because his illustration style and text are BOTH wonderfully “dead pan,” and I think his comic “timing” is excellent 🙂 Also I can tell you that, for me, his illustrations aren’t the type I’m typically drawn to for me to pick a book off the shelf, but I did simply because I was reading whatever was new on the B&N shelves, to keep up with the new releases. I’m so glad I did and it helped me expand my taste a bit, illustration-wise, too 🙂


  6. I struggled with whether to write a scary book, but after much response on chat boards, decided to go for it. I had so much fun with it, that it became more fun than scary. The next wip I wrote was meant to be about something pretty. It was, but the pretty object literally led my to write about something sad. I felt okay with it because by that time, I had come to believe that sometimes the best way to help young children with difficult life events is through the magic of a story. Thanks for this post.


    • Debra,

      It’s funny how a story can change. You start with one thing and then it blooms into something else. Magic!

      Have a nice Thanksgiving,



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