Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about characterisation. I’m not working on any picture books at the moment (although I've come up with a few ideas I'm filing for the future) as I’m busy writing the sequel to my upcoming novel for ages 10+, in which a new central character appears. As a writer, one of your most important jobs is to create characters from your imagination that are completely believable to others. And characterisation in a picture book is just as important in a novel. Young readers have to be able to identify with, and relate to, the hero of their books, be it animal, child or adult.
In a picture book, you don’t get the chance to describe your character in the same way as you would in a novel. The character has to be immediately appealing through pictures that grab the reader, thrusting them into the story and making them empathise with the characters and what they’re going through. There aren’t enough words to play with, or any small child’s attention span long enough, to sit through lengthy descriptions of personality and what the character is like before the story gets going.
Look at the phenomenally successful Gruffalo. The hero is a small mouse, who manages to outsmart all his enemies. For a child, there must be something very nice about seeing someone so small and seemingly powerless triumph over so many larger, and more formidable creatures. The image of the mouse enjoying his nut in peace on the last page is tremendously satisfying.
Children also enjoy characters they can easily recognise, like Elmer, or Maisy mouse. There is comfort in the familiar, and someone they can return to again and again, who ends up feeling like an old friend, or part of the family. There are a number of books featuring bears, mice and rabbits, enduring favourites that are soft, cuddly and reassuring (even if they aren’t necessarily that way in real life – I wouldn’t want to curl up with a bear!).
Picture books also often feature babies or young children, allowing the reader to explore different situations safely with someone they can identify with. Current favourite in our house include Dogger, where Dave, a young boy, loses Dogger, his much-loved stuffed toy, and The Pirates Next Door, where a little girl called Matilda has an exciting pirate family move into her neighbourhood.
Through picture books, and the characters they meet there, children can meet new friends, experience new situations, visit new places, have adventures, or seek reassurance. Children have to like the characters they're reading about in order to return to the book again and again, something that's crucial in a picture book.