Ever wonder why boys and girls choose certain toys, certain colors and certain stories?
Why do girls want to dress in pink and be princesses, and guys want to be Darth Vader, warriors and space adventurers?
Stories told to children can make all the difference in parenting, and you as a parent are an important part of that too.
Scholars have found that stories have a profound impact on children's understanding of cultural and gender roles.
Stories not only develop children's literacy but also convey values, beliefs, attitudes and social norms that in turn shape children's perceptions of reality.
Children learn how to behave, think and act through the characters they meet in stories.
And are an important storyteller in their life.
You can make a difference in how they see the world. That's why I want to talk about getting better at telling children's stories.
What we discuss in this comprehensive post:
Why stories matter
Stories are one of the most fundamental ways we communicate.
Nearly 80 years ago, Louise Rosenblatt, a well-known literary scholar, expressed that we understand ourselves through the lives of characters in stories.
She argued that stories help readers understand how authors and their characters think and why they behave the way they do.
Also, research by Kathy Short, a scholar in children's literature, shows that through stories, children learn to develop a critical perspective on how to take social action.
Stories help children develop empathy and cultivate imaginative and divergent thinking.
Impact of stories
So, when and where do children develop perspectives on their world, and how do stories shape that?
Studies have shown that children develop their perspectives on aspects of identity, such as gender and race, before the age of five.
An important work by novelist John Berger suggests that very young children begin to recognize patterns and visually read their worlds before learning to speak, write or read language.
The stories they read or see can strongly influence how they think and behave.
For example, research by scholar Vivian Vasquez has shown that young children play or draw stories in which they become part of the story.
In her research, Vasquez describes how four-year-old Hannah combines reality with fiction in her drawings of Rudolph the reindeer.
Children can mix reality and fiction in their interpretation of stories.
Vasquez explains that Hannah had experienced bullying by the boys in the class and did not like to see Rudolph being bullied by the other reindeer when she read Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.
Vasquez suggests that Hannah's drawing expressed her wish not to tease Rudolph, and more importantly, herself.
Furthermore, it has been discovered that children internalize the cultural and gender roles of characters in the stories.
Stories often have strong images and beliefs about men and women, and then the girls were asked to draw what they thought boys were interested in and boys to draw what they thought girls were interested in.
Boys drew girls as princesses in castles with knight to save them from dragons. These images were decorated with rainbows, flowers and hearts.
Girls drew boys in the outdoors, as adventurers and athletes.
Karen Wohlwend found a strong influence of Disney stories on young children.
In her research, she found that very young girls, influenced by the stories, are more likely to become "damsels in need" during fantasy play.
However, it is not only the written word that has such an impact on children.
Before they start reading written words, young children depend on you as a parent to learn and understand stories.
Researchers have also shown how stories can be used to change children's views of people in different parts of the world.
And not only that. Stories can also influence how children choose to act in the world.
So you have a significant impact on your children through the stories you tell.
And I can recommend this opportunity to become a better storyteller to anyone.
It is a training at NHBO that other parents are very enthusiastic about:
And the great thing is that everyone has what it takes to write a fun and catchy story for a child.
And the nice thing about writing yourself is that you can include all the interests of your own child, whether they are dinosaurs or clowns.
The course teaches you a lot, but I will share some important principles:
The steps to write a children's story
The trick is to make one twist on your story that makes it different. If it's a bullying story, maybe your story tells the story from the perspective of the bully!
Or if it's a story about a dog, make this dog stare or blind in one eye.
Then they have a challenge to overcome, one that you can put your educational twist on.
Maybe your story is different because you have a surprise at the end, or maybe your character has a magical guide like a fairy or elf to guide them through their journey.
Add a twist that sets your story apart from other books.
Develop your main character
The best books have unique characters. They are somehow quirky.
They have a funny habit. They look strange. They talk differently from everyone else.
But when I see a story whose main character is indistinguishable from any child I know, it worries me.
You don't want a character that every kid could be, you want a main character that feels REAL.
My advice would be to go through a character questionnaire and find out how much you know about your character.
- What does your main character want?
- What is their best / worst habit?
- Are they an extrovert or an introvert?
- How do they speak differently from everyone else? (fun spells, repeated phrase / word, dialect, high / low volume)
- Do they doubt themselves or have too much courage?
- Do they have pets? (or does your animal character have human owners)
- When does your main character feel happiest?
- Do they have secrets?
- What would this character do that would be very out of character?
- What does this character like that most people don't like?
Write the correct length
What is the correct word count for your story?
This is probably the most common question I get, and it is also the question that most storytellers get wrong.
Ultimately, you have to figure out what age range you are writing for and then write within that number of words.
Most authors write picture books for 3 - 7 years, which is the most common category.
If your kids are too, aim for 750 words. That is the right starting point.
If you're writing a picture book with more than 1000 words, you've gone too far. You absolutely have to keep it under 1000 words.
It's the most unyielding rule in the entire industry, and it's best to stick to it yourself.
Tell the story quickly
Many children's books do not grab the attention of the child and parent, and that's because they start too slowly.
If you are going to tell your story about a child joining a circus, they should be on the first or second page right away.
Do not provide a background story on this child's life.
Don't try to set the tone, let the circus come into town and let the child become a clown or tightrope walker or lion tamer as soon as possible.
You have so little space to tell your story that you can't waste time. The pace of children's stories is generally fast, so don't write at a turtle pace.
Find out what the main problem is
Every character has a problem. It can be a mystery, it can be a person, like a stupid teacher or a bully, and it can be a crisis of confidence.
That problem is what they will contend with throughout the story.
Most of the story will be obstacles the main character has to overcome before they can solve their problem.
Here are the main mistakes beginning writers make with their character's main problem:
- The character solves the problem too easily: Make your character really struggle and fail. Ideally, the main character should fail at least three times before solving this problem, and fail maybe five times (if you're writing for older kids).
- There are no obstacles: In the way the character solves the problem, the main character has to run into a whole series of obstacles. Don't let him beat any obstacles and then voila! The problem is solved. To build a rocket to fly to space, the main character has to lose some parts, his mom has to call him for dinner, his friend has to tell him it's not working, it should be raining, etc. A lot obstacles.
- The character doesn't care enough to solve the problem: This must be a HUGE problem for the child. They must feel like it's a matter of life and death, even if the real problem is just a missing screw. As long as the child thinks it is a huge problem, the listener will feel like it is a huge problem. And you can provide a story for your own child where your son or daughter actually experiences a big problem!
Children love to repeat! Parents love repetition! Everyone loves repetition!
If you don't repeat something in your story, it won't be a great children's book.
Here are three types of reps you can use:
- Repetition of a word or phrase on a page
- Repetition of a word or phrase throughout the story
- Repetition of the story structure
Any book that rhymes uses repetition of similar words, and I would argue that story structure repetition is even more important than language repetition.
And if you want to learn more about repetition, both in terms of repeating words / sentences and a structure that repeats, check out this great NHBO course about writing children's stories:
End the story quickly
Once the main problem of the story is resolved (the cat is found, the bully says he's sorry, the two girls become friends again), you only have a page or two to finish the book.
Since the story is done, there is no more tension for the reader, which means they don't have much incentive to keep reading or listening.
So do them a favor and finish the story ASAP.
In short, you want to reach a satisfying conclusion and complete all storylines.
One of my favorite tricks for an ending is a technique that stand-up comedians use called a “Call Back”.
This is when they refer to a joke from earlier in their set to finish their routine.
You can use this in children's stories by referring to something on the first 5 or 6 pages of the book.
These are my short tips, but you can learn a lot more in the affordable course Writing children's stories.