Coloring Outside of the Lines

This month on YA Outside the Lines, most of the blog entries focus on teen interviews. After all, it’s important to reach out to your audience. To be able to fill the void in their world. To know their wants. Their needs. Their hearts.

And after all, the name of the blog is YA Outside the Lines.

I thought about this assignment for weeks. You see, my audience is different. I write picture books. And although most book selling sites will categorize the target age as 4-8 years old, it’s important to realize you not only have to engage the children, but their adult readers as well.

So, rather than do one interview, I’ve decided to share some of the questions, comments and thoughts that have offered insight into my target audience over the years.

  1. Kids are empathetic.

1st Grader: “Can you write a book about the boy’s sister next? All the bad stuff in When A Dragon Moves In seems to happen to her.”

Others joined in: “Yeah, she needs a dragon too!”

Spray sand from Dragon
Illustration from When A Dragon Moves In (Flashlight Press), artist Howard McWilliam
  1. It’s not the kids who have the short attention span:

Kindergartener: “I wish the book could’ve been longer, but I guess you’re pretty busy.”

(Note: This comment squeezed my heart. We’re constantly told that kids don’t have the patience to sit through longer stories. Methinks it might be the adults…?)

  1. Kids listen to our words and look to us for inspiration.

Letter from 4th grader

I received this note from a fourth grader. Children are bursting with potential. Be the wind beneath their wings, not the one clipping the feathers. (This squeezed my heart too, but in a good way.)

  1. Kids are smart. They want to read, but we have to let them choose their own stories.

I’ve participated in too many festivals where children ages 8 on up pause in front of my booth to pore over my books. You can see their eyes light up as they absorb each page, each word, each illustration.

And then, the tug from the adult. “You’re too old for that book. Look at these over here.”

What these parents don’t often realize is that picture books are mini art museums, where each turn of the page offers a new delight and an avenue for the imagination to embark on a fresh journey. Plus, some readers are more comfortable connecting to stories in a visual sense.

Thankfully, I’ve managed to sway some parents to acknowledge and embrace the power of graphic novels. And look what happens when my own Dragon is interpreted by a brilliant, young artist:

Dragon graphic novel

  1. Kids need to see themselves in books, physically, psychologically and emotionally.

I’m a great supporter and advocate for the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Please read more about it here.

Girl Power

I’d also like to share a personal experience.

During a signing event for When A Dragon Moves In and When A Dragon Moves In Again, a woman approached me and asked what the books were about. I wasn’t even sure she was listening as she paged through a copy, lost in Howard McWilliam’s brilliant illustrations. But when I explained how “Dragon” acts a little naughty when no one believes he’s real, she looked up. “It’s about a child’s frustration?” she asked. And that’s when she shared a bit of her story with me. I felt my heart splinter. Without divulging personal details, suffice it to say that her granddaughter was dealing with challenges no child should ever have to.

With tears in her eyes, she said she thought her grandchild would identify with the boy and his dragon in my story. Would see herself. And that it would help her. We both cried then. And hugged. (Ya know, long ago when we were able to.)

  1. Finally, kids inspire US.

During one school visit, I mentioned that I’m working on a middle grade novel as well as a YA. “How long does it take for a book to be published?” one second grader asked.

“It can take years,” I told her, and described a bit of the process for them.

“Perfect,” she said with a grin. “That means I’ll be old enough to read it when it does.”

And with that beautiful smile in mind, I must go write. Because if there’s one thing I know for sure,  I don’t ever want to let any of these kids down.

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