Human beings are odd creatures.
Of all the creatures on the planet, we’ve got the biggest brains. Yet we’re the ones who will likely kill ourselves by overeating, overconsuming and indulging in risky behaviors.
And our big brains love to be entertained. It’s not enough to just make us laugh or cry, we want to feel the adrenaline pumping and our heart racing … we want thrills and chills! We want fun, unexpected surprises.
Even very young babies … what baby doesn’t love a game of peek-a-boo? First there’s the tension of, Where’s mom? Then there’s the surprising, fun relief of, Oh! There she is!
And there you have it in its simplest form: the formula for great stories … creating tension and then surprising, fun resolution.
So, it may not happen in the first book.
It may not happen in the second or the third.
But sooner or later, a picture book maker will be making a book about monsters and scary stuff. Or, at the very least, heart-pounding adventure!
The problem for picture book creators comes with creating the tension, because the kind of monsters and the level of adventure will naturally depend on the age and experience of the readers. The right amount of tension creates expectancy and curiosity in a reader and keeps them turning those pages for what’s next. For younger readers, tension can turn into anxiety, and that’s not good. So it’s important for artists and writers to understand those limits for their targeted readers.
Still, kids love it just as much as adults … those delicious, spooky feelings of, Oh, No! and What’s next!?
For very young children and preschoolers, keep that tension and resolution safe, fun and playful, like peek-a-boo. For early grammar schoolers, step it up just a notch or two. For instance, kids love ghost stories, and dinosaurs. Keep the entities and animals cartoony and friendly, and downplay the danger.
For older grammar and middle schoolers, progressively more realism and danger can be introduced … and grossness! Not as in blood and gore, but as in disgusting body functions … you know what I’m talking about … snot and passing gas … the allure eludes me, but middle schoolers love it!!
Teens and young adults who are progressing towards adult-level reading can handle more progressively complex themes. Picture books give way to graphic novels or longer regular novels. Themes and content need to be tasteful and appropriate for ages and maturity levels, of course.
Mostly these guidelines are for the truly “monster” stories … ghosts, demons, and beasts.
But there is plenty of heart-pounding adventure to be found in adventure stories, retellings of historical events, explorers, sports like racing and mountain climbing, space and science.
Writers of non-fiction need to remember to up their game a bit. Don’t just relay facts, make the facts fun and interesting to read. It can be done by letting the emotion – the fear, the unknown, the thrills and doubts – come through. That will engage the reader and make it feel like they are right there sharing the experience.
Use the guidelines above to make the dangerous and scary parts age-appropriate for your target audience, but definitely leave in the danger and the scary! That makes it fun to read – which is the whole reason why you are writing!