“You gotta have heart. Miles 'n miles ‘n miles of heart,” or so sang the team in the musical Damn Yankees. If you’re a ball player, you’ve gotta have heart. If you’re performing eight shows a week on Broadway, you’ve gotta have heart, too. And if you’re a picture book writer—especially if you’re a picture book writer—you’ve gotta have heart, and you’ve gotta put it down on paper.

I critique hundreds of picture book manuscripts a year. As a matter of fact, I used to critique for Rate Your Story. I have discovered that there’s lots of talented writers in the world. There are lots of competent manuscripts produced. There are many folks who understand plot and character, the rule of three, dynamic word choice, and more. There are plenty of writers who have the skills to be published, but many never experience the thrill of a “YES!” from a publisher. Why? I think it has to do with heart—or the lack of heart. Not the writer’s lack of heart, but the lack of heart in the writing.

In addition to being a picture book author, I’m also an elementary language arts teacher. I have seen kids’ reactions to what they’re reading. I’ve watched students pass on a book just from the feeling they got from the title, and I’ve watched them abandon books after a few pages. I’ve also seen students get lost in books, not want to put them down, and have an emotional reaction to what they’re reading. What’s the difference? I think it has to do with the heart of the story.

Ann Whitford Paul says it like this: “Your story should move beyond relating a mere incident to illustrating a truth or lesson that resonates long after it’s read. Be clear about what that truth or lesson is before you start writing. Ask—What truth does this story convey?”

My agent, Rubin Pfeffer, says it like this: “How do YOU want this story to be interpreted? What do you hope readers’ takeaways will be? Dissect that goal and then throw more into the story that may make the objectives come through with deeper emotions.”

I say it like this: “What do you want the reader to feel?” Below are examples of heart messages for some of my books:

You may be wondering, “How do I get to the heart of story? How do I figure it out?” There’s a one-word answer: Intentionally. You set out in the beginning, before you start writing, with the heart in mind. To repeat what Ann Whitford Paul said, “Be clear about what the truth or lesson is before you start writing.”

The heart message of a story must be something kids can relate to today, but it may also be something that grows in meaning as the child grows. For instance, in Ruby Rose: Big Bravos kids will sense the heart of the story as Ruby sticks-with-it and puts on a dance recital despite the odds, and even when she’s not sure it’s worth the effort. This heart message will have greater meaning as kids get older and realize that most things that are important to us take work and perseverance, and that real satisfaction comes from pushing through a difficult situation and arriving on the other side.

In PRIDE: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag kids will be able to relate immediately to the unfairness of being treated differently just because of who you are. A sense of fairness is something kids can relate to early on in life. But as they grow and mature and reread the book, children may also experience the heart of the book growing along with them. As they’re able to understand that the unfair way gays and lesbians were treated was deeply engrained into society and even into the legal code. They may begin to see the uphill battle that was being waged, and how enormous the cost of not fighting the good fight was. As their abstract reasoning grows, kids may begin to see that the Rainbow Flag is a symbol and that symbols often are used to unite people, and often serve as a sense of pride, hope, and encouragement.

If you’re like most picture book writers (me included), you probably have several manuscripts in process. You probably have some manuscripts in the early stages, some completed drafts, and other pieces that have been revised several times. Evaluate the “heart” of each of your manuscripts by answering these two questions:

  1. What is the universal truth of this story?

  2. What do I want readers to feel?

As you develop those answers, you are getting closer to the heart message of the story. Honestly, you may not be able to answer the questions about everything you’ve written. No worries. However, I suggest you put your focused writing attention on the stories for which you can answer those questions.

Heart can come from many places. It may come from the personality make-up of a character, it may come from the problem or situation the character faces and overcomes, it may result from the character’s journey of discovery, or it may come from an important, history-changing event. You can find heart messages everywhere. Your own life story is often a good place to begin.

In Awakening the Heart, Georgia Heard, one of the gurus writing teachers look to for guidance, has suggested “Heart Mapping.” The activity is designed to help student writers access memories and feelings that can then be used as inspiration for writing. With the same purpose in mind, let me adapt the activity a bit to help you develop heart messages that could inspire your picture book writing.

  1. Draw a large heart on a sheet of paper.

  2. Starting at the center of the heart, write a few words about the most important person to you when you were a child and/or the most important event. Be specific. If the person is my Granny Raney, I might write Spending time with Granny Raney at the farm. Or The day I got Pepper, my first dog and best friend.

  3. Moving out from the center, fill the inside of the heart with the warm memories of your childhood—the significant events, people, places, and things that created your childhood. Use only a few words, but be specific: Family time at the library, Mrs. Henley took us on first field trip, making Halloween costumes with Mom, caroling to shut-ins.

  4. If you are a visual person, draw small icons to further represent these “heart memories,” or use colored pencils or markers to add color and design to your memories.

  5. Around the exterior of the heart, write the less-positive aspects of your childhood. Grandpa Sanders died—first time I saw Dad cry, leaving the school I loved in third grade, Pepper disappeared from the yard. Go deep, tap into your emotions as a child. Remember, your Heart Map and its memories are just for you, no one else.

  6. Once you have added memories to your Heart Map go back with a different color of pen or pencil and give a one- or two-word label to each memory. For instance: Gave hope, abandonment, security, unconditional love.

You and I may never publish a book about one of our childhood memories, after all, we’re not writing memoirs, we’re writing picture books. However, those one- or two-word labels you attached to your memories may very well become a published book because those labels, mostly likely, are universal truths and feelings to which all kids can relate. Use those universal truths to guide you as you develop the heart messages of your stories.

“You gotta have heart. Miles 'n miles ‘n miles of heart,” and you already do! Now all you need to do is put that heart on paper.

About the author:

Rob Sanders does not work as a telephone sales rep, a loading dock worker, a trophy engraver, or an editor. But he used to. Rob is not a cowboy, a ballerina, an alien, or a temper-tantrum-throwing toddler. But he writes about them. Rob is a picture book author, a writing teacher, and a coach for other picture book writers. He worked for fifteen years in religious educational publishing as a writer, editor, editorial manager, and product designer. These days he teaches elementary kids about books and words and reading and writing and writes books for those same kids.

His picture books include: COWBOY CHRISTMAS (Golden Books/Random House), OUTER SPACE BEDTIME RACE (Random House Children's Books) named one of the top 20 rhyming picture books of 2015 by KidLit TV and winner of the SCBWI Crystal Kite Awards, RUBY ROSE-OFF TO SCHOOL SHE GOES (HarperCollins), RODZILLA (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster) and RUBY ROSE BIG BRAVOS (HarperCollins). Rob has two non-fiction picture books releasing in 2018-PRIDE: THE STORY OF HARVEY MILK AND THE RAINBOW FLAG (Random House Children's Books) and KNIT A HAT, TAKE A KNEE: PEACEFUL FIGHTS FOR EQUAL RIGHTS (Simon & Schuster). 2019 releases include STONEWALL: A BUILDING. AN UPRISING. A REVOLUTION (Random House Children's Books) and BALL AND BALLOON(Simon & Schuster).

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