Picture books cannot afford to waste a single word, and the words should not do the work that will be revealed in the illustrations. In other words, you must separate words and pictures in your mind, and write only what can’t be shown in the illustrations. Thoughts, sounds, and dialogue won’t work as pictures and therefore make up most of the picture book text.
This story is about two baby owls in a hurry to grow up, wanting to learn to fly, and a patient daddy guiding them along the journey.
The story opens with a strong sense of setting: a chilly winter, silent night. In addition to telling us about the “frost-coated silence,” the author reemphasizes the stillness by stating that all is “quiet,” in the “big dark barn,” and then surprises us with a squeakity-squeak. Children always enjoy funny or interesting noises when someone reads aloud to them. That, coupled with a good dose of dialogue, is a good recipe for a picture book. But that’s not all a new writer needs.
After the opening, the author delivers many exchanges of dialogue to set up the characters (two baby owls – the source of the squeaks – and their daddy), and the problem (baby owls want to fly right now). Through the lively voices, we can hear the earnest longing of the baby owls and Daddy’s loving patience.
How else does Giles Milton bring this story to life?
He uses a simple plot structure: (1) Baby owls want to learn to fly (2) Daddy tells them they have to wait until they are stronger (3) They eventually succeed in their goal.
While revealing the story problem, the author leads us to bond with the characters by using specific voices of the baby owls begging, saying please, and trying to convince Dad that they are ready. Hearing a child beg is something all children can relate to, because they’ve done it, and that all adults will smile about (or shake their heads) because it is so familiar. In this way, the author establishes a universal familiarity, and realistic family dynamics.
At this point, the reader and listener(s) are anxious to see if or when Daddy will let his feathered little babies fly. Unlike in stories for older children, where the child must figure out a solution on his or her own, this picture book allows for Daddy giving advice. He tells the baby owls that they must wait until they are stronger, and then they can fly.
Now the baby owls have a goal, something to work toward. With carefully selected words – “after days and days and weeks and weeks” – the author shows time passing. During this period, the baby owls are determinedly working toward their goal. They are eating, stretching, and flapping their wings, a great form of exercise for baby owls, I imagine. This time of planning and exercising to grow stronger is the journey of the story.
So we see the baby owls taking Daddy’s advice and put their own effort into achieving their goal. Then the time the baby owls have been working toward comes. Daddy announces that they are ready. In a single sentence, the author tells us the babies are suddenly afraid. But they do proceed. They’ve done the work; now comes the reward. Daddy basically tells his children that they can now go anywhere; they are ready to see the world. A sort of graduation is sensed by the reader, a satisfaction that a goal has been achieved.
For the ending, Daddy wishes the baby owls good luck, but reminds them to come back soon – a gratifying and hopeful ending, because we all want our children to come back and visit after they’ve moved from home.
(*Note – I haven’t yet figured out why there is no comma in the title, and yet there is a comma following “Good Luck” on the last page. There must be a reason, but it evades me.)
The plot structure is simple, but the specific way the author has brought these characters to life with distinct voices and familiar but uniquely drawn characteristics (anxious children and loving, patient father/instructor) is one that will stay in the hearts of listeners, readers, and writers alike. The dialogue gives a personal feel to the members in this owl family, and sympathetic, practical and wholesome insights into the human condition.
Utilizing fun sounds and a bulk of dialogue when you craft your picture book will give you a good start. Having a specific dilemma and method for the characters to attain a goal will add to it. Now you just have to give your story the kind of huggable personality that the Miltons did in theirs. Good luck, Newbie Writers.