I never seem to run out of ideas for stories. But what I do struggle with, and I think most writers do, is developing the “It” factor that will hook a reader and make them want to read your book. So many things are at play in writing children’s books, such as the subject matter, story arc, problem resolution, word choices, cadence, repetition, illustrations, and on and on. And we must not forget that children’s books must also be child-centric. In short, there simply is nothing simple about writing a children’s story.
Every time I study a children’s book, I ask myself, is this a story they will want to read again. I ask myself this same thing about my own writing. It’s hard to tell. Every reader’s needs are different, and those needs change constantly. What becomes important or enjoyable to one child may have no special power over another — for instance, the classic Itsy Bitsy Spider. I remember reading the story as a child and, of course, singing the song with accompanying hand motions. For me, it was mildly amusing but not something I needed or wanted to do over and over. But I looked at this story a little differently after an interaction I had with a child several years ago.
I used to work in my church’s “nursery” on Sundays. For those of you who aren’t familiar with a church nursery, it’s where families can drop off tiny kids (from infants to kindergarten age) to be babysat during worship services. This service helps to cut down on distractions or disturbances during a sermon. Each week, I worked with two or three other ladies to rock babies, change diapers, read stories and play on the floor with toys. The other ladies I worked with were probably 20 to 30 years older than me and preferred to devote their attention to infants and let the others just play. I spent most of my time with toddlers. One week a young mother brought her three-year-old daughter, who had severe separation anxiety, and commenced screaming and crying for the duration of the church service. When her mother returned and learned her child had been a wreck and we were unable to calm her, we all felt horrible. I was sure we’d never see her again. But I was wrong.
The following week Mom brought her daughter back, and again, she reacted to her mother’s departure most extremely. I was on it. I walked to the door with a stuffed animal and a book and said, “I have something special for you!” She was not convinced, but her mother handed her off to me and quickly scurried down the hall. I carried the sobbing child to a rocking chair and said, “Let’s find out about this crazy little spider.” She squirmed and pushed and didn’t want to calm down, but I ignored this and began to read in a calm, quiet voice and tried to look totally enthralled with the images in the book. She quieted down to listen, looking at me as if I was nuts. I read the pages slowly, holding the book with one hand, and with the other hand I made my fingers crawl across the top of the book, over to her arm. I touched her arm lightly, then ran my fingers back over to my side as if I was afraid to touch her. I acted out the spider’s climb up the water spout, the spider being washed back down by rain, and the sun coming out to dry up all the rain. Her eyes revealed there was some interest. When I finished the book, I closed it and said, “He made it!” And she said, “Again!” Ahh. She was going to be alright, I thought.
So, I obliged her and read the story again, with my fingers acting out the story, but the second time I made my fingers crawl across the top of the book and over to her arm. I touched her arm lightly, then ran my fingers back over to my side, as if I was afraid to touch her, and she laughed. When I finished the story, she said, “Again!” And again, I complied. This went on for quite a while, and each time I reread the story, my finger- spider crawled up her arm a bit farther until it was brave enough to tickle her under the chin, then scurry away. This brought much giggling, followed by “Again, again, again.” She didn’t seem to tire of the game or the story, and before we knew it, Mom had returned, pleased to see that her daughter was moving past her trauma.
For the next several Sundays, the little girl returned. Though there was some pouting upon arrival, she quickly settled in, walked to the bookshelf, and came to me with Itsy Bitsy Spider. Every week we settled in to read and giggle. Soon other little kids noticed and began to gather around to listen. Soon other children wanted to act out the spider and tickle someone on the arm. Soon my timid friend reached out to tickle me. And soon she allowed others to tickle her. The walls were down and we were all one big team of spider-loving ticklers.
It wasn’t long after that, that when my little friend arrived, she could confidently kiss her mother goodbye at the door and run to play with her newfound friends. Altogether we may have read Itsy Bitsy Spider twenty times. It was a hard-working little book, and I viewed the story differently after the experience. I had always missed its magic when I was a child, thinking it was just an observation of spider’s diligent behavior. But for this one child, it represented more. I think my friend identified with the little spider, perhaps feeling a little knocked down when mother left her each week and overwhelmed by the rain of strange people around her. In the story, she saw that Itsy Bitsy Spider bravely faced his trials, eventually succeeded, and the sun came out again. My accompanying finger-play was a gentle way to tease away her fears. For her, the sunshine was finding a place where people welcomed her, and made her feel safe and part of something fun. And that’s the power of an “It” factor. A simple connection and aha moment that we want to absorb again and again and again.