3.06.2014

Why Playing It Safe May Be the Most Dangerous Game of All

I read some exchanges recently between picture book authors in which one posed the question (and I’m paraphrasing here) as to whether she could do whatever she wanted with her main character in her manuscript, or whether it was better to perhaps “play it safe.” 
A few authors responded right away that it’s important to “play it safe” and they meant that it’s probably best to stay in familiar territory for picture book age readers who are too young to understand the dangers of certain activities, or too young to understand the difference between reality and fantasy.  I hastened to add my voice to the comments with a quick 
DON’T PLAY IT SAFE! message and this got me to thinking, if any authors are out there assuming they have to play it safe for picture book age readers, my position on how detrimental that way of thinking is deserves a bit more space than a Facebook comment box allows. 


As someone who’s edited and published hundreds of picture books, my position has never flagged on one particular point about what makes a great picture book:  whether your characters are human, animal, or otherwise; whether your story is realistic or fantasy; whether your story is contemporary or historical; whether your approach is serious or funny; whether your story is practical or completely off the wall…anything goes as long as a very young child will be able to relate to your main character’s emotions, perspectives, and world view.  

A story can open with our main character in a kitchen with mom and dad and dog all safely and soundly situated—to many readers, that’s familiar, but to other readers such a scene will be a fantasy and not familiar at all—not by a long shot. A story can open with our main character caped and masked and flying through the trees—to many readers, that will be familiar because it’s exactly how they think of themselves all the time, but to other readers it will be a brand new idea, maybe a little scary, but maybe a little fantastic, too.  As long as the trajectory of the picture book story taps into the emotions and feelings a very young child will find familiar, that’s as familiar and “safe” as a picture book needs to be. As long as the emotional needs, interests, and resolutions of the main character in a picture book resonate with the very young reader’s emotional knowledge and capacity, that’s as familiar and “safe” as a picture book needs to be. As long as that’s solid, the trappings and settings and structuring of the picture book can be whatever your imagination can conjure—and here’s the very place where I see most new picture book authors not pushing themselves enough. 

Authors need to allow their imaginations to take them all over the place, particularly out of safety zones—if authors play it too safe, we end up doing a disservice to ourselves and a disservice to our young readers. Where but in stories can we allow our youngest readers to not play it safe, to try new things, to explore, to roam, to make mistakes and make amends, to reach higher, deeper, and further than we ever thought possible? And where but in stories can we allow ourselves the very same?  And if we don't do all this in stories for children, I shudder at the cost that will take on our collective imaginations and creativity.

We wrap our children too tightly in bubble wrap sometimes—and sometimes, indeed, it’s completely necessary, but not in stories. Stories are where we must let our children play and dream and imagine roles and lives for
themselves that they’ve never thought about before; that’s how stories help children explore their sense of empathy, sharpen their resolve, enrich their dreams, and expand their imaginations. There’s no harm in that at all as long as the stories we provide as the vehicle for this ride carry within them the emotional core young children will be able to understand as their own.

If we push ourselves out of the familiar to ask "what if?" and to find the magic in the world, think how much more interested our children will be in doing the same. The safest route is rarely the most scenic. So feel free to explore creatively and imaginatively in your stories so children can explore the world in the same way. And if you find yourself spinning your wheels in a safety zone, go listen to young children telling each other stories and have them tell stories to you. I promise, the emotions will be familiar, but the stories will be out of this world--and that's a trip well worth taking.


(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC


35 comments:

  1. Love this column, Emma and want to add that books that make a splash like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE and DON'T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS, etc., etc., etc. (I'm sure you can think of many others) broke out of the safe mold. We build on the past so we can create the future.

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    1. I was thinking about WILD THINGS ARE and PIGEON the whole time I was plotting this post, absolutely! And in both of those and other books like them, there's a resonant emotional chord humming through the entire story that's completely true to children - and that's the whole point I'm trying to make!

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  2. This is a very important message, Emma, and I thank you for putting it out there for all of us to remember. Especially for pre-published writers of picture books, it can be tempting to get too drawn to what the "market" wants, and less drawn to where our imaginations take us. Thank you for the reassurance and poignant examples!

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    1. Thanks, Deb! We can absolutely suit market needs and market wants while using our imaginations and staying true to the emotional needs of young children. It's a challenge, to be sure, but doable!

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  3. My grandchildren relish the story passage where a certain wolf swallows a certain red-hooded girl's grandmother whole! And they also love the hunter freeing the poor woman. I relish the part where Grandmother enjoys a glass of wine. Trina Hyman took a risk depicting that sipping.
    I also like to think writing outside the safety zone could mean an author creating something wholly different from previous work. I like to think editors and the marketing folk might also embrace projects 'outside the safety zone.'

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  4. Hi, Emma, I can vouch for the fact that you took a chance on Mathematickles! I'd also like to say that this goes for novels and anthologies, too. I'm on some pretty weighty banned lists, and I have to keep saying what only I can say (I believe everyone has something powerful to say). I'm two years into a novel that's pushing people's buttons but I'm determined to put it out there. Betsy xo P.S. My sons have never played it safe.

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    1. Yes yes yes! Thanks so much for your comment, Betsy! Can't wait to read your button-pushing novel!

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  5. Thank you so much for this post. It's exactly what I needed to hear, THIS MORNING.

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  6. Thank you so much for this post, Emma. I am an avid believer in "stretching" in my books. Stretching vocabulary, stretching imaginations and the world that children know. In pushing realities too quickly I am afraid we are robbing kids of those precious years of wonder. Cut that safety net!

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  7. Thanks, Emma, for this inspiring, much-needed reminder. When your mailbox is chock full of rejections, it's hard to "keep the faith," to continue being true to your own vision, to think outside the box and take risks with your writing.

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    1. And keeping the faith in ourselves and in our own vision for our best work is what matters most!

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  8. Yes! Yes! As you say, as long as the emotions and feelings are ones that target readers are familiar with and the resolution is satisfying, that is a safe place enough for the story. Recent picture books for me that have not 'played safe' and are wonderfully effective are BIG DOG, CREEPY CARROTS and THE DARK. Books like THE DAY THE BABIES CRAWLED AWAY sounds freaky to a parent but empowers the superhero in any young child! Great message, Emma, and as Betsy says, relevant for books for older children, too. (Picture) books are in fact exactly one of the safest places for children to explore ALL those emotions and crazy dreams.

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    1. Cheers, Joanna! And thanks for sharing titles of some books that move us out of "safety" to great effect. I think writers of all genres and formats risk--including YA--can find themselves playing it too safe, and it's when they let go that the real stories come forth.

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  9. HOORAY for this post! Thank you.

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  10. Great post, Emma. Do you have any tips on non-fiction writing for the 4-6 year group?

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    1. As 4-6-year-olds are very young, with a fairly limited world view, any nonfiction for that age group needs to be completed tapped into that age group's areas of interests and perspectives, and must be presented in ways that are entertaining and fun. I think of Sandra Markle's INSIDE OUTSIDE series and Roxie Munro's MAZE series as good examples. Lots of nonfiction for this age group have novelty features, such as lift-the-flaps, and/or they're highly illustrated. As long as the subject matter of the nonfiction is relevant and presented/executed in a fun way, those are the factors that will appeal to that age group. Hope this helps! Thanks for your comment and question.

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  11. As a beginning reader, my now 14 year old daughter's favorite read was Homer's Odyssey --- not the original, but a simplified kids version that stuck to all the major plot points. Other adults were shocked when she recounted the complete storyline for them, but even then it was evident that a good story is a good story, no matter the age of the reader.

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  12. SUCH an important message for authors, Emma. Children deserve to let their imaginations and hopes go as far and wide as they possibly can. Stories make impossible possible. Therein, their magic.

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  13. So glad to read this! Now I can put the fire BACK into my story, literally and figuratively!

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  14. Thank you for standing up for imagination! It's like a pat on the back for me as I am doing the same with one of my manuscripts! Thanks so much for this post, Emma!

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  15. Wow! Amazing post. Hope you don't mind my sharing this post with SCBWI NZ .

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  16. Thanks so much, Emma. When I posted the question on the Paths to Publishing site, I was ready to give up on imagination. I didn't know which way to go with my stories. I love how wild they can get. I know my kids like that and know they'd never try anything they read, but was being told that kids can't do this, or kids can't do that. Don't put it in their heads. But something kept telling me, it's ok. Keep on doing what you're doing. and I was stuck so posted.
    I'm so glad I did! and Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Emma. My characters will keep on being as wild as I can imagine them to be <3

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    1. NEVER ever give up on imagination! Just have fun and play with language and story! That's the best gift to give to children.

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  17. I just wanted to add this isn't just advice for picture books, frankly novelists like myself need this reminder, too, the things various people told me about my debut middle grade novel were HARD to work through.

    They made some legit points I agreed with, but many felt I was being gratuitous with violence or
    being needlessly complex, that I was asking too much of readers OLDER than 5 but UNDER 13.

    Well, I finally had to (Secretly) put my foot down and went with my gut, and now my wonderful editor has put that perspective.

    Nothing she's suggested me to change or rework was anywhere close to what was proposed to me by various writers I'd swapped critiques with along the way.

    Sometimes I think we forget that a lot of what we value as adults we did as kids, the difference is we're now old enough to do it without being micro-manged, we can too easily forget what it was like and lack empathy for it, and while some from older generations had far freer childhoods in this respect, kids growing up now (or on the tail end of Gen X or prior to the "Millennials" like I did) had to deal with carpools, supervised play at all times, no places that were in walking distance, if we were allowed to walk anywhere at all in the culture or paranoia we live in now.

    If you live in a city, those issues are all but assured, and further enhanced!

    If we can't let kids be free in books, we adults really created our own problem regarding lamenting kids wishing their childhoods away.

    It's no wonder kids want to grow up so fast, it's the only way they feel they'll get to explore without being penalized ro punished, playing it safe can be one of those disguised insults we do without realizing it. Sure, some of that is normal, but I do think it's enhanced because our North American/Canadian culture today.

    I'm not a parent, and I'm all for keeping kids safe, but there's still a difference between common sense and getting carried away, you know?

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    1. Thanks, Taurean, for your comments. Absolutely, my remarks transcend genre and format and apply just as much to MG and YA fiction as to picture books. Sure, it's important to keep our kids safe - but that doesn't mean we can't inspire imagination at the same time.

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  18. Absolutely so true! It can be really scary sometimes to go for it so it's great to hear someone say, DO IT!
    Thanks for this. I included a link to this post in my weekly publishing roundup: http://traceybaptiste.wordpress.com/2014/03/09/this-week-in-writing-spring-is-nearly-here-edition/

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    1. Cheers, Tracey! DO IT indeed! Many thanks for your comment - and for including a link to the post on your site.

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  19. Thank you, Brava! Emma D.

    Thinking/agreeing not only of/about the authors & titles already mentioned here but Mem Fox. Not only her unplayed-safe titles for kiddos, but her books to adults such as RADICAL REFLECTIONS: Passionate opinions on Teaching, Learning & Living & Nancy Willard's kiddo titles that are "unsafe" also & her books for adults such as TELLING TIME & of course Jane Yolen's titles, also deliciously unsafe as the other two & her books for adults including the shimmering TOUCH MAGIC. May all these & others I'm forgetting & that can't fit here & especially yours, may such vibrant titles, circulate more widely.

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