In writing, you will hear about “voice,” but you won’t often get a clear answer as to what that means. That’s because it’s one name for many different things. It’s like saying “smurf” in the old Smurf cartoons—it means a different thing depending on how you use it.
I could address “voice” in a dozen different ways. I could talk about how each author is encouraged to find their own “voice”–how you can tell a poem by Emily Dickinson apart from Langston Hughes, for example. In singing, it’s the equivalent of knowing when Pavarotti is singing as opposed to Stevie Nicks. Each singer has a unique, recognizable style—you know their voice when you hear it.
I could also talk about your character’s voice, how we should be able to see as much of your character from what words they choose to use, what details they talk about (and what details they don’t). Does your villain speak in short phrases or long flowery ones? Does your main character repeat a specific word or phrase? Is your cowboy supposed to sound like Benedict Cumberbatch? This type of “voice” is a whole post all itself.
I could talk about “voice” as it pertains to genre: your historical fiction novel about the Roman conquest of Gaul shouldn’t have a character that sounds like a valley girl, or uses words or phrases that are anachronistic. Unless, of course, your story is about a time traveler, and then the voice becomes a huge part of your story.
Think of Voice (I’m knighting it into a proper noun for now) as another element in your manuscript that needs as much attention as your setting, character, and plot. Voice is the costume your story wears to help the reader define your character, your setting, your genre, your plot—basically, the tortilla around the whole enchilada.
Even illustrations have a “voice,” but I will save that and all the other Voices for another post. Right now, I’m going to focus on Voice as it pertains to the “tone” of your manuscript for the various ages in kidlit.
Board books, picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and up to YA (which I will lightly touch on) all have their own Voice (and a voice within that Voice). A picture book Voice is different from a middle grade Voice. So if you are getting rejections that say your picture book sounds “too old,” you need to look at your Voice.
For example, here are different opening lines from some of my favorite picture books (please also note in parentheses how many pages these lines take up):“Nate loved sharks. He read shark books, watched sharks on TV, and talked about sharks nonstop.” Shark Nate-O by Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie. Illustrated by Daniel Duncan. (4 pages)
“If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. When you give him the milk, he’ll ask for a straw.”If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff. Illustrated by Felicia Bond. (4 pages)
“Seb lived in a sleepy coastal town far in the north. So far north that the sun did not shine in winter and the days were cold, dreary, and dark as night.” Seb and the Sun by Jami Gigot. (1 page)
“Yelfred and Omek have been best frints since they were little blobbies. Which isn’t easy on planet Boborp where teef are long and tempers are short.” Best Frints in the Whole Universe by Antoinette Portis. (4 pages)“One cold and gray November morning in Poland, superhero Marie Curie was born. At the time, her name was Maria Sklodowska, and she didn’t know she was a superhero. Marie Curie and the Power of Persistence by Karla Valenti. Illustrated by Annalisa Beghelli (1 page. Also note that this is historical fiction. For funsies, compare this with non-fiction, and with other stories about Marie Curie written for different age groups.)
“The cat walked through the world with its whiskers, ears, and paws … and the child saw A CAT, and the dog saw A CAT, and the fox saw A CAT. Yes, they all saw A CAT. They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel. (8 pages)
What do you notice about the sentence structure? While it will vary among picture books, generally, the phrasing is snappy, even in lyrical stories like Seb and the Sun. It’s also devoid of physical description. We do not know what the characters look like, what they are wearing, or where they are. Again, in Seb and the Sun, where the setting is very important, we don’t have rambling description of mountains, or ice, or houses, etc. We only know that Seb lives in a coastal town in the north and the days are dark and dreary. The art, then, provides all the details.
Now, let’s look at middle grade:
“‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
‘Out to the hoghouse,’ replied Mrs Arable. ‘Some pigs were born last night.’” Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.
“It was a dark and stormy night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind.” A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle.
Are you ready for a dazzling tale of grand adventure?
A tale of swordfights and disguises?
Of pirates and stolen relics?
If not, you should scramble up the moss-covered rocks of a towering waterfall and fling this book into a piranha-infested river.”Danger Gang by Stephen Bramucci, illustrated by Arree Chung.
“Of all the kids in the seventh grade at Camillo Junior High, there was one kid that Mrs. Baker hated with heat whiter than the sun. Me.” The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt.
I could go into the voice of each one—how the intro from Charlotte’s Web gives us a time period, a place, and a character all in those few short lines, or how the passage from A Wrinkle in Time sets up a mood instantly. But let’s stick with the differences of Voice between the ages.
Note the inclusion of description, of tough topics, higher stakes, of longer sentences with more complex phrasing, and of big words that aren’t helped in their definition by the pictures. The contrast between the two ages should be very evident when positioned side by side, yet, it’s not uncommon for budding picture book writers to start off their picture books as if they were writing a novel.
For a really fun, and stark, contrast, let’s try a few board books:
“I have to go potty. I could go in my diaper. Should I go in my diaper?”
“Baby wants kisses, One, two, three! Besos, bebé, besos. Mommy loves kisses, sweet as can be. Besos, Mami, besos. Besos for Baby: A Little Book of Kisses by Jen Arena. Illustrated by Blanca Gómez.
“This tiny hippopotamus has something small to say, and if we’re very quiet, she’ll say it right away. Listen!” Belly Button Book by Sandra Boynton.
It’s even easier to see the snappy sentences here, and the focus on words for language acquisition—particularly in the repeat of words, alliteration, cadence, rhythm, and the illustratability (I’m adding this word to the cannon of words that should be) of these lines. Voice for board books is different than Voice for picture books, though some crossover does occur. However, both still heavily focus on illustration to assist comprehension of the story, which makes writing for picture and board books very different than writing for a novel.
What about early readers? Or chapter books?
In brief, early readers are for kids starting to read on their own. The language choice revolves around words they need to learn according to their age or reading level. Pictures still play a substantial role in the story. Chapter books are segues to longer novels and incorporate longer plots, bigger, more abstract words, and less pictures (in general). But they both have their own Voice, which you can see by reading them side by side. (See here for more on early/easy readers vs chapter books.)
And then there’s YA:
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.” Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
It’s all I can do not to scream. I dig my nails into the marula oak of my staff and squeeze to keep from fidgeting. Beads of sweat drip down my back, but I can’t tell if it’s from the morning heat or from my heart slamming against my chest. Moon after moon I’ve been passed over.
Today can’t be the same.”Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi.
The voice is clearly older. The topics are heavier. Of course, each genre in YA will have a unique voice, but a more “mature” Voice is an integral part of YA, no matter the genre.
Time for some fun. Let’s take the opening lines of Where the Wild Things Are and turn them into opening lines for other ages.
Original picture book:
“The night Max wore his wolf suit and got into mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him “Wild Thing!” and Max said I’ll EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without any supper.”
Max couldn’t believe he was finally old enough to wear his very own W.O.L.F. suit. His dad smiled proudly. “How does it feel to be an official Wild One of Lower Freeburg, son?
“M.i.S.C.H.i.E.F. is going to know who they’re messing with,” said Max, as he tightened his helmet with the super-sensitive hearing devices imbedded in the pointy ears.
M.i.S.C.H.i.E.F., of course, stands for the Mad Scientist Corporation for Human Engineering in Freeburg. They had been a secret criminal gang for years, but soon, their genetically modified goons took over all of Upper Freeburg.
Only the lower part, with its thick forest and wild helpers had managed to hold them off. And now Max was part of the group making sure it would stay that way.
I am a wolf.
AWOO, I howl.
I am a bear.
GRRR, I growl.
I am a tiger.
SHHH, I prowl.
I am a wild thing,
howl, growl, prowl!
Max stashed his WOLF suit as soon as he reached the top of the canyon. He’d already caused enough mischief for one night. Despite the search-hounds’ snarls growing closer, Max grinned. The Warden screaming at the empty cages had been worth the risk of ending up in one himself.
The search-hounds howled in the ravine below. They’d lost his scent—for now. Their eyes may not work anymore, but he knew their heightened sense of smell would would eventually find his half-human stench. It was best to move on. Max slipped into the forest where the Wild Things waited his return.
Your turn. If you like to take a picture book or middle grade novel, etc. and turn it into something for a different age or genre, go for it, and add your favorite in the comments below.
I hope to add more about Voice in another post. Another international move is looming, and this last one required me to prioritize writing my stories rather than my posts, but I’ve got more to say on this topic and other great posts in the pipeline ready to share. For now, I hope it’s clearer what it means when someone says, “The voice is too old for a picture book.”
Stay safe and keep writing.
8 thoughts on “Voice: “Your picture book sounds too old.””
I love the different versions of “wolf.” When someone tries this experiment it make help them naturally find which audience works best for them.
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*may* help them. Sheesh.
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This is great, Johnell! “Voice” is so difficult to peg down, but these are excellent examples. LOVE these books! 🙂
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Thank you, Becky!
Wonderful post about that thing called “voice.”^ 🙂
I understand it as the personality of the narration. Beginners are often too insecure and too rule-bound to have or allow a distinctive voice. Keep writing, and you’ll find the voice as it surfaces from inside. Few beginning storytellers are so confident (or instinctively not bound to generic rules) to have a strong narrative voice right off the bat.
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Thank you, Mirka. Great advice.