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Children's Books: Give them a Problem to Solve

Updated: Jul 11

Things often seem very obvious when we have the advantage of hindsight. 

In one of my advanced illustration classes, I use early versions of The Fuel Factory as a personal example of visual development. It’s been a valuable tool for describing the winding and frequently messy creative process, and it forces me to be vulnerable to my mistakes, rabbit trails, and limited vision.

As I reflect with my students, I help to identify one critical narrative issue in this children's book, specifically in the easiest version; the problem is that there wasn’t one. Let me explain.

No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

I mean that the ‘narrative arc’ was not an arc at all but rather a flat line. There wasn’t a true problem to solve. 

There were little negative moments here and there, where the gas would build up, and the engineers reacted in silly ways. These illustrated the concept of gas build-up and provided plenty of shenanigans. I still love these moments; they have survived to the current version.

Double page spread from the Fuel Factory - in progress
Double-page spread from the Fuel Factory - in progress

However, the main characters had little to contend with in the context of the overall story. There was no ‘big’ problem that would take the whole story to work through. Without a problem, there were no stakes. A problem doesn’t have to be large in scope; it just has to be something that can be solved and makes sense to the characters or environment in context.

Often, you see the opposite idea in modern Hollywood films and shows. Problems must be some form of crazy, world-ending madness—time travel, aliens, war, etc. However, in practice, any problem can potentially serve the purposes needed.

I remember a great lecture from Marla Frazee in our Hartford MFA program. She used one of her books, The Roller Coaster, as an example of the importance of locking in on a theme, in this case, an emotion. For The Roller Coaster, the emotion was fear; the solution was conquering it. Marla also had a personal story she could connect to, which gave it a great sense of authenticity.

Double page spread from The Roller Coaster - Marla Frazee
Double page spread from The Roller Coaster - Marla Frazee

For The Fuel Factory, the issue was so simple it’s almost hilarious: Julia runs out of energy, and the only way to solve it is to eat. It sets up the digestive journey and solves the problem of the lack of fuel. Once I realized the problem and the solution, reworking the beginning and ending came quickly.

No longer was the book merely a tour through the digestive tract. It could do that but also provide a narrative journey. It also gave the Engineers a goal, gave them more to do and more to react to, and allowed them to really become the show's stars, which they needed to be all along.

“Dad, duh.” 

The words of my oldest daughter ring true. 🙂

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