Truth is the thing children’s books need above everything else. You could also call it integrity. Here are the five points in integrity as I see them.
1. A children’s book should deliver what it promises.
We have all seen film trailers that promise non-stop action, romance or humour. Sometimes when we see the films themselves we realise the action, romance or humour in the trailer was all there was. The film itself is a disappointment. Children’s books should not be like that. If the title, cover, blurb and premise promise an adventure, a romance, a fantasy, a ghost story or some serious scares, laughs or wish-fulfilment, then the book had better deliver. If it doesn’t, then why should the young readers trust authors or books?
How can a book fail to deliver? Just like the film, it can have a few good bits with a lot of dull stuff in between. Or maybe it’s a lesson wrapped up in the thin rags of a story. Or maybe the wonderful adventure turns out to be a dream…
Children’s books should deliver what they promise.
2. A children’s book should be faithful to its genre.
Fiction is often escapist and written and read for entertainment. This is fine. However, I believe children’s books should be truthful about the consequences of action.
Children, though, don’t have that much experience. If a child reads a book where a bully is “cured” by Little Tina explaining how her sister felt when the bully stole her lunch and expects that to happen in real life, then that child is set up for ridicule or worse. If a child reads books in which every child who confesses to doing something wrong is praised for being truthful, then what happens when s/he confesses and is punished?
4. A children’s book should show a balance of characters with a wide variety of abilities, attitudes and beliefs. Avoid the obvious. Let there be some nerds who do not wear thick glasses. Let there be grandparents who are not old and retired. Let there be mothers who are sometimes busy, dads who ride bikes to work, teachers who occasionally don’t know something, and doctors who do not have an appointment as soon as you need one. Let the occasional standoffish new kid continue to be standoffish and the one who claims to be good at singing really win that competition.
This may appear to run counter to the advice about genre, but in fact it helps bust those stereotypes and lets a genre book transcend that genre.
5. A children’s book should be the best book you can write.