Touching With Words

UNCLE ELEPHANT by Arnold Lobel


In the darkness the child wants to talk

It is touching with words that he strives for…

[from Dialogue With a Child by William Kloefkorn]

I recently spoke about writing picture books to students at the University of Washington. One student’s questioning statement was shared with a tone of frustration. “Everybody says you shouldn’t write to teach a lesson. But a lot of good picture books do have a lesson.” It’s true. The difference comes down to the author’s intent, tone, respect for the child, and ultimately aesthetic gesture.

I believe William Kloefkorn’s poem (above) can guide us. He refers to the child wanting to touch with words. The difference between a book that happens to include a new awareness (aka a lesson) as opposed to a book that intends to teach a lesson is this:

The first is the author’s attempt to touch with words. The author’s attempt to connect with the child and share.

The second is not touching with words, but instead using words like a wagging finger telling the child what to think.

We don’t even have to think of our own childhood to grasp which approach is most affective. We feel the same way as adults. Wag a finger at us and we’re ready to resist. But reach out to share, and we’re likely to listen and explore.

The choice of tone and approach is ours to make with each new manuscript.