Before I became a children’s book author, I wrote newspaper and magazine articles. I looked forward to feedback from editors that would help my stories shine. But one day, I received a note that made my shoulders slump in shame. “This has no soul.” I don’t remember what the story was. But I remember that critique.
I prided myself on being a writer who put her all into her work. But my editor was right. Technically, the story did the job. I included the who, what, where, when, why and how. My beginning worked. I wrapped the story up with a bow. But my piece didn’t make you feel. It had “no soul“ – no beating heart.
When I think about how to describe heart, I hear my favorite songs. I love ballads. Full of emotion, they make you smile or tear up in remembrance, catch your breath or sigh. As you listen or sing along, you feel everything that’s happening. You connect to the songs, because they speak to something deep inside.
How do you create stories with heart and soul? You start by putting yourself in your characters’ shoes and using your words to make music that will linger. Remember the joy of singing with abandon as a child. We didn’t worry about being on key or who was listening. We let it all out. Give yourself permission to feel everything. Use your senses. Show with your words. Go where the story takes you and bring your reader there too.
Creating stories with heart can be tough. Early drafts of my historical fiction picture book, Hope’s Gift (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), were so focused on accuracy that the pulse was missing. I forgot to make readers long for freedom with Hope, feel her pain, root for her and her family. My editor reminded me that stories fall flat without feelings. She told me to put the history aside for a moment and just focus on Hope’s emotions. She’s enslaved. Her father has run away to help liberate their people. He gives Hope a conch shell and a promise that freedom is coming. All she has left are that gift, her mother and brother and her faith.
As I revised, Hope and her family became real. I pictured her looking into her papa’s tear-stained face as he said goodbye. I imagined her clutching the conch shell he gave her, listening to the swooshing and hearing the echo of his words: “Nothing can keep freedom from coming.” I saw her comforting her little brother Henry like I used to comfort my younger brother Kevin when something made him cry or shudder. I immersed myself in her emotional journey of sorrow, hope, disappointment and joy. The characters lived not just on the page, but in my mind.
Another way to create heart and soul in stories is by studying those who do it well. Check out the work of gifted authors like Jacqueline Woodson, Angela Johnson, Sharon G. Flake and Carole Boston Weatherford to name a few. Read their work for the joy of their stories first. Then, analyze their books and glean tips to help your characters spring to life.
A last tip is to consider your own reaction. If you’re not welling up as you write, feeling a knot in your chest or your heart pounding, readers may not either. Look for internal cues that you’re making music that will resonate and play on.
Kelly Starling Lyons is a children’s book author whose mission is to transform moments, memories and history into stories of discovery. Her books include chapter book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal; CCBC Choices-honored picture book, One Million Men and Me; Ellen’s Broom, a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor book, Junior Library Guild and Bank Street Best selection and Tea Cakes for Tosh and Hope’s Gift, Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Her latest picture book is One More Dino on the Floor. Learn more about Kelly at kellystarlinglyons.com. And follow her on Facebook by clicking HERE.
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