In a recent interview with CNN, author-illustrator Mo Willems said something that really resonated with me: “Always think of your audience, but never think for your audience. What that means is to leave it open to interpretation.”
I really like that. We should always keep our audience in mind, especially for picture books, but we shouldn’t think for them. We should allow them to bring something to the book–their own experiences, their likes, dislikes, and imagination.
We should offer questions and problems that stem from their daily lives–sibling rivalry, starting school, jealousy, possessiveness, joy in the little things–but not necessarily provide direct answers. A story can have a resolution that is satisfying without banging the audience over the head with “this is the only way to solve this particular problem” or–shudder–offering some kind of overt lesson (as opposed to a universal theme that rises organically from the story).
Most of the editors at the larger publishing houses have indicated that the audience for their picture books is younger than it used to be*: two to five years old. For us that means getting into the heads of small humans and seeing what they care about, what makes them impatient, angry, and happy and providing stories that not only entertain, but offer a door to something more–something children can claim as their own.
*Note that this is the larger publishers. Many mid-sized and smaller publishers have a broader age range and longer word counts.