Whether it’s reading a book about being a garbage truck or reading a sweet bedtime story, Kate McMullan has created many picture books for the youngest picture book readers. Her books contain universal themes, and she uses craft tools to make her stories stand out. Let’s take a closer look at how she captures the attention of young readers in her books.
Kate McMullan is probably best known for her picture books told from the point of view of a machine or big creature. I Stink, I’m Mighty, I’m Bad, I’m Cool, and I’m Brave and others in the series feature either a large vehicle or a dinosaur, and young children are especially drawn to them. Most children don’t tire of big vehicles or dinosaurs and want to read as much about them as possible.
Beyond her popular series of machine and dinosaur books, she also touches on other universal childhood themes including a Mother Goose book for babies called Baby Goose, a bath time book called Bathtub Blues, and bedtime books Mama’s Kisses and Papa’s Song.
In Nutcracker Noel, the main character doesn’t get the desired part in a ballet, and in Hey, Pipsqueak the main character has a birthday but ends up taking a magical adventure on the way to the party.
Machines, dinosaurs, rhymes, bath time, bedtime, birthdays, and disappointment—all of these are universally relatable. The youngest picture book readers (and their parents) will always be seeking these types of stories.
But how does a writer go from taking a universal theme in a story to making it stand out in the crowded picture book market?
Use Your Writing Tools to Craft a Standout Story
Kate McMullan uses a variety of tools to make her universally themed books stand out including point of view, voice, and word choice.
Point of View
In her machine and dinosaur books, the story is told from the point of view of the subject. I Stink is from the point of view of the garbage truck, I’m Brave from the point of view of a fire truck, I’m Cool from the point of view of a Zamboni. While she tells facts about each of these machines, it’s not done in a boring way. Each vehicle and dinosaur is personified and comes to life on the page.
Taking on the point of view of the machine gives McMullan the opportunity to develop a unique voice for each of these characters. Each book, while similar in tone, has its own unique voice because each machine is different. The Zamboni doesn’t sound like the garbage truck. And the fire truck sounds completely different from the school bus.
The characters sound like machines because McMullan liberally uses onomatopoeia, or sound words, in each book. Not only does this give the vibe of the machine, but it helps make it a lively read aloud. In Bulldog’s Big Day, there is a lot of onomatopoeia as well. It livens up the story and helps the reader experience what Bulldog is going through as he looks for a job in the city.
While these books are for preschoolers and primary school-aged children, the word choice isn’t simple. McMullan uses the real names of the equipment. Young kids can handle this vocabulary, and those who are obsessed with various equipment may already know it. As Bulldog in Bulldog’s Big Day tries out different jobs, McMullan also uses specific vocabulary and tasks for each job.
Rhythm and Rhyme
In the machine books, each sentence has a cadence, a rhythm. Some sentences are one word long. Others are lengthier. But each matches the rhythm McMullan tries to create for that particular character. It’s just another tool in the toolkit for adding to the voice of a character.
Contrast the rhythm of the sentences in the machine books with her bedtime books. The cadence is different because a different tone is needed. In Papa’s Song, each big bear that tries to get baby bear to go to sleep has a different soothing song. While they rhyme, they set a calming tone.
Bathtub Blues is a rollicking rhyming book about babies who don’t want to stop playing to take a bath.
Each book needs to have its own rhythm to set the tone of the story.
As a writer, how can you utilize a universal theme in your own work but still make it standout as something unique in the market?
Learn More from Kate McMullan
Try out one (or more) of the tools that McMullan has used in her work to elevate your own work.
At Picture Book Summit 2018, Kate will be presenting “Tuning In to the Muse” where she’ll uncover sources of inspiration for picture books. Drawing from her own creative process and interviews with contemporary and classic picture book writers, she’ll provide tools you can use to tap your own muse.
Don’t miss the chance to hear from Kate directly and ask questions, all from the comfort of home! Check out Kate’s presentation as well as our other workshops coming October 6th on our Program Page.
Marcie Flinchum Atkins has been an elementary educator for more than 20 years. She is currently a PYP/IB public school librarian in Falls Church, Virginia by day and writes books for children in the wee hours of the morning. She has an M.A. and M.F.A. in Children’s Literature from Hollins University. She blogs about mentor texts at www.marcieatkins.com. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @MarcieFAtkins.