Kids Need Stories With Good Plots!

When you look through the children’s section of your local library, have you ever noticed that the picture books for young children (those written for the illiterate 0-6 year-old crowd) don’t really get divided out into fiction and nonfiction the way adult books do?

Upon reading the content, it’s clear to me at least, that picture books do fall into two huge categories.

On one side: books with no plot (*yawn*).

The plot-less books range across a variety of themes.

There are the educational ones: these offer a million ways to illustrate the alphabet  or detailed examples of things to count up to somewhere between ten and twenty.

Closely related to are the catalogs: 100 animals that have no relevance to each other besides cuteness, or here’s a bunch of vehicles to look at, etc.

There are books that I like to call “books as medicine,” which give well-meaning advice meant to rewire their thinking about things like what to do when they are angry, or why it’s totally great to have a new baby brother.

On the other side: books with plot (“read it again!”).

On the opposite of the divide are those that have a plot. Which are the ones I like the best – the ones I dig through the library reshelving cart to find and that I try to write.

I’m not saying the non-plot books aren’t valuable and important. As a parent, I completely understand the motivation behind reading your kid a book about how to use the potty or what to expect when a new baby is added to the family. It’s like having a training manual for daily life – and who wouldn’t want that? (Hum, maybe a story book for new corporate managers: “I’m a boss now!” That’s an idea to add to the list.)

(Side note:  Leslie Patricelli‘s “I have to go potty” book is awesome. We’ve had it for more than two years and it is still in our top five most requested bedtime storybooks, even ahead of masterpieces like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Cat in the Hat. However… it has a strong plot, so no wonder).


Try this next time you are putting your little ones to bed: turn the light off and recite their favorite book to them in the dark, without the book at all.

I’m pretty sure that the one book you have read to them so many times that you both know it by heart is a book with a plot line. You’re probably not sitting there saying, “Bunny. Puppy. Kitten. Guinea Pig.”

Plot is what makes a book a storybook,* rather than just a picture book. Children’s story books can have very simple plotlines that are still incredibly powerful. Take that caterpillar, for example. You know which one I mean.

There’s this tiny caterpillar (exposition) who starts out hungry (inciting incident) but has to find the right food (the conflict). He eats more and more until he gets a tummy ache (the climax) which is relieved by finally eating a nice, green leaf (the resolution). As a result, he undergoes a transformation. Classic narrative arc, right there, and accomplished in 221 words.

Stories with plots are not just more fun but also important for brain development. As pointed out in this article from Storyberries:

“There is hard evidence that reading literary fiction stimulates emotional intelligence.

For example, studies published in 2006 and 2009 uncovered that participants who read literature with strong characters displayed higher levels of empathy and emotional intelligence by being able to “feel” the characters.

This was later backed by research in 2010 that received similar results when they studied children and discovered the more stories a child was read led to a better understanding of other people’s intentions in the listener.”

While I haven’t yet tracked down any articles online about it, I’m sure that if I dug a little more there’s probably also evidence that narrative fiction helps develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. (Hey – if you run across anything of that sort, please email it to me or post a link in the comments!)

So there. Reading your kid a story about dinosaur fairy princesses saving the planet from smelly shoe-stealing alien cows will make them smarter and nicer people. Books as medicine, indeed.