When I tell people my debut picture book is about a barn. Some say, “I love barns!” Or others say, “I grew up on a farm.” BUT when I tell them the barn is the main character of my story, and her name is Bess. They smile and say, “Oh… that’s nice.” I know what they are probably thinking… A barn? Really? A barn can’t a main character.
Or can it be?
To be honest, I thought the same thing when I started writing BESS THE BARN STANDS STRONG. But, try as I might to have another main character step forward, Bess kept charging into the forefront of my story – strong and proud. As I wrote, it became clear that Bess had the potential to be a great main character.
But what makes a great main character?
What did Bess need?
Bess needed to be relatable.
Many times, picture books are read by an adult to a child, so the main character needs to be relatable to both. The reader and listener must feel a connection to the main character, whether main character is a human, a monster, a puppy, or even a barn. After reading the story, they may say – “I’ve felt that way before” or “I’ve had that happen to me” or together, they may learn something new. Writing Picture Books Revised and Expanded Edition, points out main characters in picture books also need to be active, problem-solvers, and behave in believable ways (Paul, pg.56). These traits add to their relatability.
For Bess, she is caring, strong, steadfast, but when things change on the farm and her worth is questioned. That is her relatability. I think most people – children and adults – are caring and strong like Bess, but at some point in their lives may have had their worth (their value in a situation) questioned. I know I have. That questioning of worth may occur because perhaps they are too young or too old, or for many other reasons.
Bess needed to be flawed.
No one is perfect, right? We all have flaws, this includes the main characters in picture books. These flaws allow the reader and listener to feel something for the main character. If the main character happily skips through the story…Tra-La-La-La… and doesn’t encounter any conflict – it adds up to a BORING story.
In real life – things go wrong.
What makes a great story is how the main character, flaws and all, deals with the conflict or the problems they encounter.
For Bess, her flaw is being different from what the new farmer wants. She is an old barn and the new farmer wants new everything. She is dismissed as being no longer useful or worthy to help on the farm. But this flaw becomes Bess’s strength in the end.
Bess needed to be worthy of the emotional investment in her story.
Bring on the emotion! Being relatable and flawed allows the reader and listener to invest their emotions in the main character and in the story. The reader and listener may cheer for the main character, cry with the main character, or even yell at the main character. A great main character elicits heightened emotion in both reader and listener and allows the heart of the story to be revealed. And if there is an emotional connection, the story also has the potential to be read again and again.
I know, you’re probably still asking…
But a barn?
Like many writers, I try to pull from my own childhood experiences when writing some of my stories. I have many wonderful memories of being in and around old barns. As a child, I loved visiting my grandpa’s cows, feeding the kittens and mama cat in our neighbor’s hay loft, watching the mama pigs feed their young, and playing in the piles and piles of hay. The barns always served as a place of safety and strength to run to as the summer storms rolled in across the prairie. But what I remember the most were the sounds the old barns made. The rain pitter-pattering on their roofs in an even rhythmic beat or the wind humming through their boards. As a child, I was sure the barns were singing to me. It was comforting and felt like home.
Many years later, I lived just off of a city street where an old barn sat perched on a hill. The barn seemed out of place in its suburban surroundings, but for me, it was like seeing an old friend – familiar and comforting – home. In the years that followed, the barn sadly succumbed to the urban sprawl around it.
When it did – my heart broke.
Then, I began to wonder… if given the chance to prove its worth, what path would have that old barn chosen?
And with that, BESS THE BARN STANDS STRONG was born.
I knew Bess would want a different ending to her story. It would not be one without trials and troubles, but she would show just how strong she was, how deeply she cared, and how much she celebrated every day on the farm she loved so much.
So, here’s to those unexpected main characters who bring heart and soul to picture books in their own unique way.
Yes, a barn is the main character of my story.
A strong, caring, steadfast barn.
And I can’t wait for you to meet Bess!
BESS THE BARN STANDS STRONG (Page Street Kids) by Elizabeth Gilbert Bedia, illustrated by Katie Hickey is out September 8th. Available for pre-order now. For more information, visit http://elizabethgilbertbedia.com/books.