In my ongoing struggle to sit down and be productive as a writer who works from home, I fully admit to being one of those people who clicks on the daily assortment of articles Google recommends to me in the morning.
Now, I won’t click on every single article. The content has to be something I’m interested in—something I can glance at and think, Yeah, this’ll help me get into the mood to write today.
But I’ll be honest: only around half of the articles I click on turn out to be read-worthy (darn click-bait titles), and hardly any feed into getting my day as a children’s book writer started.
A few months ago, however, I came across a very intriguing article.
The title was about a useful learning technique, and I’m always interested in expanding ways I learn new concepts and retain information. But it wasn’t until I clicked and read through the entire piece that I realized the article also had everything to do with writing children’s books.
The learning technique is called the Feynman Technique—named after Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. And while the technique doesn’t specifically expound the virtues of reading Goodnight Moon every night before bed, the learning method at its core reflects the process of creating books for children.
Here are Feynman’s steps to mastering any concept (and my commentary on how it echoes my job):
Step One: Teach it
As Feynman explains, the first step in obtaining expertise is to sit down and collect one’s current knowledge on a given subject. The person is meant to pool information together as if they were teaching it to someone else.
But vitally, Feynman notes, this imagined audience should be a child, and not an adult.
Why? According to Feynman, a child’s understanding of a subject is unfiltered with heavy-handed jargon and complicated terms that even adults often don’t fully grasp. By aiming to teach a subject to a child between the ages of six and eleven, each component must be thoroughly explained in its most simplified form.
What this means for children’s book writers: So often, critics of children’s literature assume that concepts in children’s books must be watered down for a younger audience. Yet Feynman’s technique defends why this notion is entirely inaccurate. Whether children’s book writers are researching historical periods, exploring scientific studies, or introducing heavy issues in their narratives, they must tackle said concept with a thorough understanding and ability to share with young readers.
Step Two: Review gaps
Once one has gathered their existing knowledge, Feynman advises, it’s time to look the information over and find gaps where the concept isn’t fully explained.
Why this is especially important for children’s books: As a previous middle school teacher, I can attest that having a child at one’s side is the perfect way to identify holes we might skip over. Young learners are extraordinarily good at asking questions to probe at aspects of a subject they’re in the process of learning.
Feynman cautions that gaps often lie where we gloss over aspects of a subject. It’s only when we identify the limits of our own understanding that we can properly fill in the rest and get some true learning done. So much of this process reminds me of revising my work, especially when I’m hesitant to see the plot holes or inconsistent character arcs because I want to be done.
But Feynman’s technique is so important because it challenges the learner to first see their own mistakes and inconsistencies with clarity in order to fully fill those gaps in with the proper information.
Step Three: Organize and simplify
Feynman includes step three because inevitably, as we go back in and add information, we’re bound to include some of that unnecessary jargon that will ultimately cloud the final understanding of a concept.
What this means to me as a writer: I won’t even admit how many plot holes or awkward dialogue gets added when I’m doing a significant revision of my work. But the point is, with each round of better understanding my narrative, I whittle those issues down further and further until at some point, they are eliminated and I finally have a thorough and complete understanding of the story I want to share with young readers.
Step Four: Transmit
Though the last step in Feynman’s technique is labeled as optional, fellow children’s book writers will see it as a very necessary goal on the journey of mastering any narrative.
Feynman’s approach returns to step one, where we were asked to pool our knowledge together as if we were teaching or sharing it with a child.
But step four is not about theoretic. Step four is about putting work to practice, and actually imparting all of the simplified and organized knowledge of a topic to an audience, specifically a young audience.
To many, children’s books may seem like oversimplified versions of any given topic. But in order to accurately convey any subject to young readers, writers must obtain a truly deep understanding of all aspects covered in their narratives.
I can’t go out and specifically say that Hachet will teach you everything about survival in the woods, or that Dog Man expounds the entire process of creating comic books. But having read both of these titles, I will say they impart far more knowledge and understanding than an adult reader might expect.