by Nadine Holland
When I started writing for children I was told to read widely within the genre I wanted to write. I amassed a collection of picture books that would make a librarian proud and, aside from providing hours of bedtime joy for my daughter, it also gave me brilliant insights into what she enjoyed in books.
However, I have since discovered another easily accessible medium that provides similar valuable insights into the psyche of children. I love cartoons and I get to watch them alongside my daughter so that I can see what she enjoys. And although sometimes I want to peel my eyeballs out after a Peppa Pig Marathon, and I can’t hear the Paw Patrol theme song without wanting to punch something, I think that as children’s writers we can actually learn a thing or two from cartoons.
Know your audience
Cartoons are big business and they wouldn’t get airtime unless they hit home with their intended audience. Watching cartoons can give you clues about themes and characters that children engage with the most, and this can provide a rich source of inspiration when the idea-well runs dry.
Sometimes we can approach things with a voice that might feel too adult for our intended age group but by watching cartoons we can become more familiar with the vernacular of children. Through a process of osmosis, the more cartoons we watch, the more our writing becomes aligned with language that feels authentic to children.
Watch an animated kids film at the cinema and listen to which jokes get the biggest laughs. Usually it is not the punchline itself, but the response of the characters around them. Consider how you can inject that humour into your writing. It’s also important to note that humour changes over time so cartoons will also give you a good sense of what is funny right now.
Cartoons have a very short window to tell the story, much like picture books, but given the vast competition for viewership they must also hold the attention of the viewer, making them a masterclass in engaging storytelling. Watch them and see how they set up jokes. How do they start and end? Do they follow the traditional narrative arc? How do they create tension? The more you watch cartoons the more you get a sense of the structures that work the best and how they hold onto attention when it’s at risk of waning.
All kinds of people, all kinds of families
Not all cartoons get inclusivity and diversity right, but when it’s done well it can be excellent. Hey Duggee, I think, does this brilliantly because it feels effortless. Adoption, same sex relationships, disability, different types of families and a range of nationalities are represented with a deft touch and it feels comprehensively embedded and never preachy. In Hey Duggee individuality is celebrated, without individuals then being singled out as vehicles for a ‘teachable moment’.
Awaken the inner child
Finally, watching cartoons can help to awaken your inner child when the big bad world seems too much. Pure joy and childlike wonder are so beautifully expressed in cartoons that sometimes five minutes in front of a screen is all we need to return to that same mindset that we need to tap into. My favourite cartoon for this is Bluey, an Australian cartoon about a 6-year-old dog and her family. Their interactions, role playing, concerns and relatable family dynamic are a soothing balm and ping me right back into a better frame of mind to write.
So, next time you’re stuck in a rut, maybe give yourself permission to be a kid again and whack on your favourite ‘toons.