Reaction Triggers, What are They and Why Should They Be in Your Kids Book?

The worst feeling… I mean it sucks!.. is when you pour your heart and soul into a kids book, you hand it to a kid to read, and the kid tosses it aside because it’s not that interesting to them.

Or worse, you’re like, “Let’s read this book!” and halfway into it you can see they’re bored. You can tell they’ll never ask you to read that book to them again. Ever.

This is the most common situation when someone makes a kids book and their goal is to impart some wisdom to the next generation, teach a lesson, or teach a concept.

We write with our perspective as the parent or adult. The result: boring book.

Related: A 3 Step Framework for Writing a “Lesson” Kids Book That Doesn’t Suck

The solution is Reaction Triggers. Kids are bored by books without them.

What’s a Reaction Trigger? A Reaction Trigger is a moment in a kids book that triggers a big reaction from the reader. The reaction could be laughter, shock, being grossed out, etc. The bigger the reaction it causes in the kids reading, the more they’ll enjoy the book. Kids get bored by books that they are not reacting to.

Reaction Trigger 1: Laughter. If you can’t make the kids laugh, your book sucks.

If you understand that headline intimately, you are going to be an amazing kids book author.

If you don’t adopt this mentality you will lose to the kids book authors who do.

Let’s look at some kids books that do this really well:

Source: The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors, NY Times Best Seller

“Will have listeners in stitches.”

Kirkus Reviews

“The sort of story that makes children love to read.”

School Library Journal

This is a great example of the kind of humor k-3rd graders absolutely crave. It’s a somewhat tasteful potty humor. I’ve read this to classrooms of kids and as soon as the word “butt” is said, they are rolling on the floor.

I recommend trying to find ways of being funny without resorting to have all your pages say “butt.”

It’s doable. You have to think to yourself, “What is hilarious to my age group?”

Think about the funniest moments in movies and cartoons. What are the jokes and gags in Toy Story, The Croods, Looney Tunes, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, etc that cause kids to burst out laughing?

(psst… by the way… ridiculousness, like that title “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” is a reaction trigger).

Try having stuff like:

  • When a character is forced to do something ridiculous that they don’t want to do.
  • Old people. Just old people being super old. The more you play it up, the better the reactions.
  • Any reference to a funny part of the body (rump, booty, belly, etc)
  • Slapstick (a character stubbing its toe, being slapped by monkey, flying face-first into a pole, etc)
  • “And then the opposite happens.” You setup “Nothing could ruin this day,” or “What could possibly go wrong?” being said right before a page flip. Think of what could be on that next page.
  • Characters overreacting to a situation. The more you play it up the better. For example: If a character is nervous for a big day tomorrow, have them laying in bed, eyes bloodshot open, sweat stains soaking the bed, and put arrows on everything labeling the symptoms.

Reaction Trigger 2: Disgust. Gross the kids out! They LOVE it.

Adults have a really hard time with this. We think its beneath us. We think it should be beneath the kids. We don’t want our kids to like this.

But they do.

Even the the most put-together, prim and proper kids that I’ve read to LOVE reacting to books that make them go “EWWWWWWWWW!!!”

Those books are memorable. The kids want those books read again and again just for the fun of reacting.

Dan Santat and Dav Pilkey did this really well when they teamed up to make the Ricky Ricotta series. Here’s an example:

His fingernails turn into disgusting clones of himself. It honestly grosses me out. But that means it causes a reaction.

Reaction Trigger 3: Movement. Interaction. Get the kids to do something with their body or voice. Especially Pre-K to 1st.

A lot of authors have figured this out. And still, a ton of authors aren’t thinking about it at all.

Source: Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot

When you ask a kid to read or be read to, most often, you’re asking them to sit quiet and still for a prolonged amount of time. That’s not natural for kids.

They want something they can interact with. Especially the 4-7 year olds.

Source: There’s a Dragon in Your Book

Even as kids get older they still want an active role, even if it’s just with their voice. I try to make sure there are pages that ask questions to the audience. Breaking the fourth wall is great!

In Case You Skipped Right to the End

A Reaction Trigger is a moment in a kids book designed to cause a BIG reaction in the kids reading.

The 3 best are:

  1. Make them laugh
  2. Gross them out
  3. Get them to interact

There are actually a lot of Reaction Triggers authors use in their kids books.

If you’re an author, every page of your book should cause some kind of reaction in your audience.

Related: 10 Reaction Triggers for Every Page of the Kids Book

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