November is Picture Book Month, and since we have nearly two full weeks left, it seems appropriate to acknowledge such an important contribution to children’s literature. Many aspiring writers are attracted to the genre because they mistakenly believe that the deceptively simple books are easy to write. Just stick a bowtie on a puppy, give it a cute name, and you can whip up a story on your coffee break. How hard could it be?
That’s fine if you want to read it to your grandchild. She’ll enjoy your grocery list and the attention. But if you want to write for publication, my motto is, “The easier it reads, the harder it writes.”
The first step is to know your audience. Children are neither Goody Two-Shoes nor the “bad seed,” or are miniature adults. They share the same needs as any of us: To love and be loved, to achieve and learn, to have peer respect and self-respect, and to feel secure physically, emotionally and spiritually. Additionally, they have some unique needs. I remember feeling it was so unfair that I arrived at the party late. Everyone else seemed to know the rules already.
Primary children have a limited world: home, neighborhood, church, daycare, and regular school. Their interests are self, family, [siblings, being the youngest, oldest, or middle child], nature [animals, growing things], God, and accepting things that they cannot see. Even the ordinary things, like changes in seasons, are new experiences. These are your readers. Writers have a lot of potential subjects for fiction and non-fiction. That’s the good news.
The bad news is we have to get our wonderful manuscripts past an array of adults to reach the child: editors, publishing review committees, book reviewers, librarians, teachers, and parents. The final approval belongs to the child. Is it entertaining enough for multiple readings? A good story is like a familiar friend to share many times. That means it must appeal to an adult too.
Specifics and sensory details appeal to them: two sparkly sugar cookies on a smooth apple red plate, instead of cookies on a plate. Bring in numbers and colors where they are natural to the subject.
For practical purposes, we define all heavily illustrated books as picture books. They may be anywhere from no words to around 1,000 although most publishers seem to favor around 750 words. Remember that you are dealing with short attention spans. You should write as if you’re paying per word. The true picture book needs illustrations for the text to make sense. Subjects might be numbers, shapes, or colors, even. The toughest skill to master might be to switch from short story format to picture book format. They may contain the same number of words, but they are not the same. A short story might take place in one scene, in a span of a few minutes to a year. In a picture book, each page is like a chapter in a novel, moving the story forward quickly, making each page suspenseful enough to be a cliffhanger making the child ask, “and then what happened?” Plus you need to think like an illustrator. You’ll need at least 20 pages of unique scene changes. Type it out that way and imagine the scenes. Read it aloud to be sure that a pause is naturally at the end of a page turn. Is the sentence too long? Do you take a breath in the middle? Then the answer is yes.
Early primary children [birth to kindergarten] start out with the concept books. They may review something the child already knows [animals, colors, numbers, etc.] They might introduce the unfamiliar, like a visit to the dentist or first day at school. Every page is of equal value, like stepping stones, or a string of same-size beads. They usually end back where they began. There is no suspenseful buildup. Except for numbers or the alphabet, many of them have interchangeable pages without spoiling the subject. To appeal to a publisher, we need a unique approach. You might consider combining two concepts or find a unique vehicle for it. For example, a traffic jam with ten vehicles stopped at an intersection. One red firetruck turns right, leaving nine. One blue van turns left, leaving eight, etc. There is a preponderance of these on the market, but they still sell if your idea is special.
Picture book writers need not be illustrators. Unless a publisher requires illustrations accompany the text, you could be jeopardizing a sale. Not all artists are illustrators. Publishers like to pair a newbie with an established illustrator to guarantee sales. Check out the publishers’ websites for their policies. Don’t be one of those micro-managers. Leave the art to the illustrator. After all, they will get half the royalties.
Some illustrated books have plotted stories. The art enhances the story but is not necessary to the understanding. These are picture story books. All half-text/half art books for the young we’ll refer to as picture books. They must stand a read-aloud without awkward stumbles and tongue twists, and they must be graphic. Even if the author isn’t also the illustrator, he must think like an artist. That means plenty of action with the dialogue and exposition. Illustrators complain that they can’t draw talking heads. Move the characters around. Maybe they are on backyard swings and then run indoors to retrieve an apple—anything to keep them active. Another character joins them. Visualize your story as you edit it. Can you see the illustration as a close-up, a single character? Then it’s time to write a group scene for variety.
It is okay for writers to use a less familiar word. I try to limit unfamiliar words to no more than three in a story because the child might start out listening to a story. Their oral vocabulary is much larger than their reading abilities. I like to keep the sentences short and words simple. That way the manuscript sells for a storybook or a beginning reader. On the copyright page, look for a bracketed “e” [E].
Picture books are like islands. The story is visible. The theme is the strong foundation beneath the water line. That is what the child carries away from the story. The hidden themes are as serious as those of Shakespeare: brother against brother, abandonment, the powerful abusing the weak, etc. They are real life made palatable by costumes and those magic words, Once upon a time, or in a land far away. The optimistic classic and they lived happily ever after, might be missing from tomorrow’s classics. There is virtually no subject that is taboo as long as you keep in mind the child’s level of understanding.
I worried for days trying to work my way through a story on child abuse, The Ghost in the Garage, one of the Goosehill Gang series. I wanted to punish the parent, just as that classic abuse story, Hansel, and Gretel. I finally realized that I saw the story through my adult eyes. Once I saw it through the understanding of a primary child, the denouement became clear.
What we see is not a “happy ever after” but young characters overcoming one barrier and achieving one small goal against all the odds. Writers can show the young that each success is worth the effort, and we might get the message too.