Next week, I’ll be teaching the first of a three-part picture-book workshop, hoping to share with fellow writers some of what I’ve learned about craft and the magic of reaching kids through a form that offers so much freedom in such a focused space. Josie’s blog post yesterday interested me; learning that 66% of last year’s top-selling backlist children’s books were picture books (!) was both gratifying and eye-opening. Many of those bestselling titles are from decades ago — popular favorites whose sales are fueled in part by nostalgia and cultural familiarity, but in larger part by their enduring quality.
So what makes a picture book endure? What makes it speak to children across generations? Why is Miriam Young and Arnold Lobel’s Miss Suzy (not on that bestseller list, but similarly beloved) still the kind of book families go crazy over, almost 50 years later?
Here’s my tip (actually, it’s FIVE): I would say it has something to do with qualities that Jerry Griswold identified as recurring themes in classic children’s literature. In Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature (Johns Hopkins University), Griswold finds that “five themes recur in classic and popular works of children’s literature,” and they are snugness, scariness, smallness, lightness, and aliveness. Yes! Brilliant. He discovers these themes in novels as well as in picture books, of course. Don’t you love this observation and now feel compelled to assess your favorite books (and perhaps your own work) with an eye to those five qualities? Thank you, Professor Griswold. (The book title links to Indiebound, for anyone who would like to track down a copy of the book for his or her own library.)
So that’s one of the tidbits I’ll be sharing next week with my workshop participants. I’ll also be sharing examples of enduring picture books, both classic and contemporary, including many from the Bank Street College of Education’s Children’s Book Committee’s wonderful new roundup of Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2012.
It occurred to me that you editors and publishers out there (and you picture book master authors, as well) might have some tidbits of your own that you wish you could share with the writers, filled with hope and dreams and flashes of greatness and the typical authorial stumblings we all make, who send you their picture book manuscripts.
If you could say one helpful thing to these writers, what might it be? I will happily share your thoughts (attributed or anonymous, as you prefer) with the hope of bringing both inspiration and practical magery to the workshop.