If You Could Say ONE Thing to That Aspiring Picture-Book Writer…

Elizabeth Bluemle - April 12, 2012

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.

33 thoughts on “If You Could Say ONE Thing to That Aspiring Picture-Book Writer…

  1. Jeannine Atkins

    We know a character should want something, but sometimes two characters who want something are even better, as in Don Freeman’s Corduroy. This short book is layered in the best way, with much of the quest being the toy bear’s search for his lost button, which it turns out isn’t necessary for the friendship he needs and gets.
    Your workshop will be amazing! Wish I were there.

  2. Alison

    If you write your story in verse – please check the scansion and rhymes! There is no such thing as “good enough for children” – you should give children the best!

    1. Ellen R

      Amen! Nothing is much more frustrating than trying to read a story aloud and getting tongue tied because it doesn’t scan!! That’s why I love Chris Van Dusen….he gets it!

      1. Susan Heyboer O'Keefe

        A very practical way of dealing with this is to give your rhymed pb to someone to read out loud–COLD. With your own copy in hand, mark all those too-many places where the reader does get tongue-tied. It’s much easier to see problems in meter when you hear them instead.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle

      Roxie — I’ll be talking about these, also. It will depend on the make-up of the participants how much time we spend on them. So far, the manuscripts have all been narrative stories. If you have a tip for concept books or nonfiction pbs, I’d love to share it!

  3. Nonnie

    How about silliness? I find that the younger readers remember silly books best of all and want them to be reread over and over. So, be silly!

  4. Kate Barsotti

    Yeah for picture books with good, honest scares! Don’t we all love them? Why do so many parents seem to think scary books are bad? We all love a shiver under the covers and the vicarious thrill of our hero overcoming danger.

  5. Paula

    READ picture books! I’m constantly amazed at how many people think they can write one without bothering to read them. Read at least 100, preferably 1000, before you touch your keyboard!

  6. Carol B. Chittenden

    There has to be a STORY. A narrative arc. A beginning (preferable small, snug, scary, light, and alive), a middle, and an end, with some tension in the middle and a release at the end. For $6.99 some people will settle for mood, but for $17-18, they expect a real story. And I can’t say I blame them.

  7. valerie hobbs

    Start with something easier, like a novel. I’m serious. I’ve been trying to write PBs for a long time. Hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do! I, too, would love to be at the workshop.

    1. Judy Brunsek

      No kidding! The difficulty of writing is in inverse proportion to the number of words in the book. Big book, easier to develop thoughts and meaning, often with extraneous words. Picture book – few words need to say a whole lot, say it well and say it for a very young kid.
      My other suggestion is, respect a young child’s ability to absorb a lot of information and think like a kid.

  8. Matthew Frederick

    A picture MUST tell readers something the text doesn’t tell them. If the text says that moms and dads and grandmoms around the city are waking their kids for the first day of school, the picture might show a dog pulling the covers off a little girl in bed. The story takes place in the space between the words and the pictures. –Matt Frederick, 101 Things I Learned book series

  9. Lynn Almer

    Have fun with your writing. If it is your passion, the doors will open. This week I began doing author visits with kindergartners and first graders. I love their reaction to the words and the pictures in my book. The first graders in one classroom spontaneously said the rhyming words out loud once I finished each two-line rhyme. What joy!

  10. Shutta Crum

    Elizabeth–glad you mentioned the Griswold book, I have recommended this book over and over since I first read it a couple of years ago. Wonderful!
    Just one thing to a new PB writer–that’s hard! There are so many things to say because it is such a hard format to write in. I guess I would remind folks who attempt this art form that the book–no matter how few words–needs to have a plot. (Conflict, yes!!)

  11. Jane Wattenberg

    Perhaps include tender, heartfelt spareness as in M.B. Goffstein’s early books such as, ME and MY CAPTAIN, and GOLDIE the DOLLMAKER. These books quietly create a mood, speak of love + the passions of an artist… rare beauty….all in a small package with black + white line drawings and…for children.

  12. Erin Murphy

    The rhythm of turning the pages is still key in picture books. The pause of a page turn allows time for held breath or gasps or discoveries or discussions between the people reading together.

    1. Jennifer Malone

      I love the suggestion to respect the child, but I would also add to respect the parent as a reader, too. As a mom to three little ones and a bookstore stalker, I’ve read hundreds of picture books and the ones I choose when it’s “mom’s night to pick” are those that hold my attention every bit as much as my childrens’. I’d read any grocery list Mo Willems wrote and my newest favorite is “It’s a Book” by Lane Smith. Kid’s definitely don’t get the last line (“Its a Book, jackass”) or probably appreciate the nostalgia factor of comparing the simplicities of books to the modern world of technology, but every adult does. This formula has certainly worked well for Pixar- what parent wouldn’t choose to sit through Toy Story again versus Mars Needs Moms?! I can only imagine how my PB manuscripts would improve from your conference, Elizabeth- wish I could be there! Instead I’ll be at the SCBWI conference. Erin Murphy, I see you commented here and can’t wait to meet your fellow agent, Joan, there!

    1. Susan Heyboer O'Keefe

      Yes, and needings DIFFERENT scenes does not mean 14 close-ups of talking heads. The text has to offer the opportunity for varied kinds of illustrations–action, quiet, one person, many people, and so on. I guess beneath this idea is also that of pacing. The pacing.

  13. JD Lester

    Oh, to be in a room with you teaching, and also with all the smart and insightful people who’ve commented here. SO helpful – thanks!

  14. Jane Buchanan

    The story should be unique and universal at the same time. Something no one’s ever thought of in just that way, but everyone’s experienced.
    Wish I could be there, too!

  15. Robin

    Thanks! This is a very helpful blog for a future author. I also loved and still have my MISS SUZY from my childhood.

  16. Sarah Lamstein

    Plot(z) are my greatest challenge, so I’m always amazed when unconventional plot lines carry the day, as in Karen Hesse’s Come On, Rain! where the arc begins with the usual confrontations and their surmountings but then builds with accretions of joy until a sweet ecstasy and a quiet end. And then there’s Deborah Wiles’ Freedom Summer in which the plot builds as it reveals the psychological awakening of the two boy characters. Brilliant both!
    I, too, wish I could attend your workshop!

  17. Becky Hall

    Of course, there is character development and a story arc with a problem presented and then solved. Word choice is important; picture books need to sound beautiful. They’re meant to be read aloud so the word choice should entertain or enchant the listener.


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