Well, this is the last day of June, and our theme this month has been Picture Books, so I thought I’d write about my understanding of how to create in this genre.
I joined the SCBWI in 2003, and it was the best decision I ever made to further my career in this field. There were a few things I knew then about picture books, having read and loved them my whole life, and having had a serendipitous, small success at picture book illustration at that time (The First Teddy Bear, by Helen Kay was illustrated by me and published in 1985, with a second edition in 2005). But I have learned SO MUCH since then from the editors, agents, authors, and illustrators I have met and heard speak at SCBWI conferences and other events. I still have a lot to learn! It has been a joy as well as an education, and I’ve made many friends, too.
Three things I already knew about picture books:
1. The illustrations grab a kid’s (and maybe everyone’s) attention first
As a child, I picked up books because I loved the illustrations; if the story was good as well, that was gravy. Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Garth Williams and Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Maurice Sendak are two examples from my childhood of books I adored because I LOVED the illustrations. The stories are also absolutely wonderful, and they both became classics. These two illustrators remain my personal heroes.
Many people would love to emulate the joyous appeal and success of Dr. Seuss’s verse, but that is much harder than most people imagine. Rhyme is simply not necessary in creating a great book.
3. Characters must be appealing
This is sort of a no-brainer. However, one should keep in mind that the characters’ appeal needs to be aimed at not only the child, but at the parent or grandparent who will purchase the book.
What I learned so far through the SCBWI:
1. Rhythm and repetition are desirable tools in the text
More than once I have heard editors, agents, and authors say this, and I know that it is true. It is what makes classics such as Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd and The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats work so well.
I once went to a talk given by Daniel Kirk, author/illustrator of the Library Mouse series of books and many others, at the Baltimore Book Festival. He said something I’ve kept in mind ever since, that a picture book text should be “like a song.”
2. Keep the word count short
Fine Life for a Country Mouse, my first book as an author/illustrator, started as a manuscript of nearly 2,000 words, back when I had little idea of what I was doing. Its final word count when accepted for publication by Penguin was 506. Editors generally don’t want wordy picture books.
3. The rule of threes
Three Bears, Three Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff — it’s a good number for kids in the picture book demographic to grasp, and it works for many aspects of one’s story, including characters, actions, and plot.
4. Show don’t tell
Here is one phrase you’ll hear over and over again. When it comes to picture books it has special meaning, too: one should avoid duplicating what is in the text with illustration. The pictures ideally depict more of the story than the words can alone. Authors should “leave room” in their manuscripts for the illustrator.
5. Keep the action moving left to right
To move the story forward, the illustrator should compel the reader to turn the page.
6. Start your setting by illustrating on the fore matter
The title page, copyright page, endpapers, etc. all are fair game for illustrations to help start your story by setting a mood, establishing a time or place, or introducing a key character. One of my favorite picture books, The Story of Mrs. Lovewight and Purrless Her Cat by Lore Segal, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (another of my heroes!) exemplifies this with its colorfully patterned endpapers.
7. Universal themes are good, maybe even essential
Ann Whitford Paul says, in her wonderful Writing Picture Books, a Hands-On Guide From Story Creation to Publication, that the writer must have some theme to turn a set of incidents into a story that stays with the reader long after the book is closed.
“Enduring picture books must be about something bigger than a mere incident. The story problem must explore some larger theme or issue. It must have a kernel of truth about life and our world.” This is how writers appeal to both the reader/adult and the listener/child.
8. If you choose to write in verse, it must be spot-on
More difficult than rhyming is the meter of good verse. Not only do the number of syllables have to fit the pattern, but also the emphasis must fall on the right syllable each time. When a writer merely comes close to the meter or the rhyme, the text can be awkward and charmless.
If you’d be interested in a couple of writing exercises to get you going on a picture book text, here’s something I found recently:
Tiffany Alexander wrote in Kathy Temean’s blog Writing and Illustrating, about a workshop given by Tamson Weston, an award-winning author and freelance editor with extensive knowledge about the children’s book industry. This workshop was given at the New Jersey SCBWI June 2012 Conference, and concerned writing picture books. Along with tackling four common myths about picture book writing, Tamson gave a couple of exercises writers might use in order to give their creativity a boost, but with a structure. They are worth a try!