Picture Book Writer Series: The Hard Work Lecture

Thursday, April 22, 2021

No matter how old people are or their feelings about reading, they have fond memories of picture books. These memories can range from reading with parents or grandparents at night books like, The Monster at the End of This Book or The True Story of the Three Little Pigs or just about any Golden Book. Memories, of row after row of hardback picture books with white tags on the spine in a school library or even a public one, are also front and center in readers' minds. Maybe some of these picture books were the first ones that you learned to read as a child, and now you are sharing your favorites with your kids--Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? or Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. 

Gosh, picture books are just fun, right?

I'm a picture book writer with two published books, Maggie Mae: Detective Extraordinaire: The Case of the Missing Cookies and That's the Way It Always Happened. My publishing company has also published two picture books in the Perky Pet Problems picture book series by Fred Olds: The Dog and the Flea: A Tale of Two Opposites and The Cat, the Mouse, and the Neighbor's Dog:A Tale of Problem Solving. I've read countless manuscripts and advised multiple picture book writers, and so I feel like I'm pretty well-versed in the genre, and I'm here to say...

1. They aren't as easy as they look.
2. Pay as much attention or more to these manuscripts as you would a novel while writing and revising them.

This is part one of a four-part series on picture book writing for The Muffin. (Part two will be on Dos and Don'ts, part three will focus on illustrations, and part four will be about marketing.) Today's post is a lecture. It is--I'm sorry. Experts tell us not to be preachy, and I started writing this post thinking that I wouldn't be. But then I felt myself taking a step up onto my soapbox and fully planting myself on it, holding a megaphone to shout out: "If you have such fond memories of picture books from when you were young, and if your kids do too, then your readers deserve picture books that can give them those same kind of fond memories!" 

Let's start with three main tips:

1. Know what kind of picture book you're writing. If you're writing a concept book, like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, then own it--put those concepts in the manuscript for your preschool audience and make the story fun and creative because there's not a concept that hasn't been covered. Fred's The Dog and the Flea is a concept book with a story--the concept is opposites, and the back-of-the book activities explain what opposites are and why dog and flea are in a book about opposites. Plus, there's a matching activity that kids can do with their parents to reinforce the concept of opposites. Commit to your concept, and be original. 

2. If you're writing a rhyming book, read it out loud--as many times as you can, into a tape recorder, to your partner, or kids. You know that it's not just about the rhyming words at the end of the lines--we aren't writing a grade school poem for our parents. The text has to have rhythm. It's one of the reasons why I publish Fred's rhyming books. He has a natural talent for rhyming and the rhythm. The book is like a song--we could probably put music to The Cat, the Mouse, and the Neighbor's Dog. 

3. Give those kids in the book a problem. Just like middle grade and young adult readers need to see themselves in the starring roles of the books they read and facing and solving challenges, so do our youngest readers. In That's the Way It Always Happened, my main character, Lucy, has trouble listening, and she has to figure out a way to listen to her teacher before the end of the week, or she might mess up the big cheer they're doing for Red Ribbon Week. If you aren't writing a concept book or a non-fiction book for kids, then you need a problem in your story--even if you're writing in rhyme. Stories need conflict! 

I meet a lot of picture book writers. Some hire me to help them improve their manuscripts. Most of the drafts I read are lovely, fun, interesting ideas for young readers. But making these drafts into publishable books takes work. (Don't worry the lecture is almost over!) Research the market. Read picture books like the ones you want to write. Study rhyme and rhythm with experts, like Dr. Seuss or Tedd Arnold. Make sure the story is solid with story elements, such as problems/solutions, rising and falling action, and character growth and motivation. Then remember, illustrations help tell the story--that's why you can get by with so few words, but those words have to be spectacular.

You can be the next Eric Carle, Patricia Polacco, Mo Willems, or my author pal, Fred Olds, publishing his first children's books at 91! You can be a great children's writer. But it will take work, just like being a novelist does. Stay tuned for part two on dos and don'ts, coming up next time I blog in a couple weeks! 

Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, and publisher, living in St. Louis, MO. Check out more about her at https://www.margoldill.com. If you are interested in hiring her as a picture book editor, check out her writers' services here. She's picture to the left in a crown--it's probably gone to her head, and that's why she started lecturing...


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--I compare picture books to poems. In short stories or novels, you can have some "cushioning" when it comes to words. However, in picture books (and poems) every word matters.

I look forward to your next post. I have a picture book manuscript that was dusty, got edited and has not gotten revised yet. Perhaps your post will spur me into getting off my wide rump and getting to work on it.

(And the crown makes sense to me. You're publishing royalty!)

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Margo, this was a right on time post for me with great tips. This week I revisited one of my picture book ideas about fathers and started working on it. Thank-you for this post.

Margo Dill said...

Glad to hear it, Jeanine! I hope you'll find my series helpful.

Sioux! I think I remember your picture book, and I think you have one edit left with me by the way. :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

My first manuscripts were picture books. Still don't have one published, but I keep trying. For something that appears so simple, they are definitely tricky to get right!

Margo Dill said...

No doubt. I think some of the experts make them look easy like most experts do, I suppose!

Renee Roberson said...

Margo--I never realized how hard picture books were to write until I attended a few writing conferences and met some PB authors. It's a tough market to crack, and while I laughed at your "lecture" format, these are solid and practical tips. Concept and conflict! And studying the market!

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