Since the children’s book world has been the center of a crazy story this week, I thought I would talk about some myths from the world of children’s literature — more specifically, myths about writing picture books!
I have never written a successful picture book (though I’ve written some pretty terrible ones, mostly for school projects — to be fair Fourth Grade Molly’s book “The Alaskan Cinderella” was pure genius, but after that my picture book output went WAY downhill), but I’ve worked with many aspiring picture book writers on their manuscripts, and have grilled my children’s book editor friends often enough that I’m pretty confident I can give you the inside scoop.
MYTH: Picture Books Are Easy to Write
REALITY: The picture book is a highly compressed form. The average picture book is 32 pages long, with just a few hundred words — Where the Wild Things Are, for instance, has just over 300 words, and is told in only 10 sentences — and those words tend to be simple and direct. So you have a few hundred words in which to tell a clear, true, original, and captivating story, with lots of interesting action that your illustrator can sink her teeth into, which will hold the interest of thousands of children from all walks of life.
Does this sound easy to anyone else? Because to me it seems nearly impossible! I encounter this myth all the time, and it never fails to astonish me. I mean, sonnets are short, but no one thinks they’re particularly easy to write. Maybe this is the novelist in me — I’ve never been able to tell a short story in my life — but I really cannot understand why so many people seem to equate short with easy.
Also, I read somewhere that Maurice Sendak spent a year on the text of WTWTA. A YEAR.
MYTH: Picture Books Should Rhyme
REALITY: In fact, it’s often harder to sell a rhyming picture book than a non-rhyming one. Certainly, the language matters. Rhythm and repetition and readability are all crucial — which again is why I often think of the picture book as a kind of non-rhyming poetic structure. But just as in modern poetry, picture books don’t always have to rhyme!
The reason rhyming picture books are harder to sell? My theory is that editors see SO MANY terrible rhymes that they become allergic to rhyming books, and a single rhyming couplet will make them break out in hives. (Incidentally, this allergy also exists among middle and high school poetry teachers.)
MYTH: Picture Books Should Teach Children a Lesson
REALITY: BO-ring! Do you sit down with a novel hoping to learn a lesson? Do you look to characters in literature to teach you how to be a better person? Why should kids be any different?
There are a million reasons to read, a million reasons a reader is drawn to a book, and a million things to get out of the experience of reading — and sure, those million things might include coming to a greater understanding about life, about humanity, about conflict and struggle and perseverance and hope and compassion. But unless you’re writing a period brochure, your top priority as a writer should always be to tell the best and truest story you can, not to teach a lesson.
MYTH: You Have to Find Your Own Illustrator
REALITY: Nope! This is probably the most common misconception I hear about picture books. Your publisher will match your story with an illustrator, and you won’t get much, if any, say over who that is, what their work looks like, or how they’ll choose to illustrate your story. Being a picture book writer is like being a screenwriter: just because you wrote the screenplay doesn’t mean you have any say in how the director, cinematographer, and actors choose to bring the story to life.
Along these lines, it’s probably a good idea to develop a Zen-like detachment from your manuscript, because you’ll have little if any say in where and how it will get cut along the way. Often, the illustrator will be able to tell part of the story with pictures, and some of your lovely words will become redundant and be cut. Other times, the picture will need most of the page, so your words will be cut again.
If you want full control over all your words, you should probably just write novels (and then maybe self-publish them!).
MYTH: Some Children You Know Like It, Therefore Every Child In The World Will Like It
Reality: Publishers hear this all the time. “I’ve read it to my children/grandchildren/students/street urchins, and they love it!” Please do NOT put this in your query letter. Editors read hundreds, maybe thousands, of picture books a year. Editors are highly intelligent, well-educated and well-read people with years and years of publishing experience. They’ll judge a manuscript on its merits, and the alleged thumbs-up of alleged children will not sway their opinion.
I think it’s great when people read to kids, and I think it’s really great when adults read their own writing to kids, because a) kids get to learn about the writing process, which helps them to be better and more thoughtful readers, and b) how cool is it for kids to see an adult doing their own creative work and following their passions? But let’s be honest: if your grandchildren love your book, it might be in large part because they love YOU and they’re thrilled for any and all attention they get from you. Who knows, they might be equally excited about your macrame plant hangers, if it means they get some of your time and attention.
MYTH: Write And Publish a Picture Book, Get Rich!
REALITY: If by “rich,” you mean “an extra $500 – $1000,” then yes! Riches can be yours!
I actually had a student get visibly angry when she heard how low typical picture book advances were. The weird thing was that she’d been talking to a self-publishing press that was going to charge her $15,000 up front to publish her picture book, so I couldn’t understand why she’d be mad about the idea of getting $1000 from a traditional publisher. “After all,” I told her, “it’s $16,000 more than these other guys are offering you.” Somehow the logic didn’t appeal to her.
MYTH: All The Hard Work and Craziness Is Worth It In The End
REALITY: If you do it right? It’s totally worth it.