Deb Molly Talks Picture Books: Myth! Myth! ….yeth?

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.

23 thoughts on “Deb Molly Talks Picture Books: Myth! Myth! ….yeth?

  1. Excellent post, Molly! I was sadly ignorant of the realities of picture book writing. This has really opened my eyes.

    >>“After all,” I told her, “it’s $16,000 more than these other guys are offering you.”<< LOL! Makes perfect sense to me.

  2. OK, haven’t even read the post yet, just saw the Muppet Movie quote in the title and fell in love with you all over again. Will read now…

    • Yay! Using that joke meant that I had the muppet movie on in the background while I was finishing up this piece, and I wanted to tweet every single joke. “A bear in his natural habitat… a studebaker.”

  3. Okay, read and loved the post now. I once went to see Mo Willems speak. He is to me THE BEST modern picture book writer/illustrator. The man wrote for Sesame Street, so given your Muppet proclivities, I know you’ll be with me. He was talking about his Elephant and Piggie series, which is made for early readers, and discussed how incredibly hard it is to make a full story, with a valid through-line and a strong sense of humor, with an insanely limited number of simple words. He’s a genius at it — each Elephant and Piggie book is a slice of vaudeville at its best.

    • I love Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus! So funny! That’s another thing I forgot to mention — modern editors aren’t usually looking for “quiet” books — they want weird, quirky, funny, interesting books! Which are even harder to write!

      I also highly recommend Officer Buckle and Gloria, written and illustrated by Peggy Rathmann (who also did Goodnight Gorilla) — when you look at how the text interacts with the pictures, you realize that the pictures offer a whole level of subtext — often ironic — that you wouldn’t get just by hearing the words. To me, that’s the true magic of a picture book — that the pictures and words work together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

    • And yet, the Go The F*ck To Sleep guy probably spent like two days writing his book, and — I’m sure — made a whole bunch of money on it. So the lesson is: use swear words in your title, get rich!

  4. 300 words??? I knew I was no picture book writer before, but I’d never thought about just how short they had to be. That’s really fascinating about Where The Wild Things Are.

    I love this post. I feel like you are extending a challenge! Hmmmm…. Picture book writing DOES sounds like a really good exercise for authors like me who tend write long… A great lesson in being concise.

    • Do it! It’s also challenging for book writers, I think, because we’re so used to fleshing out scenes with dialogue, internal monologue, setting description, etc, and most of the scene, dialogue, and setting in a PB comes from the illustrations. Also, there needs to be a lot of action, because no one wants to illustrate a story where two people just stand around talking to each other for 28 pages. 🙂

  5. What an interesting little peek into picture books. I know I could never write one, so I’ve never given it much thought, but each part of the publishing business is so fascinating in its own way. Thanks for enlightening us, Molly!

    • I don’t know, Joanne — I bet you could! It would just take a lot of practice! The good news is that even if you have to write 50 terrible picture books before you write a good one, if you wrote one PB a week, you could get that under your belt in a year!

  6. I can vouch for all you’ve said. I’m still hanging on to a Christmas picture book I did some twenty years ago. I still enjoy reading it to my grandchildren and that made writing it worthwhile.

  7. Oh, this was interesting! I don’t know anything about the realities of writing picture books. I’ve met a few aspiring picture book writers who lamented having to hire illustrators. They were under the impression that their books needed to be fully formed before approaching agents/editors. I once met an artist who was gung-ho to write a picture book, thinking it would be easy. He’d be his own illustrator! I wonder how the actual writing went for him? 🙂

  8. Thank you for this! While I have confessed that I do not want to write fiction, I have been thinking about children’s books. I would like to write the first story where the step-mom is not evil! You have inspired me even more. So Thanks!!!

    • Oh, I’m glad! I was starting to worry that I’d scared everyone away! I definitely think the world could use more stories in general where the step-mom isn’t evil (one thing I loved about the movie JUNO!!) — it’s a theme close to my own heart. 🙂

  9. I’m so glad you did these, Molly–such great myths to bust.

    I tried to get an agent on a picture book I had written about Katrina and realized through the process how little idea I had of what goes into the structure and building of a children’s story. Now that I have two little ones and love nothing more than reading a whole heap of their books with them every night, I have such a better sense of what it takes–and your myths reinforce all of that.

    (Nice work on the Carol Kane/Muppet Movie ref, btw–I was totally looking for an in for that one)

    • Yes, as with every other genre of writing, it helps to read extensively!

      Also, my understanding is that you don’t really need an agent to sell a picture book, and in fact most agents aren’t super interested in taking them on because the profit margin is so low. The only time an agent will be interested is if you have a whole list of very strong PB manuscripts, because it’s just not worth the time to sell one PB.

      “That’s MY myth you’re talking about!”

  10. Molly, this was one of the best myth busters of children’s picture books I’ve read. Why does everyone think it’s so easy to write a picture book? It’s often harder to be so succinct and age appropriate. Kudos to you for portraying the genre honestly.

    • Thanks, Jackie! With every comment, I think of something else I should have included on the list. I just hope I’m not discouraging anyone — it’s hard work, yes, but it’s not impossible! 🙂

  11. Excellent post Molly. One of the biggest challenges with picture books is writing (and illustrating) for two audiences: children AND parents. When a book is read so many times over and over, everybody must be satisfied or the book will quickly disappear.

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