Picture book pitfalls

Don’t get me wrong – I love picture books. I even thought I was going to write them.

Until I worked with a very well-known picture book author at the Highlights Children’s Writers Workshop. He was wonderful! A great help – although probably not in the way he expected. I realized I was writing the wrong books.

I may not be a picture book writer. But I am a picture book reader, and I’ve had plenty of experience reading picture books to audiences of children. I’m pretty savvy about what makes a good picture book these days.

Most folks decide to write picture books for one of three reasons:

  • They’re easy.
  • Their child/grandchild/niece/nephew/godchild/student inspired them.
  • They know children just need to learn THIS.


  • Picture books are not easy. They are a few hundred words of pure genius and incredibly hard work.
  • Picture books tell a story. Both through the text and the art.
  • Children want more than a lesson. They want the story.

The three most common reasons a picture book query is rejected?

  1. There’s no story. A charming incident perhaps, or a clever joke, or a moral – but NO STORY.
  2. There’s no illustration potential. Perhaps a good magazine story or an article. Perhaps just too many words. Perhaps too vague a concept.
  3. There’s no audience – or a very small, very specialized one.

How do agents say these things in their rejection?

  • It’s too didactic. (Preachy, boring, more of a lesson than a story. Many older picture books likely would not be published today. And the reason many classic picture books are classics is because they use a wonderful STORY to imply a moral or lesson.)
  • It’s too quiet. (Also can mean boring. Too vague – a story that lacks kid appeal and/or the possibility to be read again and again.)
  • It’s too limited. (Trade publishers need books that appeal broadly to children. Diversity is important, not just because of the theory of windows and mirrors* but because books that appeal to nearly everyone have a large market. Books that are very narrowly focused may do well in an educational or specific setting, but they’re often published by small presses.)

So what can you do to ensure your picture book query makes it past the slush pile?

  • Make sure your picture book is a story, with a beginning middle, end, and a narrative arc.
  • Make sure your story has illustration potential. Leave out all but essential description – and yes, that includes most art notes. Unless the note references a sight gag or something that can’t be inferred from the text, leave it out. Focus on action and emotion. Give the illustrator room to create something wonderful. Picture books are a collaboration between the art and the text.
  • Finally, make sure your picture book is appealing. If there’s a lesson, let it be subtle. Humor is almost always a plus. Children should want to hear or read it over and over. (Parents should, too. I find the best picture books are never boring, no matter how simple. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS or THREE NINJA PIGS. They never get old.)



*Books that show us other cultures, races, religions, etc. are WINDOWS. Books that show us ourselves are MIRRORS. IBBY has an excellent speech about this concept.


Bookish subscriptions

Now that I’ve caught up from BookExpo and NJ-SCBWI and the weird summer flu my husband gave me, I’m back in my chair, working hard.

One of the bennies of working for a literary agency is getting to attend events that my bosses can’t. One of those was a Lunch and Learn hosted by PJ Library during BookExpo.

Not familiar with PJ Library? Neither was I. I’d heard of them, but I didn’t know nearly enough about them. PJ Library is a philanthropic organization that sends FREE Jewish children’s books to families in the United States and around the world – every month.

That’s right. Every month, Jewish children – no matter their background, family make-up, knowledge, or observance – can receive free books after signing up with PJ Library. The original program is for children 6 months to 8 years old, and there is a follow-on program, PJ Our Way, which provides books to children 9-11 years old.

Pretty great! Of course, for us as writers, this means there is also a steady demand for books with Jewish themes, values, and stories. This is a very broad spectrum, inclusive of intermarried families too! (Jewish values? Think tikkun olam – making the world a better place OR tzedekah – charity.)

PJ Library sends out over 165,000 books each month. That’s a LOT of books.

You can read about how they choose books here. I was happy to learn that PJ Library is committed to working with agents to fulfill their consistent need for these stories – they have special incentives and a dedicated contact for agencies. (And the incentives go to THE AUTHOR.)

If you’ve a Jewish story you’re working on, keep PJ Library in mind as a possible submission. Remember, authors do not need to be Jewish themselves. (Though as with all diverse voices, #ownvoices are great.)  🙂

Another great service I noted at BookExpo was Owl Crate. Need a great gift for teens? (Or that YA librarian in your life?) Owl Crate is a subscription service (from 1-6 months) that ships a box containing a brand-spanking-new YA novel AND other bookish goodies – even author notes and such – right to your recipient’s door. (Or your door, as the case may be.) Each box is centered around a theme. July’s is WANDERLUST.

(They are also offering a middle grade service, Owl Crate JR. for readers ages 8-12. )

I’m thinking I’m all set for summer birthdays and my niece’s holiday present this year. Friends’ children get the single box, my niece gets a three-month or six-month bundle of reading fun. Less shopping for me, more reading for them. Yay! More time for my MG novel draft. 😉


Happy holidays

What with writing, work, and some family health issues, L is for Literary had an unexpected hiatus. Hopefully 2017 will bring more regular posts and more bookish goodness to this page!

Here’s wishing you and yours a very happy holiday season, followed by a terrific 2017!

May the new year bring you productivity, prosperity, health, and happiness – and most of all, a slew of good books to read. 🙂

Interested in catching up with the best of 2016? Here’s a few lists to help you out:

Best Books 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards

The 10 Best Books of 2016 – The New York Times

100 Notable Books of 2016 – The New York Times

Best Books 2016 – Publishers Weekly

2016 Kirkus Prize Finalists

Booklist Best Books of 2016 (by category)

Notable Children’s Books -2016 – Association of Library Service to Children



We could all use a little


It’s a little thing that is not-so-little to those who receive it.

Lately, I’ve noticed a lot more folks being kind. I hope this isn’t a flash in the pan.

Candlewick Press tweeted a new hashtag today that floats my boat:


I love it. Especially after finishing Leslie Connor’s ALL RISE FOR THE HONORABLE PERRY T. COOK today.

Heartwarming. And not mushy. Just the way I like ’em.

What have you read lately that’s kind? And while you’re being kind to others – don’t forget yourself. ❤


Small surprises

Last week I visited the Met. I don’t go nearly as often as I should, but often enough that I became a member. (I know, it’s a “suggested” entry fee, but I always felt guilty paying so much less.)

Every time I go, I find something new. Not just special exhibits, but permanent ones. Statues, paintings – heck, whole ROOMS – I’ve never seen before. I love the rooms. I love imagining myself hiding in the Met like Claudia, trying out all the beds.

Even when I’m expecting an exhibit, it can surprise me. I knew that Printing A Child’s World was on view, but it was still delightful to turn a corner and walk into the exhibit unexpectedly.

The upper right image is from Randolph Caldecott’s The House that Jack Built. Yes, that Caldecott!

While the exhibit is small, it’s lovely. Especially for fans of printmaking and children’s literature – or both. Like me. 🙂 How gorgeous is this circus scene?


If these images aren’t enough to inspire you, what does? I know November is NaNoWriMo for many, many, many writers, but Kendra Levin’s guest post on Writing Kids (While Raising Them) makes an excellent point for taking November – or another month – off.

Also ending soon is the SCBWI Book Blast – November 18th. If you’re a member of SCBWI, check your email for a note about the Book Blast 10 Plus Club. Not a member? Join now! Or just check out the Book Blast to browse, buy, or enjoy the great books promoted by SCBWi members.

One last surprise from last week: KA Reynolds’ book deal! Congratulations to KA! She was my competitor in QueryKombat last year, and her pitch for this book triumphed (gracefully and graciously) over mine. Her dream came true – just more proof that determination and hard work pay off. 🙂


Labelling books

Eileen & Jerry Spinelli wrote a wonderful book titled  Today I Will: a Year of Quotes, Notes, and Promises to Myself. I bought it in Chautauqua during a Highlights Foundations Children’s Writers Workshop. I don’t look into it every day, but when I do it never fails to surprise me with a great piece of advice – usually, but not always, from a kids’ book. Today’s passage was even more thought-provoking than usual:

“October 26

To me, the labels that people gave each other – or themselves – were like invisible name tags. Once you started to ‘wear’ one, everyone was free to make assumptions about who you are.

More than a Label: Why What You Wear or Who You’re With Doesn’t Define Who You Are 

by Aisha Muharrar

So why do it? Why costume yourself like a this or a that and thereby invite everyone to assume you’re so much less than you really are?

I am not a label.

I am not a label.

I am not a label.”

Published in 2002, Muharrar’s book looks at the role of labels & cliques for teens, based on a survey that then teen-aged Muharrar performed while a member of “Teen People News.” It’s still relevant – perhaps even more so – today, given what’s happening in publishing and kidlit. #WNDB isn’t just a hashtag. (Thank goodness! 🙂 )

But it’s also relevant in our libraries: classroom, school, public, and even personal.

I’ve always been a little annoyed by the constant narrowing down of divisions in kid lit. PB, MG, YA… easy read or chapter book? … fiction vs. nonfiction … shelving series separately or with other fiction. Don’t get me started on shelving biography separately from Dewey call number 920.

Volunteers always want to pull out books. Make a shelf for princess books. Make a shelf for holiday books – no, not 394, that’s nonfiction, we want holiday picture books. Why are graphic novels shelved with nonfiction?

Sheesh. Sometimes separating books is a good thing. (Hello, Dewey subject headings and call numbers?) But more often, it creates a morass of shelving minutia that’s hard for new volunteers and new students to understand. That’s the surprise and delight of browsing: finding something you didn’t even know you wanted just because it happened to be by an author whose last name started with K when you were about to re-read one of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.

And separating books by reader age? Picture books are for everyone, but too many people regard them as only for very young children. Where does that leave the many “picture storybooks” of the past? There’s a clear line between most easy readers or beginning chapter books and middle grade books or YA, but what about the morass that faces the middle school reader or advanced MG reader? Please don’t tell me that now there’s upper MG. And forget about NA.

What happened to integrating all the fiction – assuming shelf heights and space allow – and letting kids discover books for themselves? Did libraries start following a bookstore model, or was it the other way ’round? Was it an outgrowth from the classroom and the now constant leveling of readers? (Stick to the five-finger rule, my friends! Works for all ages, not just kids.)

We make assumptions about books based on the labels they “wear,” just like we make assumptions about people. “That’s too hard for me.” “I don’t like fantasy.” “I want a princess book.” (You try giving a determined kindergartener a ‘real” fairy tale instead of name-your-Disney-Princess-here. Fun!)

I see it in the queries I read for the slush pile all the time. Yes, it’s important to know your audience. It’s important to know your genre. As a literary assistant, it’s very helpful – unless I read your pages and realize that you really don’t know what YA is.

As a writer, I don’t want labels to limit the audience for my book. As a lapsed librarian, I know some labels are necessary so readers can find the books they want. Maybe the folks who shelve their own books by color instead of by genre or alpha by author are on to something. I’m not that brave with my own bookshelves.

As a person, I agree with today’s passage. I am not a label. It’s the sum of the many labels I have worn and do wear that make me who I am.

Instead of dividing books or people – as labels do – let’s start adding.


A good book?

One thing I won’t miss from my school library is the perpetual battle over what makes a good book. I do wish I’d had Adam Gidwitz’s recent New Yorker article to hand to parents and administrators, however. Gidwitz’s article is a beautiful examination of what, exactly, makes a children’s book good.

Using R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series as an example, Gidwitz makes the excellent point that selling over 350 million copies – please read that number in a Dr. Evil voice, ok? – just isn’t possible unless children themselves love and adore the books, devouring them like popcorn. He says no marketing push or movie tie-in can give a book those numbers, and he’s right.

I believe him because I’ve watched students descend upon that section of library shelves like a horde of locusts, class after class, year after year.

I’ve also had to convince concerned parents and faculty that reading those books – or Diary of a Wimpy Kid or graphic novels or the Rainbow Fairies or name your child’s favorite popular title – is OKAY.

Sigh. They’re reading, folks! All reading is good reading. (Great reading, now that’s another story.)

The article continues with an examination of the difference between a good book and lit-ra-cha. (Thank you, Laura Amy Schlitz, for that. Loved Splendors and Glooms!)

My personal opinion is that children should be reading. I don’t care if it’s a cereal box. If they’re reading something, it is SO much easier to get them to read other things. While I’m no longer a librarian, that philosophy guides my writing as well.

Like Adam Gidwitz, I just want to write something that some child somewhere will “clutch to their chest and say, ‘I love this book!’ “