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?
- There’s no story. A charming incident perhaps, or a clever joke, or a moral – but NO STORY.
- There’s no illustration potential. Perhaps a good magazine story or an article. Perhaps just too many words. Perhaps too vague a concept.
- 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 Many older picture books likely would not be published today.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.