Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Picture Book State-of-Mind

In honor of Picture Book Marathon month, each of the TeachingAuthors will be sharing how we approach picture book writing. Mary Ann kicked off the topic in her last post, where she talked about how deceptively simple picture book texts appear to be to those who haven't studied them. I once heard Tomie dePaola, the author  and/or illustrated of over 200 books, say that of all writing genres (including novels for adults), a picture book text is the most difficult.

Instead of discouraging me, dePaola's words were a great consolation. I didn't feel quite as bad about my struggles to sell a picture book. (Mary Ann's words about typically taking at least three years to write and polish a picture book are consoling to me, too.) As I shared in another post, I first became interested in children's publishing precisely because I wanted to write picture books. I eventually learned that novel writing comes more easily to me. But part of me still has ideas that I believe would make terrific picture books. So I work on them in between my novel writing.

It's not always easy for me to transition between the two genres (especially when the novel I'm working on is in the voice of a teenager living in 18th-century Milan!). The best way I've found to get into a picture book state-of-mind is to begin by reading aloud several picture books that have a tone or rhythm similar to what I'm aiming for. As I've shared before, I sometimes also type out the text of those books. I recommend my students working on picture books do the same.

Don't know which picture books to study? You might want to begin with those on the New York Public Library's 100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know, or the Top 100 Picture Books Poll Results compiled at the Fuse #8 Production blog. (See the Blogosphere Buzz below for some Fuse #8 news.) If you're looking for more recent favorites (especially if you're trying to create a manuscript that might actually get published in the current market), then check out the latest winners of the Charlotte Zolotow Award for picture book text. (In case you didn't know, my fellow TeachingAuthor Mary Ann Rodman won the Zolotow Award for her book, My Best Friend. So go back and re-read her post to learn whatt inspired that manuscript.) Another approach would be to do an author study of a picture book author's body of work. Some of my favorites for this include Mem Fox, Lisa Wheeler, Phyllis Root, and Carolyn Crimi. Mem Fox also has two terrific articles on her website that every aspiring picture book writer should read: "So You Want to Write a Picture Book" and "20 Do's and 20 Don'ts." One of Fox's comments inspired the Writing Workout below.

As if writing a successful picture book manuscript wasn't hard enough, I am also working on my first picture book biography. This is a unique genre onto itself. Finding the best picture book biographies to study is a bit more challenging than simply finding great picture books. Most of the following lists are for general nonfiction, not necessarily picture books or biography, but they've led me to some terrific books.
When I searched the I.N.K. blog for posts specifically labeled "biography," I came across a post by Barbara Kerley in which she says: 
"In picture books, especially, there is no room for side-trips, interesting asides, meandering down this path and that—a picture book needs a tight focus and a clean storyline. And because a picture book is illustrated, the story you tell has to be dramatic—people have to do things, and, ideally, do them in different places."
Ironically, reading Kerley's post became a "side-trip" in my search for resources that list well-written picture book biographies. :-) If you know of places to find exceptional picture books, especially biographies, please share them in the comments.

And if you're participating in this year's Picture Book Marathon, hang in there. You can do it!

Writing Workout
The Need for Trouble

On her website, prolific picture book author Mem Fox says:
"At the start of a story we need to be as direct as possible. It’s a common sin to beat about the bush, and waffle on for too long. We should attempt to say who, when, and where in the first two sentences, and then begin to state the problem. We have to solve a problem during a story otherwise we have no trouble. Without trouble we have no plot. Only trouble is interesting. "
  1. For this workout, grab 6-12 picture books you admire. Study the opening pages. Examine how they introduce "who, when, and where" and "state the problem." Identify what the "trouble" is and how it is resolved.
  2. Now look at your picture book in progress and do the same thing. Have you done a good job of showing the "trouble" in your story? Does your resolution solve the initial story problem or have you inadvertently veered off-course?
  3. Go back to the Barbara Kerley quote above. In your story, have you kept "a tight focus and clean storyline"? Are your characters doing things, ideally in a variety of settings?
Blogosphere Buzz
  • Congratulations to Betsy Bird, creator of the Fuse #8 Production blog, on celebrating her 5th Blogiversary. For those who aren't familiar with this blog, it's a great resource for both book reviews and general children's publishing news.
  • Even if you're not participating in this year's Picture Book Marathon, check out the official marathon blog for helpful tips on picture book writing. 
  • On Monday, Alice Pope announced on the SCBWI Children's Market Blog that the entry period for the first-ever SCBWI Crystal Kite Member Choice Awards has been extended. If you're an SCBWI member with a book published in 2010, be sure to see her blog post for information on how you can nominate your book. 
  • This week, there's a review of the I Fooled You anthology over at the Kiss the Book blog. I'm thrilled to see that the reviewer's son enjoyed my story, "Big Z, Cammi, and Me," the best in the collection. :-)
As always, happy writing,


The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

I Facebooked this and Twittered it. I love this post. I saved it (I hope) on my bookmarks toolbar.
It is bewildering going back and forth between Genres. I am revising and adult novel and a mid grade novel. I have to cut a story for the LA times down to 600 words and have no idea where to begin and I am working on getting our my current PB manuscript. Changing hats is very confusing. I am going to look at biography picture books. Thanks for the tips

Carmela Martino said...

I'm glad your found the post helpful. And thanks for sharing it on Facebook and Twitter. If you like, you can friend me on Facebook at All our blog posts appear on my profile page, so it's easy to share them with other FB members.
Good luck with shortening your article. Your dilemma has given me an idea for a future post on how to "write tight."

Beth MacKinney said...

Great post.

You may have read this already, but Ann Whitford Paul has written a fabulous book called 'Writing Picture Books' which is one of the best on the topic (I think). Besides giving you tons of great picture book titles to read, she has exercises that will take you outside of your comfort zone in writing picture books and will help you make your own picture book story the best it can be.

Bruce Frost said...

Excellent resources! I agree that a picture book, especially a biography, needs to have a simple and exciting storyline. However, the great thing about picture books is that small side trips can be taken through design and illustrations, as well as pieces of text. If done well, you have a wonderfully layered book that readers can keep exploring, as long as the storyline is upfront and central. Along with many others, the first examples I think of are books by Peter Sis.

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks, Beth. We're big fans of Ann Whitford Paul and her book here on TeachingAuthors. Ann was our very first Guest Teaching Author. She shared some great tips, which you can read here:
And Esther formally reviewed the book here:
Bruce, thanks for your comments. I agree about the benefits of using design and illustrations for "side-trips," or perhaps adding another layer of the story, as in SNOWFLAKE BENTLEY.