Friday, June 06, 2008

What Makes a Great Picture Book?

Jude Evans from Little Tiger Press discusses what makes a great picture book

Many moons ago, way back in March, before I even went to Bologna, Jude Evans came to talk at the SCBWI Professional Series about what makes a good picture book. There are many picture book publishers and they all have a slightly different approach to their lists. Little Tiger Press looks for books that will appeal to children the world over and the same goes with their illustrations.

Jude explained that picture books are an important part of childhood, as they install a love of words at an early age that stays with people throughout their lives. It also encourages child and parent bonding. It gives the children an entrance to a new world whilst explaining the world around them. Whilst you are writing you should be thinking of all the children who will be listening to your books and reading them for themselves. You need to consider what qualities your writing has for a child. You do this by reading your books aloud to hear the movement and to hear if there is a strong enough voice and tone. It will also let you know if the story is too long.

A picture book is not a short story. Like a poem each word is vital, so you need to consider the structure of the story. The ending is paramount, like a joke you need an emotional response. Every picture book publisher is looking for new authors and new texts.

Structurally most picture books are 32 pages long.
Title page
12 double page spreads

Structure your story and use the space. The story needs to progress with each spread. Think visually. Normally the books Little Tiger publishes are 750 words but they are often edited down to 650 words. Look for breadth of appeal. They sell to the international market so need a universal appeal in terms of concept, context and character. Hedgehogs are not universal. If the characters are not universal the concept and context has to be even stronger.

Because of the issue of translation some publishers don’t like books in rhyme but LTP don’t have a problem with this. But, it does need a very strong narrative that can still stand alone without the rhyme. 75% of LTP picture books feature animals as helps the children to absorb the subject at an emotional distance. No barriers of race or culture so see themselves as the bear, mouse or hippo. With animals you can explore the same emotions of real people and relationships. Think about the issue you are addressing and the tone and pitch of the story. Consider whether it needs to be a person or can it be an animal character.

Needs to be something children can relate to. Needs to speak directly to the child but parents should be able to appreciate it. Child understands on one level and children understand on another level.

Many texts tackle key experiences:
  • Bedtime
  • Protest – don’t want to
  • Anxiety – scared of the dark
  • Lullaby
Picture books need a unique voice. In the book about being scared of the dark / monsters it transfers the fear to the parent. Think what makes the text special. Is there something I can bring out, how I can make my story work harder?

Many texts deal with relationships such as:
  • Parents
  • New siblings
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Unconditional love
  • Exploring anxieties and doubts

Such texts help children process the emotions. When writing a text think what a parent might want.

Books on bath time, food and bullying are valuable educational tools. A subtle moral or message can help a child to understand core human values. This is key to picture book stories. They help the child to understand the world they are encountering. The writer can take esoteric subjects and write about them to help children understand what is happening around them. Divorce, death, moving home or school all help to explain significant things in a child’s life. The writer must help children to identify with others in the text.

The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit by Chris Wormell is about love, companionship and emotional needs. Reading such books can be rewarding for children and adults. Even at a young age of 3-4 year olds can subvert and play with stories. Some stories may be character led such as Dirty Bertie by David Roberts. Create a character with a really strong personality and voice. Others may be concept led such as Whose Poo? by Jeanette Rowe?

Such character and concept led stories are a hook which children enjoy. Such hooks need to be well thought out. Think how it will work on the page. Think about the art. There are things that a writer does not need to say as the art will say it for them.

In It’s Mine by Eva Lipmajaher the irony is in the illustrations. Illustrations can add a subject. The illustrator can add another character and show how they react to what is going on. Art adds humour by hamming it up. Structure can be different. Some are very linear, repetitive themes, such as Snuggle Up Sleepy Ones by Claire Freeman. If it is linear it needs something special to offer appeal to both parents and children. This could be in the form of repetition and animal noises, which adds energy and can be acted out.

When writing for young children you have to start with immediacy, spread one should introduce a character. Needs to climax at spread twelve. Look at the pace of your story. Think of the page turns. Use the structure of a picture book to make sense and timing of the story. One action may say it all e.g. quiet by... characters need to be strong and individual. Need emotion and voice and reaction. Your characters need to be a real person even if they are portrayed by an animal.

Read your story aloud to ensure it does not fall flat. The reader needs to empathise with character even if throwing tantrums the character needs to be likable, such as in Pumpkin Soup.

The characters are vulnerable and moody without being whinny, such as in the Owl Babies by Martin Waddell v:shapes="_x0000_i1030">. Three different characters show voice and different dialogue.


Make it interesting lyrical, soft, percussive, bouncy and fun, such as in Tumble Me Tumbily by Karen Baicker. Not too hard can introduce new words but not too many. Take a subject like sibling rivalry and think of the emotional pull, depth and sparkle. Should have an ending that makes you smile or laugh out loud.

Send in a word document. Break into twelve spreads. Submit it in this form as shows you are thinking in this structure. There is no minimum number of words. There is no moral stance on thumb sucking it depends on the context. Nits are universal and do translate into other languages.

Want something really new but, this is rare. Looking for gentle narrative story with a strong voice for character, such as No Matter What by Debi Gloris.

Often the books that become huge best sellers they can not anticipate. If published author with a relationship with the editor they will hear back within a few days or weeks. If with an agent they usually hear within a few weeks. If it is an unsolicited manuscript it can be two months plus.

Editors love to nurture and bring on talent and most editor do that in their in their own time and sometimes if a manuscript is going to be rejected but they want to give it a more considered reply they will take longer to reply and give more feedback as they want to do the manuscript justice.

Little Tiger Press work closely as a team and generally work with authors. They divide the books taken to book fairs. Prolific authors may be working with two editors. They do not encourage authors to send illustrations as prefer to match their own illustrator to a text. They hire illustrators straight form university who they keep on their lists and try and match texts to them.

Authors send a manuscript and Little Tiger Press will look through their illustrator list to find the right match. They often look for texts to suit an illustrator’s strengths. If send in illustrator notes they should add another level to the text and they can be put under the text in italics or brackets.

In my opinion, picture book writing must be the hardest form of writing in the world. There are so many things you need to take into consideration. I suggest, if you want to write good picture books and you want to be published by LTP do your market research. It is well worth the time and effort taking a look at the all ready published books Jude Evans has highlighted to see how the authors have produced the desired effect.

Read Candy’s post on the SCBWI talk: Little Tiger, Pressed: What Picture Book Publishers Want

I wanted to add pictures of all the book covers with the books mentioned, as I did in the post on Babette Cole, Every Picture tells a Story, but for some unknown reason everytime I try and add an image Internet Explorer shuts down, so consequently I can't do it. this is also true of my last post: The Editor Panel @ Bologna. But, I suppose if you follow the links you can see the books for yourself.

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