Picture Books

Q: Do I have to be an artist to write a picture book? 
A: No.  Many picture books are written and illustrated by two different people.

Q:  Do authors and illustrators collaborate on picture books?
A:  If you mean do they sit down over a cup of coffee and hash out the fine points–in a word, No.  With the possible exception of some writers who are related to the artists who illustrate their work, the writers of picture books don’t collaborate directly withe illustrators.  Many have never even met the artists who have illustrated their work.  The picture book is a blend of art and words, mediated by an editor who works with both author and illustrator, fine-tuning both art and words, separately, to serve the story.

Q: How do I find an illustrator?
A: You don’t.  You just write a story that is so lively, evocative, lyrical, and worthy of illustration that it provides openings for imagery.  If it’s accepted for publication, you trust that the publisher will find a talented illustrator who will create fabulous art for it.

Q:  What if my book needs to be historically or culturally specific? Do I get any say in the imagery? 
A: You will need to discuss that with your publisher at the time your work is acquired.  Most publishers will be happy to learn of source materials that you can recommend or offer, that will help an illustrator research the background of your story more effectively.  Many publishers will also be agreeable to letting you see preliminary sketches as the illustrator develops them.  But remember that the artist is a professional too, and above all, that your role is not that of resident art critic!

Q:  Can I write illustrator notes into my manuscript?
A: If you do, make sure they are essential to the story, as, e.g., if the picture needs to contradict the words for the sake of humor, or if something needs to be shown as a surprise, that is deliberately not mentioned in the text.  These are rare instances, however.  For the most part, I’d aim to write clearly enough that the emotional nuances or actions you want to see in the imagery are cued into your text.

I’ve heard from illustrators how annoying it is to get a manuscript laden with dictatorial directions from an author.  If you want creative, illuminating pictures to bring life to your story, you have to give the art some room to grow.  I even know of illustrators who cross off the author notes before sitting down to read the story.  I don’t blame them.  If you can’t trust an illustrator to read the spirit of your words, maybe you’re not trusting the effectiveness of those words!

Q:  How do I begin to write a picture book?
A:  First, read lots  of them, preferably ones that have been been published in the last 10 years.  Don’t try to write like Beatrix Potter, or even Dr. Seuss.  That’s been done already.  Get to know this market before you decide your story is perfect for it.  Find out who’s publishing what kind of picture book.  They come in many varieties–rhymed, unrhymed, free verse, prose, realistic, fantasy, with people and animals for protagonists.  To be a successful picture book, the story must be able to stand multiple readings. It must draw a child back again and again.   Compelling is good.  Lyrical is good.  Rhythm and pacing are essential.  Overly cute and sentimental can be the kiss of death.

Q: Any tips for writing a picture book story?
A:  Cut to the chase.  No meandering beginnings.  Sufficient action to carry the story through changing scenes. Read, read, read what’s out there already, so you can see where your voice might fit into the conversation.  Read your work in progress out loud.  That’s the ultimate test for a picture book. Picture book story lives in the space between the words and the images, and that space is governed by the story being read out loud.  Remember also that picture books are most often intended to be read by adults to children.  Make sure there’s enough in there to sustain both a child viewer/listener and an adult reader through many repetitions.

Q: How do I know if my story is not right for a picture book?
A:  If it’s too long, or it raises more questions than it answers, or it has a sensibility more appropriate for an older reader, it may not be a picture book. If it all takes place in a single scene, it is most likely not a picture book.  If it’s all in conversation, without a storyline that containes action it might not work either.

Q: In what format do I submit  my picture book manuscript? 
A: The same as any other–double spaced, with 1 inch margins.  I personally don’t indicate page breaks at this stage, unless the story depends on it (e.g., if a page must turn in the middle of a sentence for surprise or humor).  If it’s in verse, double space the stanzas.  Before you submit it, however, I strongly recommend dummying the story out to make sure you have enough for 32 pages, the length of a standard picture book.  Visualizing it in scenes also helps. (You will have 14 spreads and a single to work with, more or less)

Do not illustrate it yourself if you are not an artist–no stick figures, no decorations.  Don’t laugh, this is serious.

Retelling Traditional Tales for Children

Q: What’s a folk tale? Come to think of it, what’s a fairy tale, fable, legend, myth, tall tale? 
A: All folk literature originates in an oral tradition. Sometimes it is oral to this day (as in many Native American tales). Sometimes the stories were written down as long as a thousand or more years ago (as in Hindu or Buddhist traditions) but have many variations in oral form. Fairy tales are magical tales involving supernatural beings, also sometimes called “household tales.” In Europe, before Charles Perreault and “Conte de Ma Mere l’Oyee” these stories were orally told. Now they have passed into a written tradition, and their influence is seen in original work produced by writers of fiction to this day.

Animal tales are of several kinds — trickster tales; fables (with a moral or lesson, like Aesop, or the Buddhist Jataka stories); and pour quoi or origin tales explaining why something came to be. Actually not all pour quoi tales are animal tales, but many are. Myths are usually part of a sacred tradition, although note that in many traditional societies it is impossible to disentangle the sacred from the mundane.

Tall tales are usually humorous, vast reservoirs of exaggeration, and usually about legendary figures or real places. Legends, of course, are tales told as fact, set in the tangible world, but with many wonderful events and characters who do not clearly people that world.

Q: How do I go about looking for stories to retell?
A: There are many sources. Primary sources are storytellers, and of course it is permissible to retell a story you might originally have heard as a child, told from within your cultural circles. Secondary sources include works already retold for purposes of scholarship, or retold for an audience different from one you have in mind. Leads to secondary sources can often be found through indexes, the most well-known of which is the Stith Thompson Motif-index of Folk Literature. This is exhaustive, but not all-inclusive, and focuses mainly on tales derived from European traditions, or those that made their way into Europe (e.g. from Persia, India, China). Margaret MacDonald’s “Storyteller’s Sourcebook” (1982) is a source index of stories in folklore collections for children. A good secondary source that might provide leads to stories from non-European traditions are the area studies departments of Universities (e.g. American Studies, East Asian Studies, etc). Run some keyword searches at a university library (many are online) and you will find lists of works by folklorists, anthropologists and ethnographers. These books will contain further lists of the sources their authors used. Keep following this track and you’ll come up with some jewels! I have gotten many through Interlibrary loan at my small-town public library, at nominal cost.

Q: How do I know a story is in the public domain? 
A: The date is one clue. Often material published 100 years ago is not covered by copyright, so you might not need permission to use and adapt it. But to be sure, you should do your best to contact the source (publisher of the book or journal you found the story in) to get this in writing from them. e.g. Dover (many of whose publications are in the public domain) published a Buddhist story I wanted to use, so I wrote to them about it. The author of the book died some years ago, but Dover gave me the name of the executor of his estate. I ended up with a letter from him saying he’d be happy to have me use the story. He was very gracious, gave me some additional information, and wrote me a lovely letter afterwards saying he had given my book to his grandchildren.

Q: What are the rules on citing sources? 
A: They used to be quite loose, the thinking being that it was undesirable to clutter up a children’s book with complex bibliographical material. That thinking has changed dramatically over the last 20 years or so, especially as the 1980s saw a number of folktales retold for children that were so bowdlerized the original tales were unrecognizable. With no sources, the adult consumer of this book has no way of authenticating the material. I recommend you always cite sources, whether they are print, oral or even electronic. A small print list in the back, using the Chicago Manual of Style format for bibliographies, will do.

Q: Will this story make a picture book? 
A: That depends. Not all folk tales are appropriate for young children, so that is one consideration. Another is whether the story you are contemplating has substance enough for a picture book, i.e. is there enough plot or character, or is this (dreaded editorial judgment) slight? Sometimes you can pull off a small collection in picture book format if the stories have a common theme or place of origin.

Q: Can I change a traditional story? 
A: Here you are treading on what I consider dangerous ground. You need to examine closely your reasons for changing the story, and make sure you do not in any way trivialize it in the process. I have seen sacred tales in which the religious or spiritual aspect has been expunged in the retelling, and that, to my mind, is unconscionable. Sometimes we are dealing with the last remnants of a world tradition here, and we need to know that and use this power with care. Having said that, here’s my rule: if you change it, make sure you detail any changes in your notes, and explain why you made them. The exception to this is telling fractured fairy tales, because the assumption is everyone knows the original story (Perreault took care of that, in 1697)!

Q: Do I need to get permission to retell or adapt a story? 
A: Yes, unless the material is in the public domain. Sometimes you will have to pay for that permission. I have drawn up a standard permissions contract that I mail out when I need to get permission, and it covers things like the purpose of use, nature of adaptation, terms of use, etc. I’ve been refused permission once, been charged a bundle once and was able to haggle it down to something I could afford, and made the acquaintance of some fascinating people in the process. It is important to clarify that you need permission to adapt and not reprint (a different beast altogether).

Q: What age group should I target in retelling my story? 
A: Depends on the story. Aaron Shepard talks about the three hats of the folk tale writer — the researcher, the writer, the storyteller. This is where you wear the writer hat, and step back to look at the story. Does it have enough plot? What is the theme? Is there enough here for a short story as part of an anthology? A stand-alone magazine piece? A picture book? That will tell you about age group.

Q: How much background information should I include? 
A: As much as you need to give an adult reader access to further information about the stories. Teachers and librarians will use this material to develop study units and presentations, or to order further resource material so they can understand those stories better. Examples of background information can be glossaries, story notes, pronunciation guides, character lists, and of course source lists.

Q: If I retell, am I author, reteller, or editor?
A: That seems a matter of preference — I have seen all three used on jackets and title pages. A straight Title by Yourname implies author, Retold by and Edited by are the options. Retold by is used where the story is clearly a traditional tale and you are only using your own words and images to tell it. Edited by is used for anthologies, especially those where the writer has gotten stories from primarily oral sources, and has not changed the stories in any way beyond editorial fixes for readability.

Writing For The Children’s Market

Be aware that most of the information here is relevant to publishing in the U.S. and that the market may vary in other parts of the world.

Q: Do I need an agent to get published? 
A:  In general, all manuscripts submitted to legitimate publishing houses, whether sent in by agents or submitted directly by you, are read – except in those cases where the publishers state specifically that they will only accept agented or solicited material.  You will find this information in the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market (CWIM, from Writers Digest Books, published annually) and in the newsletters of organizations like SCBWI and the Children’s Book Insider.  But many writers say it’s almost as hard to find a good agent as it is to find a good editor, and when you’re starting out, it’s not where your energy is best spent.  And a warning — avoid agents who charge you reading fees.

Q: What is SCBWI? 
A:  The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, scbwi.org  They have chapters nationwide, and several now in countries other than the US. They are the single most informative group you can join if you are serious in pursuing this interest.

Q:  Do I need to write for magazines before I can expect to have a book manuscript accepted? 
A:  Not necessarily.  In fact, writing for magazines can teach you a lot, but is in some ways very different from writing a picture book or a middle grade novel. Magazine credits might catch an editor’s eye, though. I have also found magazines to be a good market for some story ideas that just aren’t substantive enough for a book-length work.

Q:  Do I need to find an illustrator for my picture book manuscript? 
A:  No.  Unless you are an artist yourself (in which case you can submit your own illustration samples) the publisher will pair your work, upon acceptance, with an illustrator whose style and medium will suit your story.  Even if you are an artist, however, the publisher might still decide to use only your story, and get someone else to do the illustrations.  Do not indicate where you would like illustrations to be placed in your story, or what they should depict. The editor and the illustrator will need to make those decisions. If you are writing a picture book the scope for illustrations should be self-evident from your text.

Q:  Are my chances better if I submit to small publishers?
A:  That depends on what you’re writing. If your material has broad appeal, you might be better submitting to a large, mainstream house.  If it’s geared toward a niche market (storytellers, musicians, homeschoolers) many small houses offer specialized lists you might do well to become familiar with.  Either way, do your market research before submitting.  Literary Marketplace or Books In Print (available in most public libraries), marketing lists in writers’ periodicals, and most importantly, examination of books on the shelves of bookstores and libraries should tell you which publishing houses might be receptive to your work.

Q:  Do I need to copyright my work? 
A:  No.  Upon acceptance, the publisher will apply for a copyright.  Your contract terms will determine whose name that copyright is in.  If the terms are royalty-based (obviously the most advantageous) it will be in your name.

Q:  Can I submit to multiple houses simultaneously? 
A:  Time was when multiple submissions were frowned upon, but in the age of the computer, this is rapidly changing.  The convention is that if you are sending a story out to more than one publisher, you let everyone know that, with a line in your cover letter that says, “this manuscript is a multiple submission.”  This works on the honor system — you trust they won’t hold a multiple against you, they trust you’re telling the truth about how you’re submitting. In the end, if the work is strong enough, none of it will really matter. A few publishers still insist on single/exclusive submissions, though, so check your CWIM before you mail.

Q:  Must I enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope? 
A:  Yes, if you want your manuscript back, you must enclose one of the correct size to hold your manuscript with a sufficient amount of postage. These days some folks are starting to send out SASEs just for the response, with a note asking that their manuscript be recycled if it is not appropriate. If you do this, in order that you can better keep track of which manuscript is being rejected, I suggest you write the name of the house/abbreviated manuscript name in the bottom left corner of the SASE. Do not send loose stamps or money to cover postage.

Q:  Should I include a cover letter? 
A:  Most people do, though there’s no magic formula.  The cover letter should be brief, including the working title of the submission; why only you could tell this story; and maybe a couple of lines about it, rather in the manner of backjacket copy.  Don’t attempt to explain the story.  It must speak for itself.

Q:  How long should I expect to wait for a response? 
A:  Three months is a swift turnaround time.  Some publishing houses will send you a letter or post card acknowledging receipt of your manuscript, but others will not.  Some editors are slower to respond than others. If you have not had a response at the end of 3 months, send a polite letter of inquiry to the editor asking about the status of your manuscript. If you have still not heard at the end of 4 months, you are free to write to the editor — withdrawing your manuscript from consideration — and submit it elsewhere. You may or may not get your first submitted copy back, but for the most part, you need not worry.  If they liked it well enough to plagiarize it, they’d make you a publishing offer!

Q:  Once I’ve sold my first book, can I expect the same publisher to buy more from me? 
A:  Maybe, but there’s no guarantee of that.  Most work will be judged individually, at least until you are established — which might not be until you’ve got several titles under your belt.

Q:  What if I get a personal rejection? 
A:  If there is a penned note on a rejection, i.e. “Try us again” or some such, the proper response is a short, polite letter thanking the editor for his/her interest and expressing the hope that a new manuscript from you will better suit his/her needs (if you have a new manuscript, send it along with the letter. Do make sure, however, that it is appropriate for that publisher and that it is the best work of which you are capable.)         If you have received a personal letter, detailing some revision suggestions, but not promising a contract, the proper response is a letter to the editor thanking him/her for the time and interest given to your manuscript. Then consider the editor’s suggestions carefully. If you decide that your manuscript would indeed be improved by those revisions and do them, you are professionally obligated to send that manuscript back to that editor (no editor spends time to write a detailed editorial letter without expecting to see the manuscript again); be sure to mention, in your letter accompanying the revised manuscript, that you have followed the editor’s suggestions for revisions. However, if you decide not to revise the manuscript as suggested, do not plan to send it back to that editor. Send it elsewhere.

Q:  Should I query first? 
A:  Depends on the publisher.  Some only want queries, even for picture books.  Again, CWIM will tell you that.  It is generally a good idea to query a publisher before submitting nonfiction material. Query letters should include the subject matter, the age group for which you intend it, and how your book will be different from competing books on the subject.  Many editors want a query before receiving novel length fiction material. Some will wish to see an outline/synopsis and a chapter or two as well. All correspondence must be accompanied by a stamped, self-addressed return envelope.

Q:  Should I pay to get my work published? 
A:  Absolutely NOT.  Publishers who ask you to pay for publication of your work (called subsidy or vanity publishers) should be avoided completely.

Q:  How can I get a publisher to notice my work? 
A:  Study the field. Read all the children’s books you can lay your hands on.  Understand all the different forms within the field — picture books, readers, chapter books, middle-grade novels, young adult novels, nonfiction across the age range. Then work at making your writing the best it can be. It is a competitiive field.  However in my experience, (my work was pulled from slushpiles more than once), if you are good enough, and you write and submit frequently enough, you will be noticed.  Make sure you’re not submitting work that needs further developing.  Join SCBWI.  No special schooling or experience is required — but you must cultivate your skills, refine your craft, and develop the habits of a writer.  Write well, write often, and don’t hang all your hopes onto a single story.  Above all, if this is truly your dream, and you have the talent to pursue it, don’t give up.