I’ve been living in a place known as “PictureBookLand” recently. All the spring 2016 books need to get to illustrators—or are currently with illustrators—and of course said books need to be edited before they go to the illustrators. (Crazy, right?!)
In addition, I’ve been giving out a lot of advice about picture books—to authors, to illustrators, and to beginning editors. I figured it surely wouldn’t hurt to share some of that advice here. And because I don’t like posts without pictures, I’m going to include some cover images of Millbrook’s recent or upcoming picture books.
-Become familiar with what picture books are being published NOW. Yes, know the classics, know the books you loved as a child, know the books you love/loved to read to your own children. But if you want to bring a picture book into the world now, you need to be familiar with what sort of books are being published now. That doesn’t mean you should do exactly what everyone else is doing, but if you want to become part of this world, you need to know it.
-How do you find out what’s being published now and what’s doing well? Check out review sources such as Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist, and The Horn Book magazine. (No, I’m not linking to these. I trust that you’re smart enough to find them on your own.) Read blogs such as A Fuse #8 Production, 100 Scope Notes, Calling Caldecott, and many, many others that discuss and review new picture books. Talk with kids ages 4-8 and find out what they’re reading and what their teachers are reading to them. And, of course, head down to your local library branch and talk with a children’s librarian!
FOR AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS
-Check out the SCBWI chapter in your area. The group has lots of great resources and many chapters put on regional conferences that are open to members and non-members alike.
-Check out the “Getting Started” section of Harold Underdown’s site, The Purple Crayon.
-Seek out a critique partner or critique group. Your critique partners should be involved in the children’s book world as well—because children’s books function differently than other types of books. This person probably shouldn’t be your mother, your brother, or your best friend. The people we love are of course wonderful people, but often they don’t have a particularly objective view of our work.
-Know that children’s book publishing is a business. I’m an editor because I love words. I love the amazing possibilities of bringing words and images together. I love working with authors and illustrators to make the best books possible. But love doesn’t pay the bills. When someone rejects your work, they’re rejecting just that—your work. My job as editorial director of Millbrook is to acquire and publish books that fit with the imprint’s identity, that I (and my colleagues) think our company can sell well and be profitable, and that are excellent. Please note that it’s entirely intentional that I listed excellence third. Anything I publish has to meet those first two criteria first.
FOR AUTHORS AND EDITORS
-Read picture books aloud. Preferably to kids. If you don’t have kids of your own, perhaps a neighbor does. Perhaps you can volunteer at your local library or elementary school. There’s no better way to find out what holds a child’s attention. You can learn myriad lessons about pacing, character development, and voice as well.
-Know that there is no one right way to write a picture book. Different children want different things. Different editors want different things. And that is as it should be. You don’t need to write a book for everyone. But it does need to appeal to a big enough group of people that a publisher is willing to put up the money to bring it into the world.
-Consider finding an agent. That person can, among other things, send out samples of your work. If you’re not interested in having an agent, then I’d recommend developing your own mailing list of children’s book editors and art directors and sending occasional samples—either postcards or email messages. For what it’s worth, I regularly acquire manuscripts from unagented authors, but I rarely hire unagented illustrators. I don’t have anything against unagented illustrators; it’s simply that I hire people whose work I see, and it’s a lot easier to find an illustrator’s work via an agent.
Keep in mind, this is all just one person’s opinion. And none of it is rocket science. Above all, if you’re passionate about picture books, just keep working at it. These books may be short, but they are anything but easy!