Picture Book Titles to Avoid

Just a quick post for my picture book readers: PB titles are an art and should be considered carefully. Of course, most book titles change on the path to publication, so what you pick may or may not be set in stone. However, there are a few things I often see in slush that you’d do best to avoid.

The first is, giving away the ending in the title. A title like Josie Finds Her Cat is not great because I’m guessing that the main action of the plot is that Josie loses her cat and looks for it. While that’s a relatable conflict for a picture book and might keep reader attention, the ending is revealed in the title–she finds the cat!–and the manuscript loses all power because the reader never feels the tension of the conflict. Imagine a movie where someone has spoiled the ending–how much do you really care about all the stakes rising throughout if you know they’re going to be overcome? Sure, as adults, we can suspend our disbelief and follow a story, even if we know how it turns out, but picture book-age kids are a little less skillful at this.

The second is, giving away the lesson. A title like Josie Learns to Share is poisonous on two counts. First, it suffers from the malaise I discussed above. The lesson is usually learned at the end, so this kind of title is a variation on a theme. Second, it makes me think that your picture book is going to be didactic and preachy. As we know, that’s one of the biggest no-nos for today’s writers. If the entire point of your book is to bludgeon a kid over the head with the message that THEY MUST SHARE, then you don’t have a picture book for today’s market. If the story and the message are so entwined together that removing one kills the other, your idea is a nonstarter. A good picture book must be a wonderful story with a message carefully and subtly imparted as a result of the character’s growth. There cannot be a wise adult swooping in to deliver a last-page message, or a kid staring at the reader and saying, hollowly, like a Sunday school manners robot, “And so I learned that sharing is caring!” Picture books have evolved past that. If I get a sense that your book is going to be didactic from the title, I will be that much less excited to read it, and so will your audience.

Browse some of the picture books being published today to see what kind of titles are on shelves, then think outside the box of what you remember picture book titles being when you were growing up.

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  1. Philip Heckman’s avatar

    Conversely a picture book title that teases the story’s conflict has great reader/listener appeal–e.g. Jon Klassen’s marvelous I WANT MY HAT BACK.

  2. Stephanie Scott’s avatar

    I WANT MY HAT BACK was exactly the book I wanted to reference! I saw that book in the store and FOUND a child to buy it for. Haha.

    I can only imagine the slush pile for PBs. I’m sure a lot of well intentioned people have submitted exactly what you’re saying. I admit, I have no idea how to write a picture book; I really credit the authors and illustrators who do them well.

  3. Mary’s avatar

    I WANT MY HAT BACK is my favorite book ever, hands down.

    (I’m sure that’s an extremely short-sighted statement, but I really do love that book!)

  4. Kari Cowman’s avatar

    Dang it, I have to change my title; Kari learns to write and lives happily ever after…

  5. Tina Cho’s avatar

    Great reminder. Thanks, Mary!

  6. Wafa’s avatar

    “A good picture book must be a wonderful story with a message carefully and subtly imparted as a result of the character’s growth.” So wisely and succintly summarized. Right there lies the true agony and triump of a picture book author.

  7. Kathleen’s avatar

    Thank you for the PB post, Mary! I can’t wait for your next PB webinar.

  8. Dara’s avatar

    Oooh, now that I think about it, one of my books dances the line is giving away the resolution. Hmm… I shall brainstorm a new one. Task for a walk today…

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