Picturebook

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If you are an illustrator, I highly recommend having a simple portfolio website that you can use to display your work. When you’re querying, instead of attaching images (most editors and agents don’t accept attachments anyway), you can just send a link to your collection. Add new things, change out images in your rotation, and keep it clean, simple, and maintained. That’s about it. And if you’re not tech savvy, you may be able to hire someone via Elance (a freelance marketplace I’ve used to find web designers, or contractors in any arena, in the past) or in your circle of friends to put your image files (scans or digital creations) online. Just make sure that if you use scans, they are of high quality and taken under good lighting that’s true to your intended color scheme.

Two sites that I see a lot of illustrators gravitating to are Wix and SquareSpace. They are built to be user friendly and easy on the wallet. You can use templates provided or get someone to customize your site. These options are modern, work well across multiple platforms, and are easy to link to your other online efforts. I haven’t used either but I’m coming up on a project in my personal life and seriously considering SquareSpace because I like the design and functionality of their sites. I’ve been on WordPress for years and years, so maybe it’s time to try something new, minimal, and graphics-focused!

If all of this is very scary to you, you can just start a free Flickr account and make a gallery of your images. This is the bare minimum, and allows you to host your image and a description (I would opt for one if you can). Send links to the entire gallery in your query so that visitors can click through the whole thing instead of landing on just one image.

Many people overthink this sort of stuff because sometimes computers can be scary and the demands of building a platform seem overwhelming. Don’t let that stop you from putting up a portfolio. Hosting one online has become quite necessary these days, and agents and editors except to see several examples of your work, with different composition, subject matter, tone, palette, etc. (if possible), before they can decide if they’re interested or not.

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Most people who start out wanting to write picture books have an idea with a bit of a point to it. It’s usually a lesson about living that they’re eager to pass on to impressionable young minds. Even if that lesson is zany and fun and uplifting, rather than moral or serious in nature, there’s still an element of “Let’s distill some life experience for these young’uns.” Even if it’s not as conscious or overt as all that, teaching is still part of the urge that draws people to writing for the youngest readers.

And there’s definitely a way to act upon these instincts and get across to these impressionable readers. Absolutely! But it’s not to preach or state your “message” aloud. Today’s market, and discerning young readers, don’t much appreciate the, “And then we all learned to share” kumbaya moment at the end of the book where everyone lives happily ever after in peaceful coexistence.

Not only is it a bit Picture Book 101 to tell this kind of moralizing story, but think of your audience. You want to avoid the situation of “wise older character comes and tells younger character all about how life works.” Kids get this all the time from parents, grandparents, teachers, older siblings, pastors, babysitters, etc. They receive a lot of the “should” type of education.

This way of conveying your idea also doesn’t show your child audience the utmost respect. Why? It implies (even if you didn’t mean it to, and many writers don’t!) that the kid doesn’t know all that much about much, and that it takes a wiser (usually older) character to set them straight. This takes all the power away from the kid and gives it to an adult. Again. Just like what happens all over your average 3-7 year-old’s daily life. That’s not as sympathetic to their experience.

They come to stories for maybe another way of getting information. Maybe the “message” is buried in subtext, below the surface. It arises naturally from something the character might experience or realize as they journey through the story you’ve created. I urge every aspiring picture book writer to try and stretch beyond this, maybe to the point where the character realizes some things, or better yet, comes up with the solution to the problem, all by themselves. Through seeing it experienced by a relatable character, kids will interpret your meaning on a deeper and more approachable level.

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A reader wrote in over the weekend to ask:

I wrote a nonfiction article for a kids’ magazine. I sent it recently, haven’t heard back yet. Because I’m completely fascinated with the subject I wrote about, I sat down and wrote a different story on the same subject that ideally would be a nonfiction children’s picture book. I’ve sent it to just one agent a few days ago. No here’s my dilemma: I know all the “first-time rights” and “all-rights” lingo, but I’m wondering that, 1. does it apply because the mag article is different than the picture book story, and 2) in the 1-in-billion chance that the agent wants to pursue my book, do I need to jump up and shout- wait!- a magazine might publish a different-but-same-topic article I wrote. I feel like this could be potentially sticky…and I’m just wondering if there’s any justifications for my worries.

An interesting question! Here’s my response:

Rights to a book are pretty heavily connected to the text of a book. A lot of authors publish NF articles in their subject area before writing a full-length book about it (and lots of people pitching NF book proposals are told “This is more of an article” because there’s not enough meat in their topic/angle to support a full book).

In children’s, you could wander into a bit of a gray area because I’m imagining that both texts will be shorter and will cover a lot of the same information–i.e.: both overview biographies or both simple explanations of a scientific principle, etc. This is where you will want to pay close attention to the text and make sure that you’re not publishing a close replica.

If your article vs. book angles are very different, like one is an overview and one covers a much more specific area of the subject, you have nothing to worry about. But if the topics are close and lightning happens to strike twice in the form of a magazine acceptance AND a book publishing opportunity, there is nothing wrong with strategically delaying the article until you can share your concerns with an agent or editor. As opposed to the book manuscript and publishing plan with your acquiring editor, the article will be a lot easier to edit in a way that still meets the magazine’s purposes.

A larger point deserves to be made here: If you have a magazine editor, agent, or book editor on the hook and they like your work or area or expertise (in the NF world especially), there is nothing wrong with communicating openly, asking thoughtful questions, or attempting to get that person to work with you if something like this should come up. Your magazine editor might be perfectly willing to publish a slightly different article or time the article differently (delay it while negotiation is in process, run it closer to your book’s publication date to build momentum, etc.) in case you happen to get a book contract.

The good thing about this potential scenario, of course, is that being published in various venues on a subject will help you leverage yourself as an expert on a certain topic. As you build your career, you’ll actually want to seek out these types of situations and get your name out there. I know some of these questions are stressful, but try and think of this as a potential positive, because it very easily could be!

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This is a guest post from author/illustrator Jed Henry, who is a total dear. I very rarely do guest posts, so I’m happy to bring this one your way today and help him promote his new book, CHEER UP, MOUSE! Plus, there’s a lovely video!

Just Be Yourself — Your Most Entertaining Self

First off, I want to thank Mary Kole for posting this. I’ve been following her blog for a couple years, and I’m always floored with the amount of thought she puts into each post. I recommend this blog to both newbies and veterans alike. Thank you, Mary!

We writers and illustrators can be a strange group (in a good way!) We come from all walks of life, and possess an impressive range of talents. Understandably, our main focus is to hone our bookmaking craft, but we should never discount our random skills! They can help us in surprising ways, to win the hearts of our eager readers.

The key is finding your particular voice on that Great Equalizer, the Internet. There is a social network tailored for almost any talent imaginable, where we can make our books shine. And the best part? If you create entertaining content, other people will re-post-tweet-blog it, for you!

If you’re a clever writer, Twitter is the perfect stage for you and your book. Words are not my forté, but Instagram has empowered illustrators like me in our daily tweeting. Other illustrator-friendly sites are Tumblr and Deviant Art. If you have acting or video experience, Vimeo and YouTube are powerful stages for your marketing efforts. And don’t forget Facebook! A Facebook page is the ideal place for a community of fans to gather and feed on each others’ passion. There are no limits or rules, except for maybe this: you gotta entertain us! We log on mostly because we’re bored. If you can catch our attention, we just might want to read your book.

My own path to publishing came by way of a BFA in Animation. Just before graduation, I switched to illustrating picture books instead. I’m grateful that I took the long way to making books, because I still have occasion to use my animation skills.

So how will you entertain us?

Book trailer credits:
Music by Jordan Henry
Voice by the T. Kids

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This is a question that I get asked at conferences all the time and I am, frankly, shocked that I haven’t responded to it on the blog yet. This version of it comes from Wendy, and that’s what reminded me to finally address it:

I am looking for an agent for my YA fantasy novel. While researching, I cross the names off my list of those agents who state that they are not looking for picture books. I do this because I also write smaller stories that would make great picture books. My question is: If and when I find an agent and he/she does not want to take on my other stories or does not believe in them as strongly as I do, do I find another agent for these works? Do authors usually have multiple agents?

First of all, it depends on the agency. A lot of agencies who represent you for the children’s market will want to represent ALL of your work in those categories. (Eternal point of clarification: “middle grade” is not a “genre,” it is an “audience” or “category,” same with “picture book” and “young adult.” “Fantasy” or “contemporary” are genres. This is a vital distinction to make.) When I worked at Andrea Brown, this was definitely our MO. Since we all specialized in ALL children’s categories, from picture book to young adult, we took on clients writing for multiple audiences with the full confidence that we would be able to pitch their picture books as well as their gritty YA (as long as all were done very well, of course, per this previous post on the topic). Now at Movable Type, I also expect to be a writer’s only children’s agent because I am the only person at the agency doing children’s books.

The reasons for this are many, but the biggest one boils down to ownership. Suppose you have a picture book agent, a chapter book agent, and a middle grade agent for your work and you write well in all three categories. (This is a pie in the sky scenario, used only as an example, and extremely unlikely.) What if you are working on a picture book property with an agent and they’ve invested a lot of revision and time. You go out on submission. All the editors say, “Wow, this is great, but it should really be longer and a chapter book.” Or you’ve written a middle grade and worked on it with your MG agent, and all the editors say, “Gee, this rocks, but your voice is a bit young. Can you age it down and make it a chapter book? We’d love to see it again!”

Who gets the credit (read: compensation)? Your picture book or middle grade agent did a lot of work on the project and therefore they have a lot invested in selling the property and earning commission on it. But if you also have a chapter book agent, they would be the agreed-upon choice for selling the chapter book side of your portfolio. Again, this is a silly example, but you can see how easily you’d slip into a gray area and pit your agents against one another if you had separate representatives for each category.

My rule of thumb is that, if you write for multiple audiences, you need to seek a representative from the get-go who is confident in their abilities to submit to editors in all your desired categories, and, most importantly, who LOVES YOUR WORK in each category. If they are crazy about the YA and not the PBs, but you have your heart set on writing both, it might be very difficult to walk away but it might save you some heartbreak down the line (them saying, “I just took you on for this YA and, really, I don’t know if these PBs will go anywhere.”) They might be totally correct in their assessment, but you had your heart set on being a PB author as well as a YA author, so that might leave you in a tight spot.

The only time when I think it’s okay to have multiple agents is if, for example, you also write adult (and you can have an adult book agent either at the same agency or a different one) or screenplays (another agent or manager there). Those divisions are much clearer than the divisions between kidlit categories. As long as all agents know about one another and each agency contract is written in such a way that permits you to have other representation, I don’t see that being a problem. But within children’s books–a very tiny world where all the editors usually acquire for multiple audiences and everyone knows one another–it could get really hairy, fast.

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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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A few days ago, I posted about the amazing ZOE GETS READY by Bethanie Deeney Murguia, out now from the Arthur A. Levine imprint of Scholastic. Well, in some very exciting news, Scholastic has chosen Zoe to decorate the window of the Scholastic headquarters flagship store in SoHo for the next month, right on Broadway in New York City.

This was something that Bethanie Murguia simply had to see for herself, so we got together to take some pictures yesterday. She also signed stock at Books of Wonder on W 18th Street, and at the Scholastic Store itself, so if you are in the area and want a signed copy of ZOE, head on down before they’re gone. We were joined for a delightful series of meetings and for dinner by Cheryl Klein, ZOE’s editor. Scholastic even made stickers that let kids dress and redress Zoe in various outfits! Those have been sent to booksellers, so I hope you see some in the wild.

The first picture is Bethanie and me in front of the window, the second is all three of us proudly showing off a copy of ZOE. What an amazing opportunity! I’m very grateful for the support of the Scholastic team, and so happy that Bethanie was able to see her work displayed with such style. A fun bit of trivia: Zoe’s closet in the window features real clothes from Stella McCartney Kids!

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How completely inappropriate…I am late in announcing the release day for the amazing picture book ZOE GETS READY by Bethanie Deeney Murguia, out on May 1st from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. It’s the story of a girl with big hopes for a day when she gets to choose her own outfit. But how can she make up her mind with so many possibilities in her closet? And just what kind of day will it be?

You can also watch the YouTube trailer for the book here:

I’m going to bring you another super cool picture of the team behind ZOE this week, but for now, get on over to your local independent bookstore and pick up your copy! If you are an online shopper, find it on Amazon or Indiebound. You can check out Bethanie’s website here. And don’t worry about falling in love with this spunky heroine and being left hanging…Scholastic will publish a follow-up ZOE book next year!

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This blog post was inspired by several picture book critiques that I recently did for my Writer’s Digest webinar, but it applies to novels as well. Deep and personal change in your main character is one of the most important elements in your fiction. If you can create that on your page, your audience’s involvement and investment cements forever. A lot of the time, climactic plot moments should rub up against these instances of deep personal change. When your character’s heart hardens, or softens. When one of their core defining values is broken down, or reinforced. When they make the most difficult decision of their lives. These instances are what great storytelling is made of.

Sometimes, though, a change of heart just happens to a character. They don’t like someone and then, well, they wake up one day and feel differently and then the writer continues the plot from that new perspective. The only problem is, any emotional turning point is an Event-with-an-E. Or it deserves to be, because it has great power potential with readers. Just like the beginning paragraph of your novel, every chapter opening, and every chapter button are Prime Real Estate in your writing, emotional turning points are hot spots that you absolutely must exploit.

From the smallest changes of heart to the most important, I need to be able to point to the very instant on the page where your character turns a corner. It will usually happen in reaction to something in your plot and be expressed mostly in Interiority (your character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions). After that, their new attitude or feeling about a person or situation will filter down and express itself in how they behave in scene and during the plot. But that moment when they see something differently has to be present.

I talk a lot more about this in my upcoming book, which I swear will have a cover and official title very soon! For now, though, do go back and examine your character’s emotional turning points and make sure that you’re juicing every last bit of resonance from them. This goes double for picture books, where you have a lot less text to work with. Sure, real kids change their minds all the time, but fictional ones need to be very strongly motivated in order for their emotional logic to make sense to the youngest readers.

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On May 19th, I’m speaking to the wonderful group at the SCBWI Central California. This day of fun and learning is for picture book illustrators and authors, and it’s the first of its kind for this region. My talk will address both illustrators and writers and, even though it’s called Illustrators’ Day, I know that almost every picture book writer I’ve ever read could learn a lot by thinking like an illustrator, so come one, come all!

Here’s the official information from the SCBWI:

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SCBWI California North/Central’s 1st Illustrators’ Day (for picture book authors, too!)
DATE: May 19, 2012
LOCATION/TIME: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Rancho Cordova City Hall, 2729 Prospect Park Drive, Sacramento 95670

Join us for an exciting day with inspiring presentations, a first look panel discussion, a promo card contest, and an optional oral portfolio critique (extra charge). Our featured speakers include:

Rotem Moscovich, the brilliant editor/art director with Disney/Hyperion
Ashley Wolff, the talented author/illustrator of Miss Bindergarten and Stella and Roy fame
Mary Kole, the wonderful Andrea Brown Literary Agent based in New York

Member: $85
Non-Member: $90

The day includes:

Promo Postcard Contest (entries due May 1st)
First Look Panel Discussion (entries due May 1st)
Portfolio Display (bring your portfolio on conference day)
Nurturing Portfolio Critiques (an additional $35)

The talks at the conference will be the following:

Gestalt, or 1+1= More: Words and Pictures in Picturebooks
Rotem Moscovich, Disney/Hyperion
We’ll take apart the elements of a picture book, including pacing, page turns, and structure. Looking at examples together, we’ll discuss how the two main components—illustrations and text—work together to create more than a whole.

Creating in Words and Pictures: How to Craft Successful Picture Books
Mary Kole, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
A talk for picture book writers and illustrators that focuses on hook, story, character, voice, thinking like an illustrator for writers, thinking like a writer for illustrators, and how to write picture books that prevail in this challenging market.

Author, editor, illustrator, art director–A Book Has Many Parents
Ashley Wolff, author/illustrator
The only names on the jacket are the author and illustrator, but It takes a (small) village to make a book. I’ll look back at memorable collaborations over a 30 year career.

REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN, so click here to sign up.

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If you’re a picture book writer and anywhere near Sacramento on May 19th, I hope to see you there!

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