Writing Fantasy Picture Books

I’ve been seeing a lot of manuscripts of fantasy picture books that are what I’ll call Flight of Imagination. A kid is either dreaming or out playing and the plot of the book deals with them having an adventure based largely in their imagination.

fantasy picture books, books about imagination
Fantasy picture books should include more substance than simply the fruits of a child’s fantasy playtime.

An Example of an Ineffective Fantasy Picture Book Premise

Johnny headed out into his backyard…

…only it turned into a swamp full of menacing alligators!

And this continues for the duration of fantasy picture books, until Johnny is safe and snug at last, back in the real world.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this type of story. In fact, my brilliant client Bethanie Murguia makes great use of a child’s active imagination in her upcoming picture book ZOE GETS READY, out from Scholastic in a few weeks. But books about imagination should include more substance than simply the fruits of a child’s fantasy playtime. Imagination is a sales hook and a universal element for picture books, but it shouldn’t be the only one.

Most of the stories I see have great whimsy–Johnny’s backyard may turn first into a swamp, then into an ancient Egyptian tomb, then into a spaceship–but that’s almost a problem. They tend to be too specific. One kid’s imagination played out. A character who, other than his big imagination, is not well-defined. And they tend to invite clichés in terms of illustration because you’re practically forcing your art talent to illustrate the imagined scenes as if they were illustrating the contents of thought bubbles, which is a tired old trope.

Other People’s Dreams Are Not Interesting

This is basically how I like to explain my problem with these fantasy picture books: Other people’s dreams are not interesting. Imagine your best friend calling you up one morning and telling you about this crazy, whimsical dream she had. It’s full of crazy adventures and really specific fantastical creatures and it is a thrill ride…for her. I find my own dreams interesting, but that’s because they’re specific to me. I am not nearly as captivated by a purely imaginative thrill ride through another person’s subconscious. If that’s all there is, then I’m less likely to be interested.

Now, it’s not like you can’t have books about imagination that center around flights of fancy. We’d lose brilliant books like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE if that were the case. But there need to be other layers in play, and an actual story within the imagined landscape, not just an episodic barrage of images or crazy adventures. Characters need to be fleshed out. A plot needs to be in motion, with sequential events that go from conflict to climax. Other book themes and universal childhood experiences need to be embedded within the fantasy picture book. (If you’re just starting out, follow the link for a primer on how to write a children’s picture book.)

For this reason, books about imagination are a tougher row to hoe than most. Just like A Day in the Life picture books, that follow a kid from morning to bedtime and showcase the family, pets, and favorite toys. Neither has an inherent plot and, in this market, that’s a losing proposition. Look at your fantasy picture books objectively and see if it suffers from this colorful–but nonetheless problematic–issue.

ETA: Wendy’s comment, below, is particularly astute. And a lot more succinct than this blog post. Go read that instead! 🙂

Let’s dig into your own fantasy picture book project. Hire me as your picture book editor and get advice customized to your manuscript.

13 Replies to “Writing Fantasy Picture Books”

  1. A well-done dream story does have focus, unlike real dreams!

  2. Franziska says:

    My dreams are boring to other people? Who knew? I thought it was just everyone else’s dreams that we’re dull. He he.

  3. My dreams wouldn’t be appropriate for a children’s book!

  4. I had to smile reading this because the adult fantasy I’m querying around now basically takes this premise, turns it on its head and amps it up into the nth degree:
    What if you step into your backyard and it /really does/ become what you imagine it to be?
    What if you’re an ostensibly sane adult when that happens?
    What if your imagination and dreams aren’t safe for anyone — but especially you?

    Endless amusement. Also, I’m surprised that people even still think they can get away with this. I had always been under the impression that picture books were some of the absolute hardest books to break into because the competition was so stiff.

  5. Interesting post -and comments too! It is sort of funny though to be explaining a very vivid dream to someone and to realize their eyes are sort of glazing over…not that this has ever happened to me of course…

  6. Jennifer Malone says:

    I literally had a dream last night that the editor who will be doing my critique at the SCBWI conference this weekend liked my manuscript so much that was unwilling to let it out of his sight, resulting in him throwing me on the back of his motorcycle to drive me to his office in Manhattan. Are you telling me that not only will this likely not come true, but that no one wants to hear about it either? To make matters worse, although the dream was very PG-rated, I’m certain I’ll blush when I actually meet him in person. I hope he has nose hairs or an enlarged Adam’s apple to distract me.

  7. This post brought to my mind many agonizing moments having to hear my kids tell me ALL about their dreams. “Mom, are you even listening to me?”

    Then, 13 year old son said to me the other day (and this will make you laugh), Do you know what would make a great book? If some kid had this really cool and scary adventure, and then at the end of the last chapter–they wake up and it was all a dream! Ha!

  8. Very helpful post! The very wise Rick Walton said something along these lines:

    “The trouble with this kind of picture book is that if your main character is doing all the imagining, your reader isn’t.”

    But I’m sure he said it better than that. 🙂

  9. christine tripp says:

    Mary, how do you dream up these great topics?:)
    Agreed, there is little worse then another PB where adventure ensues and at the moment where the Monster is about to consume the child, he/she wakes from “the dream.” ARG!!!
    Such staging reminds me of silent films. The Villain has thrown the Hero down a well. Suddenly the film cuts to the next scene, and the caption on screen reads, “Once out of the well”.

  10. Hi Mary, I personally feel very let down if the entire book is a flight of imagination. I recently read a novel, where in the last chapter the writer reveals that it was all in his mind. I was really very disappointed.

  11. I think I watched a movie called Wisdom with Emilio Estevez and maybe Demi Moore. It was a great modern day Robin Hood like film but in the end, he had been dreaming the entire thing while shaving. I was furious.

    I better make sure I don’t do that with my picture books.

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