I’ve been seeing a lot of fantasy picture book manuscripts 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.
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 the fantasy picture book, 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 stories: 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 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 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 book 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.