Politics in Children’s Books

How do you include politics in children’s books? I received an interesting inquiry today from a potential editorial client. (Just as I was casting around for blog ideas! Hooray!) The writer has written a book for young children and, before sending me the manuscript, warned me that it had a specific political bent about Donald Trump. This writer wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t be offended. While this is considerate of the client, it’s not my job, as an editor, to bring my own political biases into the editorial process.

politics in children's books, politics in fiction, politics in ya, politics in picture books, politics in middle grade
Something we can all get behind, right? Maybe that and “Snacks are awesome!”

But the question did get me thinking: What place, if any, does politics have in children’s books? Especially books for younger readers? Here’s what I came up with.

The Role of Politics in Children’s Books

When I come across books that have any kind of bias, whether it’s political, religious, philosophical, etc. it’s never my job to comment on the actual content.

My concerns, instead, are the following:

  1. Does the political element work in the context of the story? Is it necessary or is it gratuitous?
  2. Is the message and its packaging appropriate for the intended audience?
  3. How might this political element affect pitch and marketability?

This is the same way in which I would treat an “issue book.” For example, if there is a book where the character happens to be a certain sexual orientation, I’m always asking, “Is there more to the story than this element, or is this the central focus?” I ask this because I doubt that a book where politics is at the very center, or sexual orientation is at the very center, and nothing else is going on, is going to be very marketable. Readers expect multiple layers from a story, so if it’s just “a political book” or just “an LGBT book” with no other significant plot or character arcs, then I worry that it’ll fall flat. A story cannot stand on one element alone.

Another way of thinking about it is this: If I remove the political element, what’s left? If the answer is, “Nothing,” then you may have written a rant or an opinion piece or a manifesto. But a story? Maybe not.

Depending on what role the element plays, and the writer’s execution in including it, a political element in fiction could be either an asset or a liability.

The Marketability of Politics in Children’s Fiction

The other issue to consider is that of marketability. This consists of two parts:

  1. The audience
  2. The publisher

In children’s fiction, you have the additional element of your audience’s age to consider. Sometimes, politics plays well in children’s fiction. Consider dystopian YA novels. All of those authoritarian governments have a political message, and most of those stories have something to say about ideas of human rights and individual freedom. Plus, the YA audience is going to be more aware of current events, and more receptive to themes that lend themselves to the dystopian genre.

But a picture book about federal regulation shutting down a lemonade stand, bolstered by a discussion of big government? I just don’t know if a typical picture book reader (3-5 years old) would find that very relevant. You might be speaking to the adult reading the book, but that disenfranchises the core audience (the kid) and I doubt you’ll get very far.

You also have to think about the potential publisher. Most major houses like to make money. If they publish polarizing fiction, they may alienate potential customers. Sure, there are a lot of left- or right-leaning houses, editors, or imprints, but you should at least recognize that your opportunities to place the manuscript are going to be limited if it has an overt stance.

So How Do You Include Politics Successfully?

All this being said, you still have a message for young readers. These are, after all, political days, and your idea probably feels very relevant and timely to you.

Go ahead and include your political message. Just don’t preach it outright. You might want to go Wizard of Oz with allegory, or disguise the political force (an oppressive student government at school, for example). Make sure there’s more to the story than the message. There should be a compelling character and a high-stakes plot.

Make sure it’s appropriate and relevant to your audience. Is a three-year-old really going to be fired up about Grandpa Joe’s long discussion of tax reform? Will a nine-year-old understand the intricacies of your Cold War references?

In the same vein, search for like-minded or at least politics-friendly agents, editors, and imprints. An agent who has a few books about social justice on their list might be much more willing to “go there” with you, for example.

Finally, check your motives. Story must come first. If your main interest is in preaching or converting or soapboxing, you’re likely not coming to the page with the right intentions. No matter which side of the aisle you’re sitting on, save the grandstanding for your Twitter. Political element aside, you still need to practice the storytelling craft.

Writing Children’s Books With Readaloud Potential

Hi, this is Mary Kole and welcome to kidlit.com. Today I have a question from Tom, and it is all about read aloud potential and work for younger readers. So here we’re talking about picture books, we’re talking about chapter books, early readers, those sorts of categories. Some parents do read middle grade with their kids, but since you’re getting kind of into independent reader territory there, I’m just gonna talk about these younger categories. So Tom wrote into the blog and he said, “You know, I noticed that some works really, really have great read aloud functionality. If you wanna call it that. Some works are just great to read aloud, I read ’em to my kids, everybody enjoys it, it’s this great kind of family moment,” which is what we’re hoping to create when we write for kids, right, “and some works just don’t. They fall flat, the language doesn’t flow.” So he is asking, you know, how do you create more of the good stuff and less of the clunky dry voice that doesn’t lend itself well to read aloud potential.

Now, read aloud the potential is a phrase that I’m using very deliberately because when I used to look at query letters as a literary agent, one of the sales hooks for a picture book that would get my attention is if the writer had to written “This book has great read aloud potential”. And then when I would turn around and pitch that book to an editor, that would also be a sales hook that I used all the time. Because when you’re pitching, you really want things to have hooks, you want to be able to say something, encapsulate a benefit of that particular project. Now if you’re thinking of writing a query letter, you should also be thinking along these lines of what are my benefits here for this project, other than it’s a great manuscript, right? We also want to try and find these little benefits, and read aloud potential is actually a great benefit. If you’re writing picture books, definitely put it in your cap and remember that saying something has great read aloud potential is something that sends a positive flag up in a query letter.

Now, the question becomes, how do you build that read aloud potential into a story? And that is where I think Tom’s question lies. So what makes for great read aloud of potential? I have one tip that seems so incredibly obvious that I almost feel dumb saying it here, but I know that a lot of readers don’t think of it. I work as a freelance editor now with clients and writers all over the globe, and it is so much fun. But when I give this note, I’ve noticed that a lotta my clients sort of have a light bulb moment, and it’s like they hadn’t really thought of it before. So when I say this, you might be like, “Duh,” which is why I’m here, I hand out duh moments, read your work loud as you write it, as you revise it, read that work aloud. Only then will you know exactly what it’s read aloud potential is.

Here’s the thing that happens. We are…we train ourselves when we write in the flow and cadence of our own voice, if that makes sense. We know what our voice is about, we’re used to it, and that’s natural, right? It’s our voice, it’s coming from how we talk, how we write, we’ve had our entire lives to get used to this voice, and then that’s what’s most natural for us to use when we’re writing fiction. The thing is, you’re used to your voice, but what about anybody else? And this is where people tend to get tripped up because if you’re only writing in your head, your head is used to your own voice. And when you write something on the page and then read it back to yourself, again in your head, not by speaking, you gloss over things that tend to be clunky in the writing because you’re used to your own writing style.

It’s… One of my favorite parts of my MFA experience was the workshop part, where we would take our manuscript, pass it to the person next to us, or across the room, or whatever, and have them read it to us. It was most, most often an enlightening experience and embarrassing experience because they’re not used to our writing style, they’re not used to our voice. So when they read a piece of writing that they did not write, they’re coming to it for the first time and they start to struggle. You know, this sentence is really clunky, they trip over it because they’re not expecting the words to be in a certain order. When we’re reading that sentence in our heads during the revision process, we probably gloss right over it because we’ve read that sentence before, we know our own writing style, it just sort of we don’t notice where the bumps are. But if you have a writer reading it back to you, you’ll start to see that’s a speed bump, that’s a little hiccup, they tripped over that sentence, you’ll really start to sort of hear it in a way that you haven’t heard it before. And having somebody read your work is the ideal application of this advice, but not everybody has a person sitting there ready and waiting to read your manuscript to you. And if it’s a novel, nobody’s gonna read 80,000 words of your stuff without a whole heck of a lot of a bribery.

So the most common and useful application of this advice is to actually read your own work to yourself. This is more approachable, this is what most writers can actually do. And it’s different from reading something to yourself silently because it forces you to pay more careful attention to the page. It is my number one piece of voice advice, it’s my number one piece of read aloud potential advice, and if you’re writing picture books, early readers, and chapter books especially, you have no excuse, those manuscripts are short at the end of the day. So if you’re just sitting there and revising, open your mouth. Open your mouth and say the words, it’ll help you focus on the page in a different way, it’ll help you see what’s on the page in a different way, and you’ll be able to actually experience what it’s like to read that work aloud because a lot of these younger manuscripts are meant to be read aloud by parent to child. And it’ll really help you kind of see what you’re doing in a different way. And as you’re doing it, I wouldn’t even try to edit, like, right there on the page. I would actually have a pen in my hand, have the physical manuscript, have your voice ready to go, start reading, and then every time you stumble, every time you have to start over, every time something comes out in a way that maybe you didn’t intend, and without realizing, you’ve sort of put something clunky on the page, just mark it. Just mark it, circle it, put a check mark next to it, do whatever you have to do, come back to it later. And then as you’re trying to fix it, speak. You know, storytelling is a verbal art form. We started out storytelling around the campfire with our voices and our bodies, it’s a physical thing. And when we tend to, you know, just sit on the screen typing, we get disconnected from that very physical, very vocal art of storytelling.

So I’m sort of inviting you to bring that practice back into your writing life. Ideally, you would be doing this from the very beginning of writing your manuscript, but a lot of us have manuscripts already where we didn’t do it, so the next best thing is to revise aloud. And then when you’re coming across a section that you marked as clunky, when you edit that, speak several options aloud, see which one flows the best. Especially for these… My dogs are killing me, they are just snoring right there. Sorry about that. So especially for these younger readers, the shorter the manuscript, the more you want to speak what you’ve written, the more you want to revise with that in mind because those words really will be spoken. They’re not just gonna lie on the page like they do in a novel. So the best way to know if you have a voice with read aloud potential, is to read aloud the voice. Tom, I hope this helps. Thank you for your excellent question and I look forward to answering more. Thanks for watching.

Fiction and Non-Fiction Blend Picture Books

I often work with clients who are writing a blend of fiction and non-fiction in their picture books. This is a tough proposition to publish. Let me explain what I mean. The book features characters and a plot, and also a sizeable number of facts. For example, a girl finds an unusual frog, learns that it belongs in a rain forest, and journeys there to return it. In the process, we have a character with a strong objective, plot points, as well as a lot of interesting information.

In theory, this is a great idea. We have all the charm and imagination of fiction, as well as that all-important educational value. So what goes wrong with this type of manuscript? It lies in the non-fiction part that the writer is attempting to attach to the fiction. There are two problems that usually arise. Too much information, and too little.

When there is too much information, that means the character and plot elements of the fiction part are too thin. The issue is usually that a person really wants to write non-fiction, but they worry that it won’t have enough pizzazz in the marketplace, so they try to spice it up with a protagonist. There are characters, but they don’t do much of anything, for example. It’s if we had Dora the Explorer but we didn’t know anything about her. She just had a name and a little bit of a personality, but she was only really there to have a learning experience. A glorified tour guide, if you will. In my original frog premise, it would be if the girl just went to the rain forest (without a frog or a mission to return it) and walked around, learning about the various plants and animals. There’s technically a fictional “frame” on this book (the girl whose eyes we are seeing things through) but it’s mostly non-fiction.

My recommendation, in that case, would be to rewrite the manuscript as straight non-fiction. It’s going to be easier to place, anyway, if it’s easier to categorize. A fact-based look at the rain forest (or any other topic) without any distracting character element is the bread and butter of school and library NF picture book programs. The lesson? You don’t have to tack a character on to a manuscript if your passion is non-fiction. If you are qualified to write factually on a subject, do your best at that and pitch it as NF.

When there is too little information, it raises a lot of questions. It would be if the girl went to the rain forest, had some really awesome adventures, but only learned about one plant and two other animals. Why that plant? Why those animals? Why those facts about that plant and those animals? If your goal is to teach, why not teach more comprehensively? Why pick only five facts to span the course of a book?

I recently encountered this issue in a client’s premise. (I’m going to change the details of the premise for the sake of confidentiality.) The writer a century’s worth of decades, let’s say the 20th century. And their character stopped in each decade for one page. They learned one thing about each decade. Why that thing? Out of everything that happened in that decade, why that one thing? The educational element was too thin.

If you’re going to cover a topic (the 20th century), then you need to pick a specific angle and really dive in. A picture book on the 20th century isn’t going to sell that well, no matter how charismatic your characters are. It’s too broad. Now, a tour of the Roaring 20s? Getting there. Maybe just the music of the Roaring 20s or the fashion of the Roaring 20s? Very specific. A character recreating the fashion of the 1920s for a fashion show? Bingo. That represents a good blend of fiction and non-fiction.

I would say that a good blend of fiction and non-fiction is the Magic Schoolbus franchise. The class is always up to something. There’s action involved, a mystery to solve, etc. The learning happens almost “under the table” as they pursue an objective. But the books are chock-full of information, and they represent a very comprehensive look at a particular topic.

If you find yourself stuck halfway between fiction and non-fiction, make sure you have enough substance for each category, otherwise, you may be better off committing fully in one direction or the other.

Writing Rhyming Picture Books

Rhyming picture books were the bane of my existence as an agent, honestly, because not many people are that great at writing rhyming picture books. I had one rhyming PB client out of maybe fifteen PB “generalists.” And yet 8 out of 10 picture book manuscripts that came into the slush were in rhyme. That’s a pretty big disparity, right?

writing rhyming picture books, rhyming picture books, how to write rhyming picture books, how to sell rhyming picture books, how to publish rhyming picture books, rhyming picture books that sell
There’s not a lot of demand for rhyming texts, so you need to be writing rhyming picture books that stand out.

The Problem With Writing Rhyming Picture Books

Part of the issue is that a lot more picture books used to be in rhyme than are being published now. So some writers still have this idea in mind that PB = cutesy rhymes. To those writers, I would suggest a trip to the bookstore, so they can see what’s being actively published now. Last week’s post on paying attention to the market would apply a little more heavily here…

Whether it’s a misconception that you have to write rhyme to publish a picture book, or an affinity for rhyme, or a misconception that young kids can only communicate in rhyme, I’d like to discuss this controversial topic with a little more clarity.

Now that I’m a freelance editor, I actually love working with rhyme. Why? Because I have creative writing training, know my poetics, and can identify rhyme issues a thousand miles away. I’m not bragging, but I am here to ruin your day a little bit: Rhyme involves a whoooooooooooooole lot more than putting cute words at the ends of sentences. Yet a lot of people who choose to write in rhyme don’t seem to make that connection.

How to Find Unique Rhymes

First of all, most of the end rhymes I see in manuscripts are about as inspiring as “cat” and “hat,” and I’m pretty sure someone else has already cornered that market. The point of rhyme isn’t to find a word that works and wedge it in somehow, the point of rhyme is to delight, impress, and surprise. If I see an unexpected rhyme in a manuscript, that immediately tells me that the writer knows what they’re doing.

A big mistake I also see is letting rhyme dictate story, not the other way around. Writers become so fixated on getting those rhymes in that things become arbitrary. Why is her name “Dorange”? Because you had to rhyme with “orange”? Okie dokie… Why is he sitting on a wall? Who does that? Oh, so he can have a great fall? Gotcha. But are you writing in service of your story or reaching for a rhyme? If the story falls by the wayside, you are choosing style over substance, and that’s problematic. The integrity of story must come first.

Rhythm and Rhyme in Picture Books

Yet another consideration is rhythm. This is where the poetics training really kicks into gear. Shakespeare didn’t just write in iambic pentameter to torture college students. There is actually a lot of (please forgive me, for I am about to sin) rhyme and reason to rhythm in poetry.

If you haven’t read your rhyming manuscripts aloud and counted your syllables at least once, what are you doing reading this blog post? Make haste! Because if I try reading your rhyming manuscript aloud, and the rhymes are fine, but your syllabic counts are all over the place and I’m tripping over my tongue with each line, this is what it looks like to me:

7 syllables
6 syllables

7 syllables
8 syllables

9 syllables
7 syllables

Books Teach Us How to Read Them

Whyyyyyyy? Why are you making my head hurt? What’s the pattern? Books, especially poetry books, teach us how to read them. Rhyme is a pattern. It says, “You are about to learn that if one line ends with rhyme A, the next line will also end with rhyme A. Then the next couplet will introduce rhyme B…” The rules are right there. So if you’re going to go through all that trouble with end rhyme, why would you not consider your rhythm, too?

I think that reading your work aloud will be extremely illuminating to you if you’ve never even considered counting syllables. The trick here, of course, is actually reading your work as it’s written, not reading your work with the rhythm that you want to impose on it.

It’s amazing how writers tend to snap into their ideal rhythm when reading, even if that’s not exactly the rhythm they’ve written. Better yet, have someone else read your work to you. Where do they falter? Which sentences trip them up? It’s an incredibly illuminating exercise.

The Odds Against Rhyming Picture Books

Now, you might think that I’m just being a stickler. Or that having the letters “MFA” somewhere in my personal history have put me on a high horse. Here’s the real poop on rhyming picture books, and I know you’ve heard this before: Most agents and editors don’t love them. When I was an agent, I didn’t love them because I didn’t know a lot of editors who loved them. When you’re an agent, it makes a lot of sense to really love stuff that sells well, because then you’re providing great service to your clients and making money.

And I’m betting that editors see a whole lot of rhyming manuscripts, too. Maybe not 8 out of 10 submissions, but maybe 5 out of 10. And let’s say that their houses are pressuring them to acquire more quirky/funny picture books along the lines of Peter Brown and Mac Barnett. So they only have room for 2-3 rhyming PBs on their lists each year.

Examples of Great Rhyming Picture Books

Then there’s the idea that there are people out there who really, really, really, really know how to write rhyme. My example in this category is always BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Polly Dunbar. I took one look at that text and never wanted to try writing in rhyme, because I think it’s just such an accomplished, virtuoso rhyming text.

If there are writers out there who are carrying Margaret Mahy’s torch and talents for rhyme, they are going to get those coveted and limited PB acquisition slots. Because they know what they’re doing. And the editors who want to work with them are going to hold them up to Mahy-like standards, since that’s an example of rhyming done extremely right that’s already out in the market.

Make Sure You’re Doing a Good Job

As you can see, there are a lot of considerations to writing in rhyme. And finding a good end rhyme to shoehorn in there is just the first level. If you are at all curious, college poetics textbooks are always enlightening, even if you have to also invest in some toothpicks to prop your eyelids open. Long story short, poetry is an ancient art form that has tons of rules and ideas all its own. It’s a system. And if you’re going to bind yourself to a system, you better know the system.

Within the system, you might just find a lot of freedom and creativity. Otherwise, if you don’t know it well or you’re just playing around with it because you think it’s what you have to do, it’s a set of handcuffs that will start to chafe pretty quickly. And it’s likely that you will not be truly competitive.

If you’re writing rhyming texts, don’t freak out. Just make sure you’re doing an excellent job. I mean, that’s good advice for any type of writing, or any pursuit, really, but I’ve found that it especially applies to getting rhyme past gatekeepers. Because rhyming PB texts often come from good, but misguided, intentions.

Hire me as your picture book editor and we can dig into your rhyming text together. All picture book edits include feedback on other picture book ideas you might have!

Picture Book Author Notes and Backmatter

I received a question the other day (thanks, Kate!) about picture book author notes and backmatter in manuscripts. Great stuff. Let me give you some information on the topic so that you can move more confidently forward with your picture book submissions.

picture book author notes, author note, author notes, backmatter, nonfiction manuscript
When you want to add extra information to your manuscript, use an author note.

When and Why to Use Picture Book Author Notes in Non-Fiction

First of all, you see author notes more frequently in non-fiction work. After the topic is covered in the manuscript, it’s widely accepted to hear from the author (limited to about a page, with text that’s not too dense). The purpose is to add a few interesting tidbits that maybe didn’t fit into the actual narrative (maybe you’re covering a certain period in history with the text, and want to add some “footnotes” of what we’ve learned about that period since), or to personalize the subject.

Authors will often speak to why they gravitated to a particular subject or why they find it particularly fascinating. You shouldn’t style it as a diary entry, but as long as you can keep up the same tone and level of interesting content, you can take a more personal approach. The tone is friendly and engaging.

Author Notes in Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction

For non-fiction/fiction hybrid and straight-up fiction manuscripts, where there’s a non-fiction subject but it’s fictionalized or the project deals with a non-fiction principle applied to a more artistic main text, the author note switches function.

If your project, is, for example, a fictionalized account of a historical figure or a purely fiction story whose plot has a lot to do with the life-cycle of Monarch butterflies, for example, you want to use the author note as a teaching tool, to provide concrete information. The text is all about Bonnie observing the Monarch life-cycle, but the author note sums it up with additional facts that would’ve weighed down the text itself. The tone is more academic.

How Long Should Your Picture Book Author Notes Be

So what kind of author note do you have on your hands? Are you “softening” a non-fiction text or are you adding factual scaffolding to a fiction or fictionalized text? For the former, you’ll want to keep your author note brief. If your text is 2,000 words, 250 additional words wouldn’t be uncalled for, or an eighth of your manuscript length. (Do note that non-fiction picture book texts tend to run longer than fiction, because it’s understood that there’s more information to communicate and the audience is on the older end of the spectrum.)

If you are working with the former “scaffolding” style of note, 500 additional words, or a quarter of your main text, would be your upper limit.

These are not hard-and-fast guidelines, but more of an exploration of the issue. Use the author note to say enough, but don’t write a second manuscript. If you find there’s a whole lot you want to add in your postscript, maybe there’s a way to revise the main text? Remember, the note shouldn’t do the heavy lifting. The main text has to be the star.

How to Mention Picture Book Author Notes In Your Query Letter

As for mentioning the author note in your submission, that’s easy-peasy lemon-squeezy: “The main text of TITLE is X,000 words, with an author note of X words at the end.” Ta-da!

I’ve discussed picture books primarily in this post, but MG and YA novels also have tons of room for an author note. If, say, your YA is largely inspired by the historical character of Lizzie Borden, feel free to spend even 2,000 words or so on some of the bloody facts of the case, and why your twisted little mind ( 😉 ) decided to use it as inspiration. Word count limits apply less to novel author notes, though you still want to keep them engaging and quick.

Working on picture book non-fiction or fiction with a real world subject? Let me help you hit the appropriate tone, voice, and level of information as your picture book editor.

 

Breaking In As An Illustrator

I’ve had a writer ask me recently why he hasn’t found a lot of information on breaking into the market as an illustrator first, then trying to be an author/illustrator for his own projects. My first reaction is that this is a much tougher proposition than going in with an author/illustrator dummy. And I may be biased, since I worked primarily with author/illustrators as an agent. And it’s not helpful to those people who are illustrators, through and through, without really having an interest in writing.

So for the purposes of this answer, I’m talking to those people who possess some illustration skill and who are thinking that maybe they’ll pay the mortgage illustrating picture books while they put together their own author/illustrator dummies.

The basic rub with breaking in as an illustrator is that a lot of houses have hordes of illustrators that they already work with. So when a manuscript that needs an illustrator comes in (text only), an editor goes through the following thought process:

1) Did we pay enough for this manuscript and is it a big enough idea to give to one of our “famous” stable authors? We need to keep them happy with projects. If not…
2) Are there any other house illustrators that would be a good fit? Let me ask my colleagues about their stables, too. We want to keep these guys at our house. If not…
3) Here’s a stack of postcards for illustrators that I’ve been dying to work with but haven’t found a project for. Might this work for one of them? If not…
4) Maybe I’ll poke through the submission pile for any new postcards that have come in. Maybe there’s someone in there.

At this point, you’d be starting at the fourth (outermost) layer of consideration. Sure, you can definitely catch an editor’s attention, but her mind is gong to be in a million other places when considering an illustrator. It’s a very tough road. There are a few agencies that deal mostly with illustration, like KidShannon, but even they would prefer to launch you in front of editors with an author/illustrator full book project.

It’s a lot of work to get in front of editors as an illustrator, you need a strategy to get your work in front of editors (mailing or Internet-based? etc.), and the financial reward for an agent is very low compared to if they tried to sell your dummy. Not a lot of people are interested in going this route to start, unless you are committed to being an illustrator only and have no real interest in creating your own dummies. (In the list above, coming in with a dummy puts you even ahead of the text-only manuscript in the editor’s eyes.)

It’s also assuming that you can compete with the hundreds or thousands of MFA-level trained illustrators who are out there looking for projects. These are visual artists in the field of illustration who have oftentimes done years and years of study in just illustration. Illustration is highly competitive, it isn’t the easy secret backdoor to publishing that some might imagine in to be.

At least for your first project, focus on your strength. If that’s illustration, great, put together a portfolio. If it’s writing, put together some manuscripts. If you’re handy at both, put together a dummy. But all routes are quite difficult, and there’s no real shortcut, unfortunately.

I Got Rhythm

In my career, I’ve worked a lot with rhyming picture book texts. Not on my agenting list, unfortunately, since the market for rhyming picture books was (and remains) tough. Of my dozen or so picture book author clients, most were author-illustrators who could bring a unique art voice and sense of balance between text and image, the rest were prose picture book writers, and only one worked exclusively in rhyme. Tough odds. The rhyming one did get a book deal during our work together (the absolutely charming GOODNIGHT, ARK by Laura Sassi, illustrated by Jane Chapman), but I heard over and over again from editors that rhyming was tough.

Well, let’s leave rhyming out of it and talk about rhyming’s black sheep sister for a minute: rhythm. If you want to write rhyming picture books, I would actually argue that rhythm, not rhyme, is king of the genre. Most people get so caught up in finding the right rhyme that their rhythm is all over the place and completely sinks the manuscript, almost before it gets started. Are you writing in rhyme and failing to count your syllables? Disaster lies in that direction.

The biggest mistake people writing rhyming PBs make is letting rhyme dictate story. Why does the dog have fleas? Because it has to eat cheese in order for the rhyme to work? Wrong. You’ve written yourself into a prison and you’re going to keep sacrificing the integrity of the story just to hit your rhymes. That’s not great.

The second biggest mistake, as you might be able to guess, is not paying attention to rhythm. If you aren’t yet familiar with syllable counts, iambs, trochees, and all the other trappings of verse, it may be worth your while to get a high school or college poetry textbook. That’s right. A textbook. Because there is stuff to learn about rhythm that was so intricate that you quicky repressed it in the 9th grade. People have been hammering away at poetry for centuries and centuries. Give their hard work at least a cursory nod and study the poetic form before you throw your hat in the ring.

You could have the most beautiful rhyme in the world but if the read-aloud factor isn’t there, and it’s pitted like a road after winter, with starts and stops, your rhyming picture book will go flat. And if you aren’t reading your work aloud as you compose or edit, especially for rhyming picture books, what, exactly, are you doing?! That is absolutely essential, because how it sounds in your head probably isn’t how it sounds out in the air.

Ideally you compose for content (story) and cadence (rhythm). Those two come first and foremost. Only when you master rhythm can you even think about incorporating rhyme.

Building a Portfolio Website

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.

Preaching in Picture Books: Wisdom From Without vs. Within

Nobody wants to admit they’re preaching in picture books, but… Most people also start out wanting to write picture books and their idea has a point to it. It’s usually a lesson about living that they’re eager to pass on to impressionable young minds.

preaching in picture books, how to write picture books, picture book moral, picture book didactic, didactic writing, moral of the story, theme
Preaching in picture books is not the way to electrify impressionable young readers. Now you’ve got me preaching, too!

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.

How to Avoid Preaching in Picture Books

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.

Incorporating Message and Theme in a Picture Book

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.

Do you want to make sure your picture book manuscript is compelling without being preachy? Hire me as your picture book editor and we can convey your message without moralizing.

Nonfiction: Book or Article?

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!