Here’s my notes from the class I taught at DFWcon 19.
Since I’m always terrified that I’ll forget everything the moment I try to start talking, my notes are pretty much the entire class.
My Picture Book Adventure
Categories (Bring examples)
Books for babies to chew on. I don’t actually know anyone who writes them. They’re VERY picture driven, so I suspect illustrators drive these projects. There are a bunch that are abridgements of picture books, or media tie-ins of one sort or another. A lot of those are probably written by some publishing assistant as work for hire.
Board Books run from 0 to 100 words +/-
Books for kids who can’t read, or are just learning to read. There are two distinct styles: the library I work for breaks them down as “Birth through P-K” and “Kindergarten +.” As you might imagine, B-PK means books for really young children. Usually they have very simple language, and often no story. For example, a book of colors and shapes. K+ is the more advanced end of the pool. The picture books you loved from childhood are probably what we’d call K+.
The standard is 32 pages. Word count can vary from 32 up to around 1000. 700 or so is average. I’ve seen longer ones, but to get them published it helps to be famous. Non-Fiction picture books can be more like 2000 words.
The next step up. This actually means a step down in language. Many picture books are written for parents to read to their children. Readers are written for kids to read themselves. They tend to have a controlled vocabulary and very simple sentence structure.
This is probably not a category you’re going to break into. The vast majority of readers are in-house, work for hire projects. But there are stand-outs. Mo Willems does Readers.
Most of the publishing houses have a level system, with level 1 being hyper simple and level 5 or 6 being pretty close to the kind of prose we’re used to reading.
Word count runs from 200 to 3500 or so.
These are really simple children’s novels. They’re still heavily illustrated, but not to the degree that the previous categories are. Instead of art dominating every page, the text takes up equal or more space.
Word count is usually from 4000 to 10,000, but I sold a three-book series to Disney-Hyperion that’s only about 3000 words per book, so there’s wiggle room. If you’re going over 10k, you’re probably writing a Middle Grade novel.
I learned about Hi-Lo while preparing for this class. Hi-Lo stands for High Interest-Low Readability. They’re books for teens and tweens with low reading level, designed for high engagement and easy reading. Now that I know the category exists, I’ve seen a few at my day job. They sort of look like grown up picture books. Lots of white space, heavily designed layout, illustrations. Short-ish word count and controlled vocabulary.
500 to 20,000 words.
These are your kid’s novels. The first half of the Harry Potter series is Middle Grade. It shifts to YA somewhere along the way, even though it’s probably still shelved in the Kids’ section. Many, but not all, Middle Grade books are illustrated with about one or two pictures per chapter.
Word count can be all over the place. The standard runs 25,000 to 45,000. Genre books can be longer. Technically, The Hobbit was a children’s book.
And here I end. You can follow the trail up to YA, New Adult, and then you’re back to grown-up books.
I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.
Publishing contracts are pretty much the same for kids books as for adult books. One thing to note is that you’ll probably be splitting your royalties with your illustrator. Another important thing to look at is how the rights revert and when. Who owns the art? Who owns the words? If your book goes out of print with one publisher, it might be tricky to sell it to another publisher later depending on who ends up owning what.
Working With an Illustrator
The biggest bummer for me is that I didn’t get to collaborate with my illustrator on my first book. Some publishers would kind of like it if the two of you never met. It’s understandable, of course. The publisher has a lot of money sunk into this, and if you and the illustrator get into some kind of hideous feud, that could wreck the book deal. I talk to the illustrator all the time on my chapter book series, though, so nothing is universal.
As a beginning picture book author, you probably have about as much control as you would over the cover of your book—just spread out over every single page. (No stress there, right?)
My personal experience the first time out was that I got to have input on who the illustrator was. I did not have input on the initial designs. As far as I know, my illustrator, Louis Tomas, just drew whatever he wanted inspired by my text. Then I DID have input on the revision notes. My editor, Kate O’Sullivan, wanted me to be happy with the art and was open to reasonable input. I also got to have some input about the typeface and design, mostly in multiple choice form. (“We could do A, B, or C. Do you have a strong preference?”)
It’s not totally out of your hands. I’ve also gotten to see proofs from some other writers, and they’re not afraid to make notes about when the art isn’t right. I’ve had a little myself. There’s a page in Ginny Goblin Is Not Allowed To Open This Box where she’s not allowed to climb up a shelf to reach the box on top. My artist drew a chest of drawers instead. Kate told him to change the picture, not me to change the words.
The second time, my agent hooked me up with the illustrator, Andrea Tsurumi. I had a little more input, but still left the actual design choices up to her.
My pretty early impression is that you should expect to have input on where the art intersects with the story—the important details-- but the artist and the publisher are mostly going to be in control of the flavor of the art and stylistic choices.
Here’s the life-stages of my book so far: (Bring print-outs of each stage)
· Manuscript – We all know what these look like.
· Sketches – The illustrator gets the text and draws a rough draft of the book. The layout artist puts in the text in a preliminary layout. Later, it’ll be edited for flow and integration with the art.
· Rough revisions – the layout artist laid out the sketches in Photoshop or InDesign or whatever to demonstrate how some of the illustrations should be altered, and made notes of changes to the content of the artwork. For instance, Kate, Stephen, and I (and several other people) all thought Ginny looked too much like a rabbit. We asked that her ears be changed a little, and maybe her face tweaked. And there’s a place where Louis drew a chest of drawers, when the text says a shelf.
· Final art – or at least semi-final.
· Proofs/Galleys – I got full-sized print-outs for the Ginny Goblin books. I love them and will keep them forever. I only got PDFs for Kondo and Kezumi, but then I got full ARCs, which they don’t really do for picture books.
Writing for Children’s Books
Here’s what I’ve learned from reading a bunch, writing a few, and taking one children’s literature class in college. This applies mostly to picture books, because that’s what I do.
Don’t write a picture book about an anthropomorphic animal with an alliterative name who learns a moral lesson. The Barensteins used all those up. And seriously, do better. Getting into Kid Lit isn’t any easier than adult writing. Your work has to stand out. (My personal goal was to write children’s books that weren’t as crappy as half the stuff my niece and nephews wanted me to read to them.)
Young children like repetition. If you have kids, you probably know this because they ask you to read the same bedtime story night after night. Child psychologists say that knowing what’s going to happen gives the child a sense of control—which is a big deal when you live in a world where you barely know anything and other people tell you what to do all the time. Verbal motifs, repeated wordplay, and steady cadence can be powerful tools. BUT…
If you’re going to write a rhyming story, your rhyme has to be perfect. When I was starting out, one of the first agents I pitched to said “the first problem with this is that it rhymes.” Rhyme is one of those things everybody seems to think is easy (me included), that turns out to be really hard to do well.
You have to write simply, but don’t think of it as dumbing down. Kids are smart. Brilliant. They can figure stuff out.
Unless you have a restricted vocabulary, you can write almost as advanced as you would for adults. Maybe don’t use medical terms in Latin or exotic, esoteric words most people don’t know, but you can stretch a little. Kids can figure things out from context, especially when that context includes pictures of what you’re describing.
You DO have to be succinct. You have less than 1000 words. (More in other categories, but still not the 80,000 you can get away with in a novel.) You have to really focus, and make every word count. Word counts are really stringent.
You don’t have to shy away from difficult concepts. Kids can handle it, and the world already has enough empty pap.
You do have to keep content age appropriate, but treat that as a line you want to run right up to the edge of. A really good book that needs violence or sexual content dialed back is still a really good book. Editors and agents will be interested. A book you write while artificially hobbling yourself is not going to be as good as it can be.
BUT… Don’t write an after-school special where everyone learns a valuable lesson. Just don’t, okay.
Children like to read about characters their own age or a little older. This is a pretty hard and fast thing. I’ve seen it myself. Eight-year-olds don’t care about the adventures of a seven-year-old. They identify with ten-year-olds.
In picture books, you can often get away without mentioning the character’s age at all. A cartoon drawing can be any age from four to ten, depending on the style and what the character is doing. In the older-audience forms, just realize that whatever age your MC is that’s the top age of your audience.
One of the weird quirks of publishing—Age 14 is a hard sell. You’re a little too old for Middle School, which puts you on the upper edge of MG, but you’re also right at the bottom of High School, which puts you at the very bottom of the range for YA. This creates problems for people trying to figure out where your book goes. Don’t sacrifice your artistic integrity, but if your MC will work as a 13- or 15-year old instead, consider it. (Also, publishing is weird, yo)
The biggest lesson I’ve learned—Writing for kids isn’t any easier than writing for adults… except when it is.
All the things you already care about: character, conflict, setting, flavor… are every bit as important as they are in adult literature. But you only get 1000 words to express them.
On the other hand, you only have to do 1000 words. I can write a manuscript in a single day. I can edit it in just a few more. I can hold the entire story in my head, the same way I would a short story.
Word-craft is king. Every single word has to count, and most of them have to do double or triple duty: telling the story, painting the character, and establishing the mood. It’s a little like poetry in that way.
You also have to learn new ways to write. You’re sharing the duty of telling the story with an illustrator. Leave them some room to play. We tend to have an instinct to nail everything down because our critique groups tell us that if we’re vague about where the characters are going or what they see that we have “no sense of place.”
The visual part of the setting is the illustrator’s job (at least in a picture book). Also, the illustrator is a storyteller, too. They like to have some of the fun, and if your illustrator is enjoying the job, the work will be better.