Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Review of Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul

When people tell me they want to write picture books, I try to warn them about the realities of the picture book market:

1. Publishers vastly prefer author-illustrators, to the point where they will groom good illustrators to be writers, although I've noticed this doesn't always work.

2. Picture books are the only portion of the children's book market that has taken a major hit with the recent wave of economic woes. Middle grade fiction is holding steady. YA is on the upswing, in part due to adult crossover readers and writers, plus the paranormal trend led by Twilight. But publishers are slowing way down in their willingness to commit to a picture book project, especially one without a big name attached.

3. Picture books sound easier to write than they are. The text is usually so spare that the genre has been (accurately) compared to writing a poem. (Which is also harder than it sounds!)

4. Picture books aren't easy money. Agents don't like dealing with them, and one reason is because you have to split the royalties with an illustrator.

5. Quiet books are on the outs, and many aspiring picture book writers do not have highly commercial stories to tell. Unless your concept is so fresh it will completely dominate the slush pile, you're going to get that dreaded rejection letter.

And yet—I write picture books. People do, and some of those books are published. If you're in love with picture books, and that's the genre of your heart, who am I to tell you no?

Which is why I'm so grateful to have acquired Ann Whitford Paul's new book, Writing Picture Books: A Hands-on Guide from Story Creation to Publication. I discovered it at the August Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference, where I also found myself sitting next to Paul during one of the keynote speeches. She was doing needlepoint, which reminded me of her quilting alphabet book, Eight Hands Round. In Writing Picture Books, Paul tells of listening to an SCBWI Conference speaker who said, "Write about what you know."

Oh, that's easy for him, I thought. His life is full of exciting adventures. He races motorcycles. He skydives.
I slumped lower into my seat, feeling snail-small....
Where was the drama in my life?
Who would buy a book, I wondered, about the shortest route between home and school, or how to make play dough, or stretch a pound of hamburger into dinner for six, or how to sew?
Just like in a cartoon, a lightbulb went on in my head.
I don't sew buttons. I don't sew hems or mend rips. I sew patchwork—quilts and pillows, dresses and toys, curtains and Christmas decorations. Once I even covered an entire room in tiny fabric squares. I couldn't wait to get home and start on Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet.

Paul's book is personable and pleasant; it is also a focused guide to the craft of picture book writing. Up until now, the only good book I've found about picture book writing is Uri Shulevitz's Writing with Pictures, and that's really directed at illustrators. The topic is generally addressed as a chapter or two in longer books about writing for children—which isn't enough page time to provide sufficient guidance.

Make no mistake, picture books are a specialized genre. Paul, who teaches picture book writing for UCLA Extension, knows her stuff and lays it out in fine detail, with clear examples. Since many aspiring PB writers suffer from "How hard can it be?" syndrome, Writing Picture Books is not only helpful, it is also a friendly dose of reality. Paul begins by telling how she learned that vital lesson:
...I thought my stories were so fabulous that an editor would call me with an offer as soon as she read them. When months later my stories finally returned with form rejection letters, I convinced myself these editors didn't know what they were missing.
After many form rejection letters (I'm a slow learner), it dawned on me—I had serious learning to do.
Fortunately, the now-successful picture book author is willing to share the subsequent results of her study with the rest of us. Paul addresses topics including story concept, plotting and characterization, strong first lines and titles, the minimal language of a picture book, rhythm and rhyme, practicing with a dummy book, researching the market, and many others. I especially like her chapter titled "The Importance of Word Count," in which she provides sixteen strategies for paring picture book text.

If you have been secretly—or not-so-secretly—longing to write picture books, this is the book for you. And frankly, even if you have already been writing picture books, I recommend it. The picture book is a difficult and patterned art form, and in this book, Ann Whitford Paul lays out the craft in well-defined pieces, her work as neat and beautiful as a hand-made quilt.

1 comment:

The Book Chook said...

You've tempted me. Alas, I already know how difficult a form the picture book is to write, but I also aspire to write a great one. Conundrum!