When people start thinking towards writing a kids’ book, especially a picture book, this is one of the first things that goes through their minds. But, so you don’t make as big a fool of yourself as I did, or get as disappointed as I did when you send off your first few manuscripts, we should put this thought in proper context and make sure we know what we’re comparing ourselves to.
In picture books, and many other genres, there are several types you will see on the shelf. Each of the below categories is completely different medium:
Author written, other illustrated TRADE BOOKS–This is what my friends and I write. These are the large 32-page books you see in B&N. They cost around 15$ new. Someone wrote a manuscript that a publishing house liked well enough to hire an illustrator and devote two to three years developing. If this is the type of writing you wish to do, then these are the books you should study. But to further understand this genre, we’ll distinguish it from some others.
Author-Illustrator Trade Books: Many of my very FAVORITE books are in this category. These are still around 32 pages and 15$, but the big difference is that there will be only ONE NAME on the cover. The pictures tell at least half the story. There’s irony. Sparse text. FABULOUSNESS. But, this can only happen if the author and illustrator are the same person. For the rest of us, once a house BUYS the text, the editor and the illustrator take over, and they DO NOT want our illustration notes. We are DONE. So, don’t use Author-Illustrator books as your measuring stick unless you are an artist. It’s a different medium, entirely.
Image via Wikipedia
Licensed Material: Books about Clifford, Dora, Cars, Wall-E, Harry, etc. These are written on assignment by people who do very well under pressure. “Give me three books on Princess Jasmine by next week.” Additionally, these type of books already come with biographies that the author MUST obey. I hear that writers for Disney books get crates of information on the characters. Belle does this, likes that, doesn’t ever do this, etc. However, I also heard that the Barbie bio is very brief, “Barbie never makes mistakes. Her friends do.” HA!
In-House Material: LOTS of books you run into on the shelves fall in this category. MOST of the books you see in Wally-World fall into this category. Not so much at Target, but totally at Tuesday Morning. These can have an author and illustrator listed, but are chunky or cut a funny shape and are only about numbers, or letters, or tying your shoes, or going to the potty. Something simple. You won’t find them on Amazon and you usually can’t check them out at the library. Most often when people say, I could write THAT, they are talking about this kind of book. But, if you’re a budding author, this ain’t who you’re up against.
Classics: Dr. Seuss, the poor dear, is the perennial victim in this category. I did it, and so have thousands before me. BUT, there is a difference between being ‘ground breaking’ decades ago and what we do today. (That and he was an author-illustrator, which means the pictures and text came together. And what’s Dr. Seuss without those pictures?) Point is, you can’t just rhyme cat, hat, and sat anymore and bowl over the editors. Read books from the last five years or so. Most everyone you remember from childhood or your adult child’s childhood was a ground-breaker. And that ground has already been BROKEN, honey.
I will say this, however, you can be INSPIRED by classics. We all love the classics. They take us back to that warm, happy place from whence we write. My whole picture book feel comes from my love affair with Goodnight Moon. It’s my emotional base. But, it’s NOT because I think, I can rhyme mittens and kittens, duh.
So, in summary, read within the medium you want to write. Compare yourself to what you’ll be competing against. And please, make sure you stay within the last five years. That will put you light years ahead of where the rest of us started.