I had a friend whose mother was interested in writing picture books, and I thought this (slightly edited) email that I wrote her would come in handy for my lovely readers as well:
The best thing she could do to start is find the local chapter of the SCBWI and see if they have a meet up. The Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators has local meetings and regional conferences, in addition to an annual national conference in NYC (winter – usually early February) and LA (summer). She’d be able to find critique partners, learn about the key components of a picture book and the in’s and out’s of submitting for publication. Most SCBWI members are extremely helpful and friendly, and you’ll see a mix of people from the very inexperienced, to those with multiple books published.
The next thing to do is spend a few days in the library/bookstore reading picture books, so that she can get a feel for narrative arc, how a ‘page turn’ works, etc. Some books to read:
I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen – Deliciously dark humor that adults and children will enjoy. Note in This Is Not My Hat how Klassen juxtaposes art and text so that the fish is telling us one thing but we’re seeing another.
I Wanna Iguana by Karen Kaufman Orloff – Kid and parent-friendly humor, a great example of a child trying multiple times to get what he wants before he succeeds.
Duck for President by Doreen Cronin – parent and child humor, a clever twist on the home-away-home trope (A child can identify with Duck’s desire to “run away”…. it’s a “You’ll miss me when I’m gone!” story, only to find that Duck had it pretty good all along.)
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka – One of my favorites as a child and still today, this is a funny and clever twist on a familiar fairy tale, written from the viewpoint of the big, bad wolf.
These are just a few of my favorites, and you’ll notice they’re largely humor driven. As your mom writes, she’ll discover if she’s naturally more of a comedic writer, a literary writer, etc. Have her ask the bookseller what she would recommend, she’s probably got some great suggestions as well. Stay away from novelty books (more toy than story) and licensed characters (Dora, Sesame Street, etc.). They aren’t going to be of as much help.
Editors look for a multitude of factors when considering picture book submissions. Not to plug my own blog (sorry!) but here’s a link to qualities that are found in the most successful picture books: 9 Factors That Make A Picture Book Successful and a list of other picture book blog posts to check out: Great Posts On Writing Picture Books.
Cynthia Leitich Smith (best-selling YA author, taught writing for children at VCFA) also has an excellent blog for children’s writers (called Cynsations) and my former colleague Nathan Bransford blogs about the business of publishing and is a middle grade author.
Once she’s done some research, then it’s all about writing (well…. really it’s all about revising!) Agents and publishers these days are looking for shorter and shorter picture books. Each word is truly precious, because you have so few. Have her write the first draft, and then go back and excise anything that would be obviously drawn by the illustrator. (She’ll notice when she reads published pbs, that there’s very little description and anything that is there is absolutely necessary to either the plot or prose.) I would not go any longer than 800 words (or 3 pages). Even then, my agent and I condensed my pb to 475 I think, while keeping the heart of the story.
If she’s not an illustrator, she should not submit pictures. The publisher will pair an artist with the manuscript, paying attention to various factors including the tone of the manuscript, who is available at the time, and how they plan to market the book (for example, one would pair a well-known picture book author with an illustrator they’re trying to introduce, in the hopes that fans of one will become fans of the other.) If an editor or agent sees a good manuscript with horrendous sketches, they may reject the whole package instead of trying to separate the two.
Also, I should forewarn you that publishing takes a lot of “No’s” before you hit that “YES!” While I was at the agency, I read the unsolicited submissions, and I would say that we agreed to represent about 1% of what came in to us. That didn’t mean that every letter in there was awfully written, it just meant that it wasn’t for that particular agent. Almost everybody that’s traditionally published has a STACK of rejection letters in their files (myself included). Harry Potter was rejected 26 times before it was published, and while I was at the agency, we sometimes submitted to 30+ imprints before a book was either bought or put aside. Not to say that the first ‘no’ doesn’t sting, but as you keep going, it just becomes part of the process. Published authors are those that persevere. So keep going!
Anyway, I’m sure this email feels like a LOT of information to take in at once. And I may be unconsciously using publishing buzzwords that don’t quite have a meaning to her yet… but as she reads, writes and researches, it’ll all come together!
More on picture books:
On Both Sides of The Box: My own, tragically horrible first picture book manuscript.