A Writer’s Guinea Pig

Picturebooks are simple, right? I mean, they’re short and they’re full of pictures. Couldn’t anybody just slap one together?


Well, not completely wrong. They are often short, and they’re filled with pictures, and anyone could attempt to write one, but creating a picturebook is not as easy as it seems. The process is actually quite complicated.

I’m currently earning a Master’s degree in Writing for Children, and last semester I had the opportunity to work on my  first picturebook – my guinea pig, you could say – with a well-known publisher in the Boston area. The point of the mentorship is to learn how to get a book as close to submission as possible.  The process was grueling, and I have some grey hairs to prove it, but it was well worth it. I thought I’d share my experience with all of you in hopes that it might give you a better understanding of the picturebooks I share on this blog.

So first of all, there are rules. The rules aren’t etched in stone, but they’re pretty universal in the world of publishing. Most beginners can’t get away with breaking them, but you will occasionally see well-known authors bending or breaking them. The first major rule is that the book needs to be 32 pages long, not one more or one less (including copyright and title pages). Truthfully, publishers just want the book to have a page count that is a multiple of eight because that’s how they bind the paper, but the standard length is 32 pages. Another rule is that you need to watch your word count. Publishers first and foremost want a good story, so if you think cutting words will devalue your story don’t cut them, but the trend in picturebooks is the fewer the words the better. Many of the books currently being published have 100 words or less. Books with no text at all are called wordless picturebooks and are also quite popualr. Those are the two main rules I’m going to throw at you now, but that’s not where they end.

Before you start writing you need a good idea. Good ideas are hard to come by and you need to be careful not to be cliché. For example, many beginning authors create stories with little animals as their protagonists because they think that’s what kids want. But your characters shouldn’t be animals unless there’s a reason why they are animals. If the character can be a human, try that. There are thousands of picturebooks with cute fuzzy creatures as characters, don’t bore us, try something new.

I’m not saying that my idea is necessarily good, but it’s the idea I thought was best to work with. The idea came to me while I was driving home from Boston one night. I was thinking about my old guinea pig, and how many of my students have guinea pigs. Kids love guinea pigs and there aren’t too many books out there about guinea pigs, so I thought why not (and I know I’m being hypocritical here, because guinea pigs are cute fuzzy creatures, I obviously have to work on this too)? But what about a guinea pig? What’s the story? Story is the key.

The first idea I had was to write a story from the guinea pig’s point of view. I stuck him with a kid who wasn’t too great of a pet-owner, and the guinea pig decided to fight his way back to the pet store. I thought I was brilliant, until my editor read it and said “but, why would a pet want to go back to a pet store?” My character seemed very confused, so my editor gave me this great activity to do that would help me figure out who my characters aer, what they want, and why it matters. The activity was just a list of questions that you answer for each character: what matters? What is the matter? Why does it matter? What are the stakes? What does the character do/want and what are the consequences? What are the moral lines of your character? What is “home” for your character, where does he/she feel safe? If you google “character sketch” you’ll find a whole bunch of activities that can help you too. If one doesn’t work, try another.

So after some character studies my editor told me to come up with a few different story ideas. She wanted me to play with a few ideas and then pick which one I thought was the best. I came up with about four different stories and finally decided on one that was completely different from the original story.

The next thing I did was write my whole idea out. I didn’t write it as the story would read later, I just wrote out what happened the way I envisioned it. I wrote out what the plot and the emotional arc were.

Next, I practiced writing the manuscript. There’s a lot to keep in mind when writing a manuscript for a picturebook. You need a great first line to hook your reader. You need to make sure the reader (usually the child) will connect with the character (usually children connect more with child and animal characters and not adults, but there are exceptions such as in last year’s Caldecott winner “A Sick Day for Amos McGee”), you need to make sure it reads well, that every word fits logically, thatyou’re constantly prompting the reader forward (this can be done with the  illustrations as well as the text) the in the story, and don’t forget that you have to reach that 32 page mark. I handed in my first manuscript only to have it handed back dripping with red ink. I revised it twelve times, and it’s still nowhere near perfect. The truth is, you can revise forever and it will never be perfect, eventually you just have to stop when you don’t think there’s anything else you can possibly do to make it better. When you’ve done your best then it’s time to submit it and let the editors and agents help you from there.

                                                                               From “A Sick Day for Amos McGee” by Philip and Erin Stead

Once you have the text as tight as possible, then you have to think about the illustrations. Are you going to be the one illustrating? If so, then you’re like me, and I’ll show you what some of the next steps are. If you are not going to be the illustrator then submit your text making sure to be as clear as possible that you are not going to do the art. Do not include any notes on how you imagine the illustrations. The art director and illustrator will take care of that, and the last thing they want is input from someone who doesn’t know anything about art. Also make sure you don’t have a friend whip up some sketches for you, editors hate that! If you’re going to have a friend do the illustrations, make sure they’re committed to the project. They should have as much input in the story as you do and they should work with you from the start.

So, I plan on being the illustrator for my project, so then next step was to do some character sketches. You need to think about design, texture, medium, etc. See my post “Caldecott in the Classroom” and its comments for information and suggested reading to help you think about picturebook art.

When you think you know what your characters are going to look like begin some thumbnail sketches. I make my own thumbnail sheets by dividing a standard sheet of paper into 33 1/2″ x 1″ rectangles. Leave the first two spaces for the title page and the copyright pages (you can always start the illustrations on these pages) and then space out your story. Make sure you’re thinking about what text will be on each page and where you are going to place it. I have about seven revisions of my thumbnails, and still plan on doing more.

Once you’re satisfied with your thumbnails, it’s time to make the dummy. This is my favorite part because it’s when all your hard work finally begins to resemble a book. A finished dummy will give you a real sense of accomplishment. Here are some pages from the dummy of my book “Felix & Gadget: A Mixed Up Story of Friendship”:

The dummy is most likely what you will send to an editor or an agent, along with a copy of just the text. Although, obviously you should always check submissions guidelines which can be found on most publishing houses and agent websites.

When you’re pleased with your dummy you should do some finished art work. You’ll send a copy of your finished art work in your submission package (make sure it’s a good copy, spend the extra cash and go to Staples). Here’s a piece of my artwork (of which I’m not exactly satisfied, I plan on revising this whole story when I’m done with my second mentorship).

I still have a long way to go before I’m ready to submit this. The process of creating a book takes years, no matter how long or how short they are, but don’t give up. The key is to keep plugging away. Keep those characters alive. You breathe a little more breath into their two-dimensional lungs each time you give your project another try, so keep going. Pick up your pencils, papers, and pens, your laptops, your tablets, your crayons and paint, and get writing!


Book Review: The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse

A simple book with a profound message, Eric Carle’s latest masterpiece  The Artist Who Painted Blue Horses is a book that everyone will benefit from reading.

Sometimes I get worried about authors who have been in the business for decades, especially someone like Eric Carle who’s design is practically a brand. When I see them come out with another book I usually roll my eyes and keep walking. Not that I discount them as authors. I’m aware that some of there stuff is fantastic. You can’t sneeze at books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?  or The Very Hungary Caterpillar. But I get worried they get caught up in the politics of publishing books for the name on the cover instead of the content or quality of the book. When I first saw The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse I thought this, rolled my eyes, and kept on looking around the bookstore. But when I heard about the book getting some Caldecott buzz I knew I was going to have to crack it open. And I’m glad I did.

The book is very short, it’s only about 50 words long. It begins with the introduction of a boy who says he’s an artist. Then the artist makes a list of the things he paints: a blue horse, a red crocodile, a yellow cow, etc. And then it ends with the boy saying “I am a good artist.” Seems pretty simple right? But then Carle adds a bit more in the back of the book that makes you realize how important a blue horse, a red crocodile, a yellow cow, and other nonsense is. He includes this image:

It is a painting entitled Blue Horse I which was painted in 1911 by Franz Marc. Carle then includes a paragraph about Marc and a paragraph about himself. He explains that Franz Marc was a German artist during the turn of the century who painted unconventional paintings that were often unrealistic in color. Many critics objected to his ideas but others did not, and eventually he was very influential in the modern and expressionist movements. Carle then explains that he also spent his childhood in Germany; Nazi Germany. He explained that the Nazis forbade modern and expressionistic art. However an art teacher secretly showed him some of Marc’s paintings, which changed the way Carle thought about art for the rest of his life.

Carle’s book encourages kids to think outside of the box. He’s telling them that it’s okay to be different. He’s saying that the way we express ourselves is important and is special, no matter how unconventional it is. Everyone can benefit from this message. As parents and educators, it’s important for us to celebrate the individuality of the children that are around us, no matter how far out it is. I once had a boy in my class who was the definition of unconventional. Not only did he love purple, hum the songs from “Hairspray” while he worked, and pranced around singing “I’m a little girl”, but he also flapped his hands when he was excited, would look around the room with one eye closed and one eye opened, and would start writing a sentence with his left hand and then switch to his right hand half way across the paper. The kid was strange.

But then one day, during morning meeting, I showed that class a stick. I said, “today we’re going to pretend. This stick is no longer a stick, it’s whatever your imagination says it is.” So I pretended to brush my teeth with it and said, “see? It’s a toothbrush.” Then I handed it to the boy sitting next to me. He stared at it. “Well?” I said. “What is it?” He looked up at me. “It’s a stick.” After some pulling of teeth he finally mumbled “it’s a pencil.” The next few kids did pretty much the same thing. I was astounded at how second graders could be so unoriginal, so boring! But then my little oddball got hold of that stick.

“It’s a rainbow maker.”

“A what?”

“A rainbow maker. See?” He put the stick on it’s side and turned it in the air in the shape of an arc. “See the rainbow?” Then he got up and walked around the room making rainbows with his rainbow maker.”

He’s the kind of kid that’s going to do something special with his life. We need people to think like him, otherwise we wouldn’t have things like ipods, yo-yos, airplanes, pogosticks, computers, shape-ups, mousetraps, microwaves, cupcakes, sparklers, saddles, or  picturebooks.

Think what would happen if I said “no kid, you’re a boy so you can’t make rainbows with that stick.” Then he might be afraid to speak openly about his ideas forever. And that awesome thing he was going to do in the future would never happen. He’s a kid that needs a book like The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse. And so are the kids who said the stick was a stick. And so did I for reminding me that weird kids are special. Get a copy of the book and share it. Share it with your kids, share it with your friends, and share it with yourself.

I give the book five huge rainbow makers.

Watch Eric Carle talk about the book here: