I’ve been reading a lot of manuscripts in progress from picture book authors the past few weeks and offering my notes. I offer more questions than ‘what to do’ notes but I try my best.
It made me aware of something that I hear all the time from editors and that is- ‘This is a good manuscript, but it’s just not something I NEED to acquire.’ Or some such sentence.
And you are like, “What does that mean?” And then I’m like, “Great! Since I didn’t write the best picture book EVER you can’t buy it? Thanks for that pressure! Next time I sit down I’ll only write the ‘best ‘ words and the ‘best’ sentences and … ” And then I sit on the couch and eat Cheetos.
Wait, this isn’t about me…
Well, I think, after reading dozens of projects the past month for SCBWI members and some other students I work with, I understand a bit more what editors, who are reading hundreds and maybe thousands of manuscripts a year, are saying.
What I THINK is going on is this: picture books have grown up. 20 years ago it was a different market and for a manuscript to gain traction now the expectations are that the book work in all those classic picture book ways but also that they have a unique POV and resonate with an awareness of the times we live in. I’m not saying books from 30 years ago were not relevant or are badly written or anything like that.
What I am saying is that we now have over a hundred years of this art form (I’m looking at 1910 or so as the first children’s books in the American market were produced, it’s not a perfect date but I’m using it!) and like any art form it has matured, evolved and grown. That’s what living art forms do. They change with the times or become something taught at universities and acquire the title ‘classical’. AGAIN, that’s not me denigrating past art. But thriving, relevant art forms change through time.
Picture books have to be more self-aware AND less self-aware at the same time. It’s a contradiction or a paradox of an example of ‘quantum’ thinking, but what I mean isn’t that different than the age old advice in the arts – Learn everything you can about what you want to do and then forget it all and trust your instincts.
Are their exceptions? YES! Especially if you have a bundle of Caldecott’s or bestsellers in your portfolio. But for those of us who are work-a-day authors and illustrators the expectations are higher than ever. Read your story not just for the formal issues (structure, character, pacing, demographic appropriateness) but also – does it do something we haven’t seen done before in quite this way? Does it speak to our time and place? There are many ways to do this and they do not all look the same. Edgy content or style isn’t THE answer, it’s one answer to a complex issue.
From this quick essay you might infer that ‘voice’ is more important than ever and I would agree. The genres of picture book are well excavated by now. The topics mostly well known. It’s what you can do that is unique with them that will sell your manuscript. The good news is – the picture book market is more diverse then ever. Diverse in voice, in style in subject matter and POV. But the competition is more intense than ever.