Superhero Instruction Manual in the world’s second most spoken language!
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.
Whew! Been a very busy 4 or 5 days with schools visits, bookstore stops , story times and an awesome SCBWI conference.
But now I’m home with deadlines, revisions and notes! Isn’t that the stuff I always talk about!?
Sandy Asher, author of Chicken Story Time and I got to visit with a lot of kids and signed a lot of books. Here’s a picture of Sandy looking perfectly pleasant and me looking weird. Nothing new there.
I think this was taken at Deer Creek Elementary school where we had a lot of fun with a lot of students. The staff and students at McKay Elementary, Metzger Elementary and Deer Creek Elementary were, of course, accommodating and awesome!
I was lucky enough to be a speaker at Literacy Night at Butler Creek Elementary – and what a turnout! I was expecting a dozen people but it’s obvious that the school put their heart and efforts into hosting an amazing night and the gym was full with folks who stuck around to hear from me at the end of the evening. What an amazing night as it seemed like the whole school population turned out to receive books, take part in different classroom events and focus on reading.
I want to thank the SCBWI Oregon chapter for the amazing conference they put together (BTW they have a bunch of great events planned so if you are in Oregon and interested in Kid’s Lit take a look!). It’s always inspirational and positive to be around so many people dedicated to the art and craft of children’s literature. I returned home energized.
Green Bean books hosted a delightful story time with Sandy and I – and I made it out without buying a thousand other books. So difficult to walk out of a book store and not buy a dozen picture books – or is that just me? (OK. I bought one book…)
The West Linn library hosted a story time with some very enthusiastic kids and I met some new Earthling! fans. And of course the West Linn library served as inspiration for the library where the chicken fun transpires in Chicken Story Time. Thanks to the staff at the library for making it possible.
And last but not least our friends at Barnes & Noble provided a great day of school visits and book signings. They were wonderful hosts and provided lots of great conversation in between the stops. Along the way we signed a lot of Chicken Story Times, Great, Now We’ve Got Barbarians and plenty of our other books.
Now back to deadlines and revisions. Have I told you about that part of the process?
The next two weeks are for revisions. You know, the things everyone groans aloud at when you talk about them at a conference or student assembly. I have ‘real’ revisions (for projects on deadline with publishers) and what I call ‘personal’ revisions. These are projects that I am working on that haven’t been shown to anyone yet. But I know they need work before they go out the door to anyone.
Between these and the school and bookstore events I have scheduled – I’ll come up for air in a few weeks!
But I enjoy being busy far more than not. Well, most of the time.