Hey, That’s Funny!

Funny is such a great tool when writing for kids. And the format of picture books is a natural fit for short form comedy.

BUT (you knew that was coming)…

Many funny picture book manuscripts come across more like a sketch in a comedy show. That is to say, they have a beginning, middle, climax, and (in the place of a satisfying resolution reflecting some sort of growth) they have a punchline.

I love a solid punchline. When they land just right, they can elicit snorts and guffaws and chortles and who doesn’t love that? It’s why we all hope for a Kate McKinnon cold open on SNL, and why we still go to see our friends’ improv shows.

BUT

Picture books are much more than a series of jokes. Without an emotional undercurrent, they lack that connectability that makes kids say, “gurl, I feel you”…a punchline is funny once or twice (or, ok, 35 times if you’re 4), but even the most unexpected punchline doesn’t have that emotional heft to keep readers coming back again and again.

It’s true that in most cases we like that emotional growth to be pretty invisible, but it should still be there. Even in the funniest books, readers and characters should come away a little bit different than they were at page one. Comedy in 32 art-filled pages can subvert expectations, use word play or page turns, or just be wicked-wacky. It’s easy to think of picture books as long form jokes, but I think of them more as an episode of a sitcom. (Thinking of setups and characters in Act III who go, “Oh, crap. Maybe we were wrong about that thing we thought in Act I.”)

Here are some that get it right. Give yourself a treat.

Bob and Joss Get Lost

I YAM a Donkey

Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great

Z is for Moose

My Teacher is a Monster

Boss Baby

I’m My Own Dog

The Thing About Yetis

Want more about writing funny picture books? Tune in to my KidLit College webinar (posting soon!) on April 8th. I’ll be talking with Mary-Kate Gaudet of Little, Brown, and she, my friends, is hilarious.

Why I Don’t Care About the Rule of Threes

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions on Twitter about the so-called rule of threes. And my inbox is seeing a lot more refrains used at least three times in picture books. For those of you who aren’t aware, the rule of threes is something many picture books employ. For instance, in the Three Bears, Goldilocks tries out three chairs, porridges, and beds. In the Three Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf huffs and puffs three times. It’s a story framing device that works pretty well for picture books.

But not all the time.

The rule of threes isn’t something that can be slapped into a manuscript with the expectation that it will help it stand. I think the hope is that kids will magically start chanting along with a book when it’s read out loud. And so many writers invent a phrase and just tuck it into a story willy-nilly. Many times, it isn’t necessary, and so comes across as forced.

When applied well, the rule of threes helps to provide some tension. In both the classic tales above, the story moves forward because of each thing being done. Each time G-Lox sits in a chair is a chance for her to cause trouble, which ups the ante little by little. Each time BB Wolf blows a house down, the stress level of the pigs (and reader) goes up.

A refrain is something different, but should be employed with equal choosiness. Another post, perhaps.

Not every picture book uses threes. Some are a straight narrative. Look at Stop Following Me, Moon! by Darren Farrell. Or I’m My Own Dog by David Ezra Stein. Or Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin.

It’s true that I could name a dozen picture books that DO use the rule of threes. And I have nothing against it. It’s a great tool. But I don’t want writers to think it’s absolutely necessary or to lean on it when it’s not structurally sound. I want it, like all the tools in the box, to be used thoughtfully and not just because “you’re supposed to”. And I’m certainly not going to reject something that doesn’t use this “rule” on those grounds.

You wouldn’t use a waffle iron to make pizza, would you? (On second thought…)

How to Find an Illustrator

I just got off the phone with someone who called because she had seen an image done by one of our artists, and she wanted to know how she could get him to illustrate her picture book for her. I spent some time trying to tell her that that isn’t really how it works, but she just wasn’t hearing me. And so I changed tacks, and ended up telling her it would be very, VERY expensive. That she heard. But I was left with the feeling that my point was not made.

Writers: You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 

In nearly all cases (exceptions explained below) the publisher will hire an illustrator for you. Your job, as a writer, is to write. And you shouldn’t be spending money on an illustrator (or an agent, or making hard-copies of your work). You’re doing things out of order. Once your words have been sold to a publisher, they will work very hard to find exactly the right artist for the job. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator.

I know it seems like a smart idea to send out a full-package to potential agents or publishers. But agents, editors, and art-directors are very practiced at reading picture book texts without art. Part of the fun is imagining the pictures before they exist. By hiring an illustrator, you may be shooting yourself in the foot. Here are a few reasons why you definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator:

  1. Your vision is not the agent or publisher’s vision. Your manuscript could be brilliant, but even the best professionals have a hard time separating text from art sometimes. And sub-par art could mean turning down a perfectly decent manuscript.
  2. The friend who you hired isn’t really as great an artist as you think, which can make you both look unprofessional.
  3. You end up spending money when you don’t need to. Let the publisher pay the illustrator for you.
  4. It would be nearly impossible for a picture book hopeful to hire, say, a New York Times bestselling illustrator, but it’s pretty easy for a publishing house to do so. Don’t you want a New York Times bestselling illustrator attached to your project?

But what are the exceptions? 

  1. The friend you paired up with has a few picture books under her belt already. Or is at least more than a weekend hobbyist-artist. You and she have been working hard together and attending conferences and understand that you are doing things in an unconventional way.
  2. You plan to self-publish
  3. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator

Here’s why it’s a good idea to trust the agents and publishers to hire an illustrator for you: 

  1. It’s their job to understand the entire industry, from what stories and styles are working in the current market, to who won which awards this year. We know people’s schedules and stuff, too. 
  2. It’s common practice to pair a new writer with a “known” illustrator to bring some name recognition to a debut. 
  3. The publisher may have an “open contract” with an illustrator, and they may be looking for just the right thing to fill it.

Please, please save yourself time, money, and the headache of art-directing someone who isn’t right for the job. Trust that your words are enough, and that the person in charge of finding you an illustrator will do so with aplomb.

You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 

Who Are You?

So many picture book manuscripts begin with a character introducing her-or-himself.

My name is Jiminy and I’m 5 years old! I love chimichangas!

With only a few exceptions, very few books begin this way. I mean, this is how we make new friends, right? We introduce ourselves and maybe share a few details about what we like. But how often do we walk away from that meeting thinking  “that is a person I can’t wait to climb a mountain with? She really gets me.” For me, it’s rare. Comparing things we have in common is baseline acquaintance stuff. I mean, we all like Kimmy Schmidt, right? But I’m not writing you into my will because of it.

The more interesting conversations and meaningful friendships are ones in which we relate to something deeper that our new friend has experienced and subsequently shared. In books, real emotional connections are formed when people feel like they’ve been in the shoes of the protagonist (whether kid, adult, or chicken).

The best picture books are not just about a character and a list of their traits, or a list of things they did that day. They are about a person who is growing and changing and having experiences and reacting to those things and getting feelings and then dealing with those feelings.*

As you draft your picture book, think about who the protagonist is, and what they are like after you’ve hung out with them for a year or two, instead of who they are on the first meeting. Your book will make a much more lasting impression on readers who think of the character as an important friend.

 

*Yes, this goes for non-fiction too.