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.

On the Frustration of the Friend of a Friend

There is a phenomenon in publishing which seems, to the perpetrators, nothing but a harmless request, a simple favor, and something of a delight to all parties. To the people on the other end, it is dreaded, horrible, and impossible to explain why without sounding like an asshole. So I’m taking one for the team and I’m going to explain once and for all why we hate getting manuscripts from that friend of a friend.

Every editor and agent has experienced this: an aunt’s neighbor/a piano teacher’s sister/the gardener’s tax attorney, has written a book for kids. Because writing for kids is perceived as being easy, and besides, how hard can it be to get a book for three-year olds published? It seems like nothing to ask a professional to take a look at the manuscript. Why wouldn’t we? It will only take a minute, and it’s probably lovely. A dentist who wants to educate kids about dental health with a funny little tooth character? Why not send it to the vice president at Penguin? I’m sure she has time.

The thing is, I want all the authors to succeed. But I can’t help an author succeed unless they are willing to work as hard as I am. Books for kids aren’t something that are jotted off and sent to a publisher and then magically turned into books. Children’s book authors spend years studying the craft, joining writing groups, attending conferences, getting feedback, revising, scrapping projects entirely and starting over again and again. And so, when a person has not respected the long process, or thinks they can do all of that in one afternoon while the kids are napping, it’s insulting to our entire industry. And then to be asked to take it seriously is lemon juice on the cut.

I know many a publishing pro who has lied about her job at parties. My mother isn’t allowed to tell strangers what I do for a living because she forwarded one too many things my way. Cut off. But it’s hard to know whether something might have legs or not, right? What if this really is the next Seuss incarnate? Better safe than sorry, right? Mmm, not really. You have good sense. You have eyes. You like a good book. You can probably tell if something is truly clever or whether it is going to be a time-and-soul suck for a very busy human.

But reading a picture book only takes a few minutes, doesn’t it? Yeah, kind of. But ask a person in publishing when they might have a few minutes, and they will likely tell you “March”. And it’s not just reading. It’s reading, and really considering, and formulating a thoughtful response that won’t offend either the author or the friend who forwarded. It takes time, and the right mindset, and that combo is sometimes hard to come by.

So consider this a PSA. If you really want to help your boyfriend’s grandmother’s manicurist, consider referring them to the SCBWI, an international organization dedicated to helping amateur writers gain professional status. Or, if you’re in a bit of a fouler mood, you can send them this post.

Or you can consider this approach: “No, I didn’t say editor. I said she’s a MATADOR.”