Maybe you are someone who has a great idea for a children’s book. Maybe you are a children’s book author, illustrator, or editor who is always being asked for advice by people with ideas for children’s books. Maybe you are that woman who works with our mom and is always telling us we should publish her story about a vagabond flea. In any case, we hope this guide to making a picture book (illustrated, usually 32 pages long) is useful to you!
1. Gird yourself.
Writing a picture book is easy. Writing a good picture book is hard. Yes, they are short — the majority of picture books published today have fewer than 1,000 words. But picture books are an art form. Writing a good one requires as much attention as any serious piece of fiction. You’ll need time, talent, and patience. The path to publication is long.
2. Read a bunch of picture books.
The picture book has a rich history and peculiar formal conventions. Study as many great picture books as you can. See why they work and how. For instance: Subtract the illustrations from the book, and look at how the text functions. Then see how the illustrations function without text. Get beyond Sendak, Silverstein, and Seuss, all three masters who are justly famous. Read deeper. For starters: Ruth Krauss, the Provensens, Barbara Cooney, Tomi Ungerer. Don’t just spend an afternoon in the children’s section of a bookstore. Read seriously. The more you read, the more aware you’ll be of why books work or don’t work, and the better your book will be.
3. Write it!
You won’t sell just an idea. You need to actually write the book.
4. Consider not rhyming.
Rhyming is tricky — don’t attempt it unless you are a skilled versifier. It’s awful when a poem for kids doesn’t scan. Because picture books are so often read aloud, if the meter malfunctions or a rhyme doesn’t actually rhyme, it’s a disaster. The parent or teacher ends up looking foolish. (My mom still holds a grudge against a book she used to read to me that attempted to rhyme “farm” with “warm.”) There’s a popular misconception that most kids’ books rhyme. They don’t. And “rhymers” — clunky poetry for kids — tend to elicit groans from editors.
5. Don’t get your story illustrated.
Most picture books are acquired as manuscripts, without illustrations. You’ll submit your story as a text file, and if your book is acquired, the publisher will choose an artist. So unless you’re illustrating the book yourself, don’t send it out with pictures — even if your friend or spouse or cousin is really good at art. Sending your manuscript with illustrations can really only hurt your chances of being published. It won’t help, and it’s a waste of your and your illustrator’s time, which can be particularly awkward if the illustrator is someone you know.
6. Show it to real kids.
Show your story to a bunch of kids. Make sure they’re kids you don’t know. When agents or editors reject a story, they often hear back, “But my kid loves it!” And maybe that’s true. But 99.9% of your readers won’t be related to you. So read your book in front of 30 kids, preferably ones you don’t know too well. (Need help finding big groups of kids to tell stories to? Volunteer at an after-school tutoring program, or at a school that needs extra help.) See what bits the kids like. See when they get bored. Talk to them about the book afterward. Once you’ve done that, have someone who isn’t familiar with your text read it to a bunch of kids. See where the reader stumbles or gets confused. See which jokes you loved bombed. See where you get bored. And always pay attention to the kids. Children — especially those you don’t know — are an honest audience, so you can really rely on them to provide invaluable criticism of your work. Let them show you when a book is working.
7. Send it to an agent.
It is time to submit your story to agents! An agent’s job is to match your story with the right editor. (Agents often give great editorial advice on your manuscript too.) Different agents have different tastes, and it’s important to find the right agent for your book. All your reading from Step 2 will be handy. What recently published books share a spirit with your own work? Find out which agents represented them: Google the book’s title, or the author’s name, and “agent.” Visit the author’s website. A book like Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market might be useful here. So is the organization SCBWI, an invaluable resource for people hoping to publish children’s books. When you send your manuscript to an agent, include a concise, thoughtful letter that explains (1) Why you wrote the book you wrote and (2) Why you’re submitting it to this particular agent. Spell the agent’s name right.
Nota bene: We’d discourage you from submitting your story directly to publishers — many houses don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts at all. The few houses that do will put them in the “slush pile,” which is about as glamorous as it sounds: Usually slush is read by an intern, or unceremoniously in big batches, and recycled. These houses rarely decline slush — they will simply throw it out without a response (if you don’t hear back from a publisher, they didn’t like it). A house that accepts slush gets hundreds of manuscripts a month. You don’t want to get lost in that.
Your agent will now submit the manuscript to editors. For your book to be acquired, first an editor has to like it. Then the editor will bring it to the rest of the children’s editors to get their approval. Once that happens, your book will go to the wider children’s publishing group — depending on the house, marketing, design, sales, and production may all weigh in. Once the whole group has given their approval, the editor will make an offer for your book with your agent, who will negotiate a deal.
An artist will be assigned to illustrate your story. You may be invited to opine on sketches, but you may not. If you are consulted about art, be humble. This might be hard — you care about your story! — but it’s important to cede some control to the artist. In a good picture book, an illustrator will do at least half of the storytelling. They get to make very important decisions about how your characters look, which events get emphasized, and how the story is paced. It may feel a bit weird to see your character drawn with brown hair instead of blond like you imagined, but unless your text delineates hair color (and it almost certainly shouldn’t), you don’t get to decide. Let the illustrator bring an individual vision to the story. That’s part of the magic of picture books.
The book will take a long time to get illustrated and a long time to get printed. Again, have patience: It will probably take at least 18 months from the time your book gets accepted to the moment it arrives on shelves.
Do your best to become findable as a children’s book author. If a prospective reader types your name into the internet, they should be able to find you easily on a website you’ve created. If you’re good at Twitter or Facebook or another social media outlet, market yourself there. If you’re not good, don’t. Just make sure that if someone looks you up, they’ll be able to find information about you — and your upcoming book — with no trouble.
Your book is out! Put a copy in a backpack, visit local bookstores, and introduce yourself. (If you are uncomfortable with the way you look in a backpack, try a tote, an elegant briefcase, or an unusually commodious fanny pack.) If the story is carrying your book, offer to sign stock. If they’re not, be nice! Show them your book, tell them you live in the neighborhood, and ask them to carry it. These booksellers will be your allies throughout your career. They have the power to put books in kids’ hands. And they tend to be smart and friendly people.
13. Show it to kids again.
This is the most enjoyable part, because now it is actually a book. Say yes to any opportunity that arises at this point — signings, speaking engagements, school visits — no matter how small. Any event that gets you and your book in front of kids will not only help bring your book to new readers, it will also provide critical experience with kids. And now that you’re in front of a whole bunch of kids you don’t know, bring the next book you’re writing, and see what they think. Have fun!
Jason Novak is a cartoonist in Oakland, Calif. He’s done work for The New Yorker, Esquire, The Paris Review, The Poetry Foundation, The Believer, and The Rumpus. Jason created these images with his 2-year-old daughter, Gertie.