As someone who sees a lot of picture books come through the library, I can tell you—there are good picture book authors, and those who haven’t quite figured it out yet. While most of the picture books out there that get published have fantastic stories, or amazing illustrations, it’s often the language that gets overlooked. And language is everything, especially when a book is geared toward small children who have attention spans of about three seconds.
So, when I came across an amazing post by Tracy Marchini, who is a literary agent, an editor, and a picture book author herself, I knew that she “got” it. Her post, “How Can You Tell If You’re Using Picture Book Language?” hits all the high points. Seriously, I think this should be required reading for anyone out there who is considering writing a picture book. It’s one of the MOST difficult things to do, even though it seems like it would be easy. The concepts not only have to be large and exciting, the language must cover no more than the anticipated reader can handle. With 40+ listeners all under the age of five at our library each week, I can tell you that a book must grab the child from word one, or you’ll lose them. And while a sleepy child on your lap might sit through a long drawn out descriptive book, most kids want to get in and get out. Tell them the story, make it entertaining, and sneak in a lesson if you can. That’s it.
So, what are some of the great concepts Marchini discusses in her post? Minimal dialog, minimal descriptions…basically, minimal everything. While it’s fine to write a book that you think will suit Kindergarten to Grade 2…keep in mind that most kids reading picture books are heading out of that age group. They’ll be wanting to read books on their own, and heading into chapter books. Your prime audience, then, is age 4 and under.
If you’ve ever contemplated writing a picture book, you’ll be wise to read the article. Not only will it save you the heartache of rejection when it comes time to try to publish, but you will set yourself apart from all of the other would-be authors out there who haven’t figured out the concept yet. And maybe I’ll end up reading your book at storytime one day!