Saturday, December 5, 2009

On the challenges of picture books

Today on the Upstart Crow Literary blog Michael Stearns has an excellent, thoughtful post on the art and business of picture book writing.

I think it's a must-read for anyone attempting PBs (and not just because he name-checks the great and wonderful Deb Lund a couple of times and happens to be one of the smartest, most generous people in the business).

Michael talks about something that rarely gets mentioned--many people start with picture books because they seem easier and more manageable than longer works. I don't think there's anything wrong with this; we all have to figure out what stories suit us best, and who doesn't have happy memories of reading picture books as a child or to our own children?

Part of the work of getting established in this business, though, is figuring out the formats that best suit your voice, your point of view, and your storytelling style. You might spend years working on picture books when really, the middle grade novel is a better fit.

Anyway, Michael's post is long and I don't want to sap your steam before you read it:

1. About Picture Books and Picture Book Writing

I should start by stating unequivocally that I love picture books. Love them. Of the four agents at Upstart Crow, I am the only one who even considers picture book manuscripts. I squander my spare cash buying picture books I love despite not having children. I read them over and over again to see how they’re structured. I spend hours grazing at local bookstores while parents give me the hairy eye wondering what’s up with the strange single male who is reading picture books to himself and chortling.

But even though I love picture books, I represent and acquire very few.

Why? Well, I don’t always love working with picture book authors, for reasons that can be difficult to articulate without coming off as uncharitable. Here’s the thing: A really great picture book is a difficult art to pull off. I’m deadly serious when I use the word “art” here. That’s how I view a great picture book. It is about grace and the right words in the right place—much more akin to poetry than mere storytelling. The picture books I love are “language driven”—that is, are more about sound and rhythm and call-and-response than about, say, the devices of regular fiction—those things familiar from novels, such as extended scene and dialogue exchange and long descriptive passages. Picture book writing must be woefully dependent on the illustrations, else the manuscript is trying to do far too much, is the bore at the table who won’t let anyone else speak, won’t let the conversation come to life, and flattens the spirit of the evening.

Read the rest.

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