Should you follow a formula when #writing #picturebooks ?

When I first started writing picture books about twelve years ago, I wasn’t aware there was a “formula” for writing them. I wrote from my heart. I joined SCBWI and noticed some repeated comments coming from both members of my critique groups and editors who took the time to write a personal rejection. “Too quiet, have three failed attempts, show character growth, have tension building.”

I heard similar teachings repeated in workshops and conferences. Sometimes when I went back to revise, the revision sparkled. Other times, it felt too pat, too forced. Some of the great picture books don’t do any of those things! You can’t just follow a formula and think you’ll create the perfect picture book.

I often chose picture books to share with my fourth graders that followed none of those suggestions from critiquers and editors. They helped me teach a social concept or academic subject with an added benefit of exposing children to beautiful language. I read the amazing Mojave by Diane Siebert when we studied deserts. It taught both the concept of personification and the characteristics of the desert in a way that brought joy to the ears.

Mojave

Sharing Peter Spier’s People is a powerful way to teach children we are all unique.

People

How Much Is A Million? by David Schwartz is the best way to begin a unit on place value.

How much is a million

The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown, first published in 1949, was a staple in my classroom. We followed the pattern and wrote our own Important Book about the Students in Mrs. Ekster’s Room, The Important Book about Planets, etc.

MyGreatAuntTheImportantBook

I started the lesson for writing about a person in the students’ lives with a reading of Gloria Houston’s My Great-Aunt Arizona. The only tension was inside me – trying to read it without my voice crackling with emotion. It was about a teacher who touched lives.

And when my daughter was a baby, I read her Goodnight Moon and Pat the Bunny. We cuddled and learned vocabulary and the deliciousness of reading. They were quiet and sweet books.

I recently picked up some books with great reviews: Rock-A-Bye Room by Susan Meyers, a book that reminded me of Goodnight Moon. It was lyrical and delightful, without conflict or anything in threes, and not a drop of tension, published in 2013. It is a book I look forward to reading to my grandson.  rock-a-byeroomThank you Abrams publishers.

I read Catching Kisses by Amy Gibson. From the inside cover: “Kisses are meant to be caught. And when you catch them, they stay with you, always.” A whole book about kisses! And I could kiss Feiwel and Friends for publishing this book, also in 2013.

catchingkisses

100 Snowmen by Jen Arena, Two Lions, 2013, is a book kids will love–to count and to add and to look at Stephen Gilpin’s funny illustrations. But there’s no conflict, unless you count “Four more snowmen have a snowball fight, 3+4=7” as a problem in the story.51pu0115bTL._AA160_

And a more recent starred Kirkus review for Flashlight by Lizi Boyd, Chronicle Books, 2014, also shows that a refreshing wordless picture book without conflict or character growth can be a great addition to children’s bookshelves.Flashlight

Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are numerous amazing picture books that DO follow a formula. I’m not listing any here, because they are countless and they don’t prove my point! But with art and creating, there is no one right answer. The bestselling and unique picture books, Guess Again by Mac Barnett guessagainand Press Here by Herve’ Tullet, however do prove my point.presshere

So as I continue my life as a picture book author, with some of my manuscripts venturing into unusual formats, and quite a few that don’t reproduce the suggested formula, I have decided that I don’t always have to follow the leader. Of course, when a critiquer’s suggestions rings true with me, I listen. My work would not be what it is without the help of so many. But in many cases I’ve decided to listen to my inner editor. I suggest you do, too, but polish every sentence, strengthen all your verbs, and write a story that will touch others. Now that’s a winning formula!

My newest picture book is Before I Sleep: I Say Thank You, released January 1, 2015 with Pauline Books and Media. It is a bedtime story I wrote to encourage little ones to establish a nightly routine of gratitude. And I’d be thrilled if this quiet and sweet book is able to touch lives like those books cited above.

Related post:
Summon the Primary Teacher in Yourself by Carrie Charley Brown

21 comments

  1. Carol, I’ve been wanting to write about a blog post about rule-breaker picture books for a while, though I would not have come up with all the good examples that you have so thank you for this!!
    For me, rules are something to back into — if they work. To consider once I’m editing.
    If I were to use them as my template I would probably write nothing but outlines!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the unique titles you shared to prove your point. It is true that uniqueness is not measurable nor a formula! The beauty of a great picture book is that it stands out as something different, something special, something that delights and is memorable.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If only I had a million dollars to buy nothing but great picture books like these. ….if only, if only. Thanks for the great post I’ve always believed authenticity in art doesn’t follow patterns and formulas.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for posting this. I have been wondering for awhile now whether publishers would give a not-previously-published author a chance by taking on a PB that did not follow the traditional formula. It’s certainly nice to know that books like these are still being published.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heather, I think if a picture book stands out and is tightly written, many publishers are willing to take a chance. It’s all about the potential for sales. I think we like to focus on the creative aspects of writing but we must remember this is a business.

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  5. Quiet, sweet, thoughtful books are what I lean toward too in my writing. I’m happy to see some publishers still producing them and I hope, hope, hope others will too. It’s not all about funny and quirky after all. Good luck with Before I Sleep; I Say Thank You. It sounds delightful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lauri. I think we need all kinds of books…quiet and thoughtful and funny and quirky. And I always find it frustrating when publishers say a book I’ve written is too old for the picture book crowd. I think no one is too old to have a picture book read to them! You can do so much with a picture book…from reinforcing a curriculum concept to teaching a language or other skill, or modeling a social behavior…all in a quick read. Picture books are an amazing tool as well as beautiful art!

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  6. Great post, Carol! Sometimes a formula really works and other times it doesn’t. I have found that prepublished authors’ story arcs are often more rigorously analyzed by publishing professionals. With that in consideration, revising with a formula can prove to safeguard before submissions for some, but not all. I love your suggestion of listening to your inner editor. Experimenting with different methods always helps a writer grow in some way. Thanks!

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  7. What a timely topic! Thank you for your inspiration. The books you gave as examples are on my shelves, were used in my classroom, and just plain favorites. Write from the heart, use beautiful language, and some luck(?) and everything will be ok.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What a great post. There’s a lot of talk among PB writers and illustrators about when it’s OK to break the rules – but I have to agree with you, there is no hard and fast rule about when to break the rules! Some of the most touching, exciting, funny and teachable books don’t follow a pattern. It seems to come down to quality AND a willingness of a publisher to take a chance.
    BTW, Catching Kisses is a big favorite in our house for both the loving concept and the fantastic art that takes us all around the USA! Glad to see it getting some love here, too!

    Liked by 1 person

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