Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Seven Keys to Picture Book Winners

by Ginger Nielson

Although no one can predict how your hard work as an author or illustrator will fare in today’s marketplace, there are some keys that can open the doors to success.

KEY:  A picture book, by its nature and name must have illustrations.  Think of each page as a teaser for the next.  Elements that are not written but implied in the story have an impact but only if they truly belong there.  An unexpected splash of color, an unusual point of view, dramatic perspective, a sense of humor or mystery add interest.

Normally an illustrator is chosen by the publisher or art director of a publishing company.  Their job is to find the best match between the story and the artist and the media the artist is using. 

KEY:  Think of the right side page of any picture book as the entrance to the next.
Are your characters leading you to the next page.  There should be some reason to want to turn that page.  This is where the text and pictures must convey the message together.  It is why artists and editors carefully construct the pagination for a picture book.  Placing illustrations in key points of interest in the story leave the reader/viewer wanting more with each page turn.

KEY:  Have you studied your characters?  In any good picture book the characters must be consistent from page to page. This may sound as easy as dressing them in the same clothes and keeping the hair color the same.  It is more difficult than that if you think about the various actions, emotions, facial expressions, and situations.
Character development sketches are one of the keys to a successful picture book.
Your character whether animal or human or even machine has a personality that was created by the author.  As you interpret the character you need to know what it will look like from any angle and in any position.

KEY: To rhyme or not to rhyme.   One famous author/illustrator has written a number of books in rhyme.  His statement that writing in rhyme works best for him as opposed to straight prose makes sense because his rhyme is close to perfect.
But this is not so for most of us, so unless you are proficient enough to make it work, it is best not to rhyme.  This is not to say that one key rhyme that is repeated throughout a book won’t work.  Children love a book with something they can “READ” page after page.  It doesn’t need to rhyme either… it only needs to captivate them enough for them to want to repeat it as the pages turn.  An example is the
Woman who Swallowed a Fly.   The key phrase, “I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.”  is repeated page after page and children love to chime in with that repetition.

KEY:  Age appropriateness needs to be a  main consideration for the child.   Since picture books for the young are normally read to the child, the story needs to be easily understood from their point of view.  Pictures help, but the manuscript needs to visit the mind of a child in thought and word.  And if the child loves the book it is going to be one that will be read again and again.  So think of the adults who are reading the book, will they be willing to do so over and over?

KEY: It has been said by many and deserves being mentioned here as well.  A good picture book needs a beginning that creates the need for some action on the part of the main character and a resolution that culminates in a satisfying ending.
Characters need personality, a problem to solve and the ability to find ways to solve the problem on their own. They may do this by asking for help or by cooperating with other characters. There are exceptions, however, as in alphabet books or picture books that are primarily non fiction, science related, or a collection of items children want to see in groups, such as animal types, trucks, trains, planes and the like.

KEY:  Although the author does not normally communicate with the illustrator,  a good editor or Art Director will form a bridge between the two so that concerns of the author for his story are transmitted to the illustrator in a positive manner.
If the collaboration is between a self publishing author and an illustrator of their choosing the same cooperation is nescessary .
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  1. Thank you, Ginger, for a truly helpful article.

    I have repeated over and over that bad rhyme is bad for children's books, or for any writing. You did well to explain that concept.

  2. Thanks for the insight into illustrations for pbs.

  3. Loved the pictures. Very enlightening.

  4. Great article, Ginger. The illustrations make the book. Love yours.

  5. Great post! Cute illustrations.