by Deborah Underwood

It’s the end of the month. Hooray! And congratulations!

If you’re brilliant, you have thirty picture book ideas, all of which can be transformed into stunning manuscripts. If this is you, stop reading here; take the rest of the day off.

If you’re like me, however, you have thirty sparks. Thirty scraggly shoots. Thirty teensy brown-paper-wrapped parcels of hope.

Now it’s time to test them for viability.

Here’s the image that always comes to my mind during this part of the process: I’m in a dentist’s chair. The dentist pokes and scrapes at a suspicious tooth, gently at first, then harder, then really hard. I silently pray, “Please don’t find anything wrong. Please. Ohpleaseohpleaseohplease.”

My ideas are my babies. I love them. But my ultimate goal is to get manuscripts out into the world. If an idea isn’t strong enough, better to let it go than to spend the next month banging my head against my desk.

So here are some suggestions as you begin your deliberations:

1)  Check for competition.
If my idea hinges on a distinctive title, I Google and hope the title doesn’t turn up elsewhere. If it centers on an unusual animal or situation, I go to or Books in Print and search for similar books. If it’s a hook-y concept, and I can’t remember if I’ve seen it before, I ask around (a good children’s librarian can be your best friend for this type of thing).

2)  Make sure the plot—or the concept, for concept books—is strong.
Sometimes I turn an idea over and over in my mind and come to the sad realization that it’s just not different or special enough. Out it goes. But if you have a great character drowning in a mediocre idea, toss him a life preserver; maybe you can find him another home.

3)  Think about marketability.
We all know the picture book market is tough. If I have a choice between developing a high-concept story or a clever but obscure idea that will require a book with expensive flaps, pull tabs, and a triangular fuchsia mirror, I’m going to go with the former.

4)  Don’t think about marketability.
Ha—fooled you! It’s good to be aware of trends.And if an editor says she’s looking for a book about platypuses, and you happen to have one (or think you can write one), you’d be silly not to give it a shot.


If you have a potentially hard-to-market idea that you really, truly love, an idea that floods you with energy and fills you with joy, here’s my advice, courtesy of Admiral Farragut: Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

We simply cannot allow our creativity to be controlled by conventional wisdom. I know everyone’s saying picture books need to be—what is it now, less than seven words long? Maybe it’s six this week.

You know what? I’d bet good money that in the next year or two, some brilliant, 2,000-word picture book will take the publishing world by storm. It will be a bestseller. It will be adored by both critics and kids. And it will exist because some writer had the courage of her convictions, and because some editor was gutsy enough to take a chance on it.

I adore Press Here by Hervé Tullet. Is it character driven? No. Did Tullet write it because he read a market update saying, “Editors are seeking unconventional, graphic-driven books that readers can poke with their fingers”? Unlikely.

I’ll bet he wrote it for one reason:

The idea delighted him.

And now it delights us.

We want to write great books. And greatness does not come from following trends. It comes from breaking boundaries. So let’s get out there and break some, shall we?

Deborah’s picture books include The Quiet Book, The Loud Book, A Balloon for IsabelGranny Gomez & Jigsaw, and the forthcoming Part-Time Princess and The Christmas Quiet Book. Deborah is the author of the easy reader Pirate Mom, and she co-writes the Sugar Plum Ballerina chapter book series with Whoopi Goldberg. She has also written more than 25 nonfiction books for kids. Please visit her online at