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nadiaby Karlin Gray

What do I know about writing nonfiction picture books?

After my book NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN’T SIT STILL was published, someone said to me, “Great timing with the 40th Anniversary of the Perfect 10! How smart of you to write that book now!”

Um, no. Well, yes . . . but then no.

Four years ago, my writing instructor discussed nonfiction picture books in class. I couldn’t remember reading any when I was a kid so I thought back to my five-year-old self. Who or what fascinated me? If I could have read a picture book about any person or subject, what would it have been?

Well, in 1976, I was just a 5-year-old girl who loved gymnastics. (I mean, I was terrible at it but I LOVED it.) So, duh! Only one answer popped into my head—Nadia Comaneci.

That was smart—asking kid Karlin what she wanted to read. Someone else at my publisher was smart enough to look into the future and see the marketing stars align.

While working on my book, I didn’t pay attention to the dates of the next Olympics. I didn’t know that it would be the 40th Anniversary of Comaneci’s historic 10. (Math’s not really my thing.) I didn’t even know if my book would find a publisher! The only thing that I knew was that kid Karlin would have flipped for a picture book about Nadia Comaneci.

So, that’s the book I wrote for kid Karlin . . . and grown-up Karlin loved every minute of it!

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Here are some fellow writers sharing what they have learned about writing nonfiction picture books.

Audrey Vernick, author of THE KID FROM DIAMOND STREET:

thekidfromdiamondstreetI write both fiction and nonfiction. In the beginning, I thought the only place for voice was in fiction, and it’s probably where I feel more comfortable experimenting with it. But it’s totally worth the time to play around and explore unexpected possibilities because when a truly unique voice emerges, oh my! Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick wasn’t only beautifully illustrated by Sophie Blackall–what a story! Other examples that come to mind are Phil Bildner’s Marvelous Cornelius, illustrated by John Parra; Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad; and, because I can’t resist a baseball book, The You Never Heard of .. ? books written by Jonah Winter.

Susan Hood, author of ADA’S VIOLIN:

adasviolinDon’t be afraid to ask for help. In my experience, experts, scholars, curators, producers, reporters, and authors of adult books on your subject are more than happy to consult with you. Your passion is their passion! I offer them acknowledgement in the book, but make sure to ask permission to list their names and/or work. Kate Messner wrote an eye-opening blog about this: “Think Before You Thank.” I wouldn’t have dreamed that a public thank you might compromise someone professionally, but it might. So go ahead, ask for help, but ask for permission to use their names as well.

Maria Gianferrari, author of COYOTE MOON:

coyotemoonWhen you’re doing your research and note-taking, keep a list of “cool facts.” You might not have a place for them in your story, but they’ll be perfect for back matter! Think of a creative and engaging way to organize and present the material. For example, you might present the back matter in how-to form. I did this for one of my nonfiction books using How To Swallow A Pig: Step-by-Step Advice From the Animal Kingdom by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page as a mentor text. A cool fact could also be a hook for beginning your story.

Nancy Churnin, author of THE WILLIAM HOY STORY:

williamhoyEngage, learn from and share the journey with people who know and care deeply about your subject. I could not have written The William Hoy Story without the help of Steve Sandy, a Deaf man who is a friend of the Hoy family, and was able to answer questions about small details of William’s life while giving context about what it was like to grow up as a Deaf person in the late 19th century. Steve’s help continued after publication as he and his wife, Bonnie, have been amazing supporters of the book. I am also profoundly grateful to National Baseball Hall of Fame announcer Eric Nadel, a Hoy fan, who has written about him for adults. Eric advised me on baseball details, and has also been a fantastic supporter of the book.

Laban Hill, author of WHEN THE BEAT WAS BORN:

whenthebeatwasbornWhat I’ve learned from writing nonfiction picture books is that the stories are about people and their emotions first and the facts are secondary. That does not mean you can make up facts, but that the motivations and fears and aspirations of the people involved reveal how the facts fit in.

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karlingrayThanks for all the non-fiction tips, Karlin!

In honor of Nadia Comaneci’s 40th Anniversary of the Perfect 10 and the 2016 Rio Olympics, we are giving away a copy of THE GIRL WHO COULDN’T SIT STILL. Simple comment below to enter. One comment per person, US addresses only, please.

Karlin Gray is the author of NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN’T SIT STILL and runs a weekly Q&A blog with writers about their first picture books. You can find her at karlingray.com@KarlinGray or on Facebook.

Enjoy watching the Olympics and check out the schedule on NBC.

MuggyMeter

The humidity whacks me in the face each time I step outside, so yeah, it’s August. Already.

Every summer I entertain grandiose plans to write outdoors while enjoying a picnic of luscious home-made ciabatta sandwiches and baked goods the likes of which would make The Barefoot Contessa swoon. I buy light, airy dresses, relish being barefoot in the cool grass and imagine the stack of manuscripts I will have completed, polished and prompting auction offers…

And then August smacks me upside the head. Already.

Nasty, vile August. Why do you curse me so?! You let my children out of camp teeming with bug bite scabs, force me to endure three-hour back-to-school lines at Staples, and leave my computer devoid of new manuscripts.

Well, at least someone is winning this month. Finally, a list of all the prize winners from recent giveaways!

A MORNING WITH GRANDPA WINNER:
JENNIFER PHILLIPS

PENNY & JELLY WINNERS:
CLAIRE BOBROW
POLLY RENNER
STELLA LOPEZ

THE STORY CIRCLE WINNER:
NADINE GAMBLE

DUMP TRUCK DUCK WINNER:
DEBRA SHUMAKER

Congratulations, everyone! I will be emailing you shortly.

Now, because I want everyone to be a winner in August, here are some excellent writing articles I’ve come across lately. All are worth a read!

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And finally, one of my favorite books OF ALL TIME, although I discovered it only a couple years ago, is MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND by Matthew Dicks. Matthew offers a fabulous newsletter jam-packed with writing and storytelling tips. You can even win a storytelling consult with him. He is a multiple winner of Moth’s Story Slam and GrandSlam competitions. He posted an engaging TEDx talk recently about how to hone your story radar and even improve your life in the process. I encourage you to watch:

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I hope this video makes your August better than mine!

I awoke this morning and thought, “What a fine day for a new blog post.” Of course, I also thought, “What a fine day to go swimming” and “What a fine day to finish reading that book.” Sensing that I have packed today’s schedule, I decided that said blog post would have to be ultra-short. (I would have said “uber” short, but that word has been bogarted by some taxi service.)

So here I have pieced together quick quotes and sage snippets from the SCBWI events I attended in the spring—New England SCBWI and New Jersey SCBWI.

I hope you enjoy while I do the backstroke with a soggy book.

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“A picture book is an amazing thing, a world unto itself. You can do anything in those 32 pages and that is the thing I love about it.” ~David Wiesner

“As I create, I am continually asking myself ‘why is this happening?’ You know you are desperate when you go to the ‘magic button’ solution.” ~David Wiesner

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“Be nice. Be resilient. Set goals. Adapt & learn. Your biggest achievement is just around the corner.” ~Jarrett J. Krosoczka

“Don’t do a $50 job like a $50 job, you’ll get $50 jobs your whole life. Do it like a $500 job and you’ll start getting those.” ~Jarrett J. Krosoczka

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“It’s not necessarily ‘write what you know.’ Write what you want to know ABOUT. The passion for that subject will come through.” ~Wendy Mass

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“When it comes to the nitty gritty marketing of your book, always remember, something is better than nothing.” ~Laurie Wallmark

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“A postcard is the best way to get our attention. I get 60 emails a day…it’s too much. I like the tactile nature of a postcard. I love feeling them and looking at them…if they hit anything in me, I keep them.” ~Laurie Brennan, Associate Art Director, Viking

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“Characters who make interesting mistakes are inherently interesting. The kind of mistakes your character makes defines her. How a character acts in the wake of a mistake should be unique and personal to her. Failure is fertilizer: a world of things can grow from the mistakes your character makes. Someone who is always right is BORING.” ~Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

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“I wanted to write a book where my daughter could see herself—that’s me!” ~Suzy Ismail

“Writing from a multicultural perspective is no different than writing. All writing is about crossing boundaries.” ~Suzy Ismail quotes Debby Dahl Edwardson

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And, finally, my favorite quote…which is still making me think long and hard:

“How are you creating a literary world besides being a literary creator?” ~Donalyn Miller

 

Sylvia Liusylvialiu is co-founder of the comprehensive children’s literature resource Kidlit411 and a picture book author whose debut A MORNING WITH GRANDPA (illustrated by Christina Forshay) won Lee & Low’s prestigious New Voices Award. 

One of the most important and inspiring movements in kidlit today is diversity, so I’ve asked Sylvia to talk to us today about creating authentic stories with relatable, diverse characters. Get those pencils ready because you will want to write after you read this interview!

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Sylvia, what does the movement “We Need Diverse Books” mean to you?

For me, We Need Diverse Books means that every child can easily find stories and books that are mirrors and windows. Mirrors that reflect their own stories and circumstances and windows that show other people’s stories. This means that previously underrepresented groups need to be better represented at every level of children’s books. On the supply side, we need more diverse creators and more diverse gatekeepers (agents, editors, booksellers, librarians, reviewers). On the demand side, we need a reading public that buys and demands more diverse books. To achieve these isn’t a matter of wishful thinking or good intentions, because the societal inequalities that created the lack of supply and demand ultimately need to be addressed. For example, publishing and the creative arts are professions that are still very much based in apprenticeships—i.e., you need to have enough money to take unpaid internships when you’re starting out, or to take creative risks.

What led to you entering Lee & Low’s “New Voices” contest?

I have known about the New Voices Award ever since it began in 2000 because I have been following Lee & Low for over twenty years (my college and law school friend is related to the company’s founder). Over the last five or six years that I’ve been writing picture books seriously, I have always had the award in the back of my mind. Most of my stories are not specifically geared towards multicultural or diverse topics, so I didn’t submit any until 2013, when I wrote A MORNING WITH GRANDPA. After I wrote it, I thought it would be a good fit because it told a universal story about a grandparent and grandchild’s fun and funny relationship but with specific cultural references.

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“When writing a diverse story, you should not just insert a character of a certain ethnicity or race. It is about so much more.” Can you expand upon this concept?

You’re right. It’s about telling a story from deep within a point of view or culture that requires intimate knowledge or experience to that culture. It’s more than changing a name to Maria or Mei Mei. It’s inhabiting that character’s world and showing and sharing the details of that world that make it specific to the culture, ethnicity, or world view. I do believe authors are capable of writing from different perspectives and cultures other than their own, but if they do, they need to approach the story with respect and research.

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Going forward, what are your hopes for diversity in children’s publishing?

In the ideal world, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. We would have all different kinds of stories written by all different kinds of people, reflecting the multiplicity of experiences–social, cultural, racial, ethnic, economic, gender, ability, and more. But in the short term, as I mentioned before, I hope that gatekeepers (editors, agents, reviewers, book sellers, librarians, parents) take seriously the emerging commitment to diversity–promoting and giving voice to people of color, LGBTQ people, and other underrepresented people in the industry through hiring, contracts, reviews, and book sales.

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Sylvia, any final thoughts?

Remember that only you–a specific person on this planet with a particular worldview, background, culture, family, sense of humor, and self–can tell your stories. Don’t be afraid to share your stories with your truths and perspectives, and don’t deprive the world of them.

What an inspiring statement, Sylvia! I hope this sparks new ideas for our blog readers.

Thank you so much for sharing your “new voice” with us…and for having Lee & Low share your “New Voices” picture book!

One copy will be given away within the next two weeks. Just leave one comment below to enter. (US addresses only, please.)

Good luck!

Before I recap the SCBWI conferences I’ve attended the last two months, there’s a pressing topic that requires outing…a little quirk I have witnessed at every kidlit conference from the dawn of time (or, in my case, since 2008).

FOMO.

Maybe you don’t have a teen in your household and you’re shrugging right now. What the heck is FOMO?

Well, let’s describe the scene.

See the new-to-kidlit conference attendee, nervous yet determined, marching around the event carrying a stuffed animal based on their story’s character so people will inquire about it, talking to anyone who will listen to the pitch…which, unfortunately, the attendee hasn’t quite figured out yet.

Witness the cornering of an agent or editor in a hallway, a conference room, the buffet line, or heaven forbid, the restroom stall, being asked if they will read the manuscript, listen to the pitch or “peek” at other work.

See the attendee making conversation about the story and only the story, never asking anyone what they’re writing or even about their family, where they scored that awesome vintage dress, what they do for fun, where they’ve traveled, or anything unrelated to WORK.

You see, the new kidlit conference attendee is gripped by FOMO:

FEAR
OF
MISSING
OUT

whataboutme

FOMO makes us jumpy, anxious, pushy and, dare I say it, annoying. The person-with-the-manuscript thinks this conference is THE ONE CHANCE to break through, to get the manuscript not only read, but read and LOVED, contracts thrust forward with gusto. They envision a bidding war breaking out right at lunch table 10, pitting Viking against Sterling, swords thrust forward with gusto.

It’s an unflattering portrait I’ve painted, and I apologize. But you see, I too was afflicted by FOMO. I know it so well because I lived it. (I am the first person above with the stuffed animal, just so you know.)

It took me a couple years, and some serious coaching by professional authors, to calm down at conferences, to realize that the lunch table duel just DOES NOT HAPPEN. Yes, an agent or editor may fall in love with your project, but more frequently they fall in I-think-I-like, ask for revisions, and begin a relationship with you. The opportunities happen AFTER the conference.

And remember, relationships can start with something other than A MANUSCRIPT.

Editors and agents are real people, too. They are not these mystical beings who float away to enchanted realms after a conference ends. They are wives and husbands, fiancés, mothers and fathers, lacrosse coaches, knitters, ukelele players, cycling enthusiasts, City Harvest volunteers, Rick Springfield fans and even former accountants who love spreadsheets (these people mystify me). They are multi-faceted, shimmering personalities. They like to sip a glass of wine at cocktail hour and talk about anything other than the books sitting on their desks. Honestly, an editor will remember the person with whom they share a passion for the Amazon rainforest and try to forget the pleading, desperate person who repeatedly asked if they had five minutes to hear a pitch.

FOMO. It can ruin your judgment. It can make you forget how to forge friendships.

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Do not fall victim to conference FOMO. Because if you are clamoring, praying, hoping for JUST ONE book deal, I have to warn you—this is not true! Because once that book deal happens, the satisfaction may indeed last a lifetime, but the longing for a NEW book deal circles back again and you think: JUST ONE MORE book deal. The ideas never end. The storytelling never ends. If you are a writer, a creative being, you are hopefully in this for life. Getting published does not change the mission—to pour your innermost being out on paper. Getting published does not fundamentally change your life (unless you get a 7-figure debut deal). Yes, you have accomplished something few people ever do, you worked hard for it, but you are still you. You will want to do it again. You will want to ride this crazy rollercoaster of rejection and self-doubt and discovery over and over.

So the FOMO you feel? It actually never goes away once you are published. The trick is to learn to control it.

chasingtail

Do not let that BAD FOMO MOJO zap you of your creative energy, your imagination, your unique perspective, your force to do good in the universe. Don’t let FOMO make you a BOZO.

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If you are new to kidlit conferences, RELAX. Listen. Learn. Just be you. Don’t fixate on selling the manuscript in your tote bag. Getting published takes years and it is not a race. It’s a marathon, an insanely strenuous yet joyous journey. Sit back and enjoy the run! You are not missing out on anything. You are in the thick of it.

For years I mistakenly thought that writing was just about words. About particularly poignant sentences. Flourishes of the language. Creating a passage so magnificent, it makes the reader stop and ponder the meaning of life.

kenreading

Of course, it isn’t just about words. It’s about all the words, together. It’s about the story.

So in pursuit of the best story this week, I had to kill darlings. We’ve all heard the phrase before, but what does it actually mean? What are we bludgeoning to death?

In short, “darlings” are pieces of writing that do not further your story. They are superfluous lines only there because you want to admire their shine and glow. Ooh, sparkly!

sparkler

The reader should not be jolted out of the story by the beauty of your words. The point is to draw the reader further in, not shove them out.

So what do these little darlings look like?

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Sorry, not Kristy McNichol.

These darlings may drag a scene on too long. The point has already been made, but you stick it to the reader one last time in such a witty way. Sorry, kill it.

Sometimes we get so caught up in fun devices like alliteration, internal rhyme and onomatopoeia that we end up with gobbledygook rather than glory. Sorry, kill it.

On occasion, we write jokes that fall flat. Sure, we laugh hysterically but to everyone else they go SPLAT, right in the kisser. Sorry, kill it.

You know that character who magically appears, says one important thing and then leaves? Why? Where’d she go? Is she ever coming back? No? Well then, murder must be committed.

And if we’re writing a story based upon real events, we can feel inclined to include things that actually happened, even if they don’t necessarily add anything but word count. Kill, kill, kill.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Single Effect” theory suggests that everything in a short story should contribute to an overall emotional theme. Everything you put into the story, he said, should be carefully selected to elicit the desired effect.

And since we’re writing what can be considered super-short stories, we need to be even more diligent about leading the reader down a specific path. Veering off means higher word count—which can kill the story’s publication potential. Sacrifice some darlings and save the whole village!

Super-short shorts.

Super-short shorts may have killed WHAM!

Finally, don’t be sad about killing your darlings. When you have to kill one or two, just refer to these gifs. They’ll make you feel better. (I know they helped me.)

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I got zapped with the flu two weeks ago. Really walloped me, like being endlessly pummeled with pillows at a sleepover party. Just when I thought I was getting better—PHHHHHHUMPT! Down I went. Cold compresses, hot tea, lukewarm toast. Sleepless nights, endless days. What a funk!

Now I’m happy to be back in the land of the living. Did you know there’s a sun out there? And trees budding? Birds singing?

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There’s also winners waiting to be announced!

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Natalie Lynn Tanner, c’mon down! You won a copy of Pat Zietlow Miller’s THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE!

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Hey, Pat! PJHollow, that is! You won a Logitech Bluetooth Keyboard!

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And Rimna! PEEP & EGG is yours!

I will be emailing the winners shortly. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Didn’t win? Here’s another chance!

In celebration of being well again, and in celebration of my first-born’s 13th birthday TODAY (OMG, I’m the mother of a teenager!!!), and in celebration of my fourth book, NORMAL NORMAN, I’m giving away an extended classroom Skype session. I’ll teach a writing lesson that fits in with your current curriculum. Yes, a custom half-hour lesson just for your class or your child’s class…or your homeschool group. All you have to do is leave a comment below. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

And now I shall get back to writing. I took an extra-long break while I was sick, although I think I missed an opportunity to capture hilarity that only 103-degree-fever hallucinations can create!

I'mNotHatchingjacket

The creators of PEEP & EGG, author Laura Gehl and illustrator Joyce Wan, are letting us hear a peep from their recent conversation about making this seriously cute new book…which is just in time for Easter! It’s all it’s cracked up to be! (Man, I’m really pushing the puns lately.)

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Joyce Asks Laura….

Joyce: How did you first come up with the idea for this book?
Laura: With four kids of my own, I spent many years hearing I’M NOT every day. And by every day, I really mean every minute. But on the rare occasion that I got a full night’s sleep, or a full bar of chocolate, I could recognize that my kids and their peers weren’t actually trying to drive adults crazy (most of the time). A lot of the hesitation and I’M NOT came from nervousness, rather than stubbornness. I hope Peep and Egg will help parents start conversations with their kids about fears—however ridiculous those fears may seem. And I hope Peep and Egg will remind toddlers and preschoolers that they can overcome their fears.

Joyce: You left a lot of room in the text for illustrations, which was great for me! Is that a challenging thing to do as a writer?
Laura: YES!!!!!!!!! It is extremely hard to do! As an author, you have to resist the temptation to write a zillion detailed illustration notes and instead trust the illustrator to make magic happen. I always need to remind myself that if I am doing my job correctly, then my words—without the pictures—should only tell part of the story. If a child could hear only the words and get the full experience of my story, then I’ve totally failed.

Joyce: When you were writing this book, how did you imagine the illustrations?
Laura: I imagined the illustrations like Richard Scarry’s illustrations in I Am A Bunny. Just as you can see every hair on his bunny, I imagined seeing every feather on Peep. It’s hilarious to think about that now, since your style is totally different and yet I LOVE LOVE LOVE your interpretation of my words, and the magic we made together. That’s what I mean about trusting the illustrator—and also trusting the editor to make the perfect partnership between words and pictures. I know Janine, our wonderful editor, had you in mind from the beginning. It was her wisdom that made Peep and Egg the adorable book it is today!

Joyce: Peep and Egg is also written entirely in dialogue. Was that something that evolved as you were writing the story or was that something you decided from the start?
Laura: Over the various versions of Peep and Egg, certain aspects of the story changed—the ending most of all. But the story started in dialogue and stayed that way through every revision.

Joyce: Would you say you are more like Peep or more like Egg? (I’m more like Peep and tend to jump head first into everything!)
Laura: Now I know why we make a great team. I am definitely an Egg. I worry about everything and most days would love to stay inside my safe, cozy shell (as long as I could have chocolate inside, and a good book to read!).

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Laura Asks Joyce…

Laura: When you began developing the characters, who was more difficult to draw–Peep or Egg? (In this case, I mean Egg as an egg. I still can’t believe how much personality you bring out for Egg without the benefit of facial expressions!)
Joyce: The voice in the manuscript was so strong I could see the characters in my head right away. They were a joy to draw because they are such opposites personality-wise, and so expressive in their dialogue. Yes, Egg as an egg was hardest as I was unable to show facial expressions or body movements, but it was a fun challenge.

Laura: How did you decide on the color palate that you used? Did you experiment with other colors before narrowing in?
Joyce: I tend to gravitate to a particular color palette in a lot of my work and they’re usually colors that are a little off from the traditional rainbow colors. So instead of straight red, green and blue, I love colors like blush pink, olive, teal, lime, and aqua, which you will see a lot of in Peep and Egg.

Laura: Can you tell us a little about the process of designing the ridiculously adorable cover?
Joyce: What initially started as a two-book project became a four-book project over the course of working on the first two books [side note from Laura: WOO-HOO!] so I felt like this first book cover needed to be branded in a way so that recognizable design elements could be carried over a few books. I even sought feedback from my design-savvy agent on a number of design ideas, which helped me tremendously throughout the cover design process. That is one of the nice things about having an agent who worked on the design side of publishing before becoming an agent. It took a few rounds of different ideas before I reached a final design that the editor loved.

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Laura: Which illustration from the book is your favorite? Mine is Egg wearing the football helmet.
Joyce: I like the front endpaper, as I hid a little surprise for readers to discover.

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I suppose you’ll have to pick up PEEP AND EGG to find out!

Thanks, ladies. I can see this adorable series easily growing into a dozen books! A DOZEN! GET IT? (Groan, Tara.)

Macmillan is giving away a copy of PEEP & EGG: I’M NOT HATCHING to one lucky blog commenter. U.S. addresses only, please. Just leave a comment below to enter. Giveaway closes March 14th!

 


Laura Gehl is the author of ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, a Charlotte Zolotow Highly Commended Title, International Literacy Association Honor Book, and Booklist Books for Youth Editors’ Choice for 2014; HARE AND TORTOISE RACE ACROSS ISRAEL and AND THEN ANOTHER SHEEP TURNED UP (both PJ library selections for 2015 and 2016); and the PEEP AND EGG series. A former science and reading teacher, she also writes about science for children and adults. Laura lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with her husband and four children. Visit her online at lauragehl.com.

Joyce Wan is an award-winning author and illustrator of many best-selling books for children, including YOU ARE MY CUPCAKE, WE BELONG TOGETHER, and THE WHALE IN MY SWIMMING POOL, which was a Junior Library Guild Spring 2015 selection. When she’s not working on books, she teaches courses at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. Joyce is originally from Boston, Massachusetts and currently lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Through all her work, she hopes to inspire people to embrace the spirit of childhood and follow their dreams. Visit Joyce online at wanart.com.

rejectedYou’re a lovely person. Simply charming. I mean that, I really do. You read my blog and leave nice comments and buy my books and write like you can’t go wrong. But I have to tell you:

“It’s not you. It’s me.”

In short, that’s what a literary rejection means. It’s not about YOU. Remember, YOU are lovely! It’s about the editor and whether the proposed project fits with her taste and imprint list.

Subjective, it’s all subjective! One editor’s rejection is another editor’s next book!

But editors and agents often provide writers with rejection statements that we want to understand. We feel the need to analyze, to determine what we can do better. But don’t over-analyze. Sometimes a rejection is just a way of saying “no, it’s not for me.”

Here is a list of common rejections heard by picture book writers (and other writers), plus an interpretation of what they mean. (Note that I said “interpretation”! Your mileage may vary.)

“It feels familiar.”

The editor is reminded of another book (or books) while reading your manuscript, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Maybe it’s the character, the theme or the structure, but it’s impossible to pinpoint. In short, the story doesn’t feel unique enough. The editor doesn’t think it will stand out in the marketplace. There’s too much similar competition. If you wrote about a common theme (new sibling, moving to a new house, first day of school, etc.) without a fresh new twist, this could be the problem.

“It’s too slight.” or “It’s too one-note.”

The editor feels your story doesn’t have enough meat to it. It may be lacking a universal emotional theme (friendship, being yourself, perseverance, etc.) or a clear story arc. The editor may feel there isn’t enough going on to encourage re-readings. The story feels more like a one-line joke than a fully fleshed-out tale. The main character may not have struggled enough before finding the resolution, which is sometimes why an ending can “fall flat”. Also rejected as “needs more layers.”

“It’s not right for our list.”

Every imprint within each publisher has a specific “style”. Some are commercial, some are literary, some are message-driven, some are wacky and humorous. Know which imprint publishes what.

“It’s too similar to…”

Your story competes too closely with a book on the editor’s list or a wildly popular book by another publisher that’s already in the marketplace.

“It’s not right for us at this time.”

See above. They might have projects in the hopper that compete too closely with what you submitted. (You submitted a story about a bowling ball. They just signed a bowling ball book! What are the odds???) They may have recently contracted multiple projects and no longer have room on their list. They may be moving away from “older” picture books into the younger set (ages 2-5 vs. 4-8). Unfortunately, this rejection is also used as a polite catch-all or a form rejection.

“It’s too quiet.”

The imprint you submitted to might not publish literary fiction. The editor feels your manuscript doesn’t have a strong hook, something that will make your book marketable. They don’t feel it will stand out in the marketplace. It cannot be easily summarized into an elevator pitch, which is what their salespeople will use to market the book to stores, schools and libraries. It’s not a commercial or high-concept story.

“It’s too commercial.”

The imprint you submitted to might not publish commercial fiction. Commercial books have a strong marketing hook, are often high-concept (can be boiled down to an immediately understood, succinct statement), have a clear plot struggle and appeal to a wide range of readers. Literary fiction features artistic prose and often contains an internal conflict and more meandering plot.

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“It doesn’t resonate with me.”

This is really a case of “It’s not you. It’s me.” The editor may think the story is well-written and even enjoy it, but it isn’t tugging at her heartstrings. Being an editor is like dating, like finding a potential mate—the story has to light something within her to want to devote passion and commitment to it. Remember, the editor has to spend two or more years with your story, bringing it to life. They need to feel sincerely attached to it. You want them to LOVE it, you want them to be EXCITED so they can create the best book possible. Examine your emotional theme—is it strong enough?

“I didn’t quite connect with this in the way I’d hoped.”

See above. The editor may have liked your concept and pitch, but not the execution of the story. Again, the story isn’t tugging at his heartstrings. Examine the POV, voice and the emotional theme (often referred to as a “layer”). A revision might be necessary…or not. Another editor may connect. Also rejected as, “It doesn’t have that WOW factor” or “I’m not getting that YES! feeling.”

“This needs a stronger voice.”

Voice is the unique way an author combines words and strings together sentences. It is your story’s personality, its manner of expression. It’s the difference between “Oh, shucks!” and “Oh, slippery slush!” (Little Red Gliding Hood) It’s the difference between “Charmaine’s showing off” and “Charmaine’s strutting hard enough to shame a rooster.” (The Quickest Kid in Clarksville) It’s the difference between “Pancake raced away” and “Pancake rappelled down a rope of linguini.” (Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast)

Go ahead and play with your words—use stronger verbs, alter the sentence structure, use alliteration, internal rhyme, onomatopoeia and uncommon words. Heck, make up a word every once in a while! Think of voice the way a poet thinks about meter—there’s a certain beat that the reader can dance to.

Pretend YOU are the main character. How would he or she TALK? Does the way you’ve written the story—the cadence of the words—match the character, the setting, the situation?

“There’s no current market for this.”

Your story’s subject matter and/or theme is either too popular or too obscure.

Remember when vampires were all the rage in YA? Same thing with pirates in picture books. There were a slew of well-received books featuring gangplanks that sold gangbusters. (Hey, there’s “voice” again!) But then that ship sailed. The market got soaked with pirates. So guess what? Editors didn’t necessarily buy a lot of pirate titles because there was too much existing, well-established competition. But everything is cyclical. I spot new pirate books on the horizon, captain! Land, ho!

Also, your manuscript might not be a picture book because it’s too long or too descriptive, yet it doesn’t fall neatly into another kidlit category, either.

Form Rejection vs. Personal Rejection

Most will send a form rejection. There’s just not enough time in the universe—or even in the flux capacitor—to personally respond to every manuscript. But if you receive a personal rejection, the editor or agent sees something promising. You haven’t hooked him, but he sees potential. Think of it as encouraging. You’re on the right wave. Just keep swimming; just keep swimming.

On the other hand, getting only form rejections doesn’t mean you DON’T have potential. It just means the editor or agent is crunched for time.

I mean, imagine this is what gets dumped on your desk every day!

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One thing you should know: if an agent or editor wants to see more of your work, they will ask. No need for interpretation; it will be there in black and white. If they complimented your story but did not ask for a revision, DO NOT send one anyway thinking they just forgot to ask. If they want it, they WON’T FORGET. And if you send something they didn’t ask for, THEY WILL REMEMBER.

Let’s face it, the fact that you’re even receiving rejections is good. Yes, GOOD! You’re putting your work out there. And the sting of each rejection will lessen with every new one you receive. So let them pile up. Read ‘em. Move on. You WILL get rejections for the rest of your life if you’re a writer. Bottom line: learn to live with them, their brevity and their occasional ambiguity. Ever onward.

And, in case you forgot, you’re a lovely person.

tammiforsiteby Tammi Sauer

Psst. Hey, you there. Yes, you. Do you want to wow an editor with your next picture book manuscript? Great!

It only takes one thing. Come up with the next Fancy Nancy, Olivia, or Skippyjon Jones. Editors are wading through their slush and/or agented submissions in the hopes of finding an irresistible, can’t-put-down, character-driven manuscript. They want manuscripts that make them feel something and a great character can do just that.

Examples of strong characters in picture books:

OLIVIA by Ian Falconer
Olivia is a feisty little piglet who has too much energy for her own good.

FANCY NANCY by Jane O’Connor
Nancy is very into fanciness whereas her family is not.

SKIPPYJON JONES by Judy Schachner
Skippyjon Jones is a little kitty with a big imagination.

A PET FOR PETUNIA by Paul Schmid
An exuberant Petunia wants, wants, wants a pet she really shouldn’t have.

DINOSAUR VS. BEDTIME by Bob Shea
The seemingly unstoppable Dinosaur is very much into his own bad self.

CLARK THE SHARK by Bruce Hale
Clark has super-sized enthusiasm which leads to all kinds of mayhem.

Developing a unique and engaging character like the ones listed above, however, is a huge challenge.
When I’m working on a new picture book manuscript, I remind myself that if people don’t care about my main character, they won’t care about my story.

I always keep A.R.F. in mind.

A stands for Active.
I want my main character to be doing something. No one wants to read about a kid who just sits on the couch all day with a bag of Doritos.

R stands for Relatable.
I want my main character to connect with readers. I want readers to think, “Yeah, I know what that feels like.”

F stands for Flawed.
I want my main character to have some sort of flaw. Nobody longs to read about little miss perfect. Yawn. Perfect is boring. A flawed character is much more interesting. A bonus? A flaw often increases the story’s tension and makes the character more endearing and root-worthy to readers.

In my latest book, GINNY LOUISE AND THE SCHOOL SHOWDOWN (Disney*Hyperion), illustrated by Lynn Munsinger(!!!), Ginny Louise is the new kid at school.

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But Truman Elementary is no ordinary school. This is made clear at the very beginning of the book:

The Truman Elementary Troublemakers were a bad bunch.

Especially these three: Cap’n Catastrophe, Destructo Dude, and Make-My-Day May.

Day after day, these scoundrels made waves.

They dodged danger.

And in the classroom?

You don’t even want to know what went on.

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Ginny Louise is Active. She happily goes about her school day. She paints, she sings, she learns things. All the while, she is oblivious to the fact that everything she does drives the Truman Elementary Troublemakers bonkers.

Ginny Louise is Relatable. She doesn’t fit in with her classmates in the classroom or out on the playground. (Readers can empathize with her because everyone has experienced the feeling of not fitting in at one time or another.)

Ginny Louise is Flawed. She only hears what she wants to hear. This results in all kinds of miscommunication.

By the book’s end, this active, relatable, flawed character turns things around at Truman Elementary. Well. For the most part.🙂

GINNY LOUISE AND THE SCHOOL SHOWDOWN debuts TODAY! Next summer, Ginny Louise and the rest of the gang return for more mayhem in GINNY LOUISE AND THE SCHOOL FIELD DAY.

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And now it’s a great giveaway for GINNY LOUISE!

Leave a comment naming your favorite PB character and you will be entered to win a signed, first-edition copy of GINNY LOUISE AND THE SCHOOL SHOWDOWN!

One comment per person, please. 

A random winner will be selected in two weeks.

Good luck!

Tammi Sauer is a former teacher and library media specialist. She has sold 23 picture books to major publishing houses. In addition to winning awards, her books have gone on to do great things. Mostly Monsterly was selected for the 2012 Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories program. Me Want Pet! was recently released in French which makes her feel extra fancy. And Nugget and Fang, along with Tammi herself, appeared on the Spring 2015 Scholastic Book Fair DVD which was seen by millions of kids across the nation. Tammi’s books Ginny Louise and the School Showdown (Disney*Hyperion), Your Alien (Sterling), and Roar! (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman) debut in 2015.

You can visit Tammi online at tammisauer.com and at picturebookbuilders.com.

Follow Me on Pinterest As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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