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Quick, think of a picture book with a long title!
DUH, I KNOW.
Of course, Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz’s classic sports a long title for hyperbole purposes. The author wants you to know that Alexander’s day was straight-up disastrous…and that Alexander is perhaps a tad overdramatic. The title sets up the plot and character perfectly.
However, you don’t see long picture book titles like this one too often. Why?
Picture books tend to sell on concept. That concept must be communicated succinctly in order to capture a young child’s (and a parent’s) imagination. Yes, people really do judge a book by its cover.
If your picture book manuscript has an overly long title, it may suggest your concept is either too vague or too complicated for the format. You want to nail down your concept and make it snappy, catchy. BAM! SELL THAT BOOK!
Even though character name titles are short, I personally tend to shy away from them. The title ERIN & JOAN doesn’t tell my audience enough about who the characters are. Here’s an interesting case study: the talented Ame Dyckman’s WOLFIE THE BUNNY was originally called WOLFIE & DOT. The final title WOLFIE THE BUNNY practically sells itself (with Zacharia OHora’s bold artwork), whereas the original title doesn’t necessarily relay enough clues about the tale.
But there are exceptions when two names work. GEORGE & MARTHA, one of the most popular picture books of all time, totally blows a hole in my theory.
So does Josh Funk and Brendan Kearney’s upcoming LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST. But here the names give you a lot to go on.
Now let’s examine SLJ/Fuse #8’s Top 100 Picture Books. The majority of titles are between one and four words. The longest title? THE LITTLE MOUSE, THE RED RIPE STRAWBERRY AND THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR, published in 1984. But let’s take a look at the cover…
…interestingly, THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR is emphasized in larger letters, juxtaposed against the image of the delicious strawberry and an anxious-looking mouse. I’m going to predict that in today’s market, an editor might have cut that title down to just the BEAR part. (But alas, the world will never know. Just like we still don’t know how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop!)
Now here’s a title for ya:
POPPY THE PONY PICKS A PERFECTLY PATIENT PLAYMATE
This isn’t a real title, but notice how long it is and how it fell into an alliteration trap! Ahhhhh! I tend to see this often with new writers’ manuscripts.
THE STINKY CHEESE MAN AND OTHER FAIRLY STUPID TALES
This is a real title. It’s long but it’s allowed to be. It features “stinky” and “stupid,” two words especially beloved by the target audience. (Plus it’s Jon Scieszka! You gonna argue with JON SCIESZKA?)
So take a close look at your picture book manuscript’s title. If you haven’t found a clever moniker, it may be that your story isn’t focused enough yet. If the title is long and complicated, maybe your story is, too. The title is going to be one of your most important selling points, so spend some time on it and get it right!
Bottom line: long titles can work, but be sure to know when they don’t.
Now it’s your turn:
What are some of your favorite picture book titles?
I am the founder of Picture Book Month and it starts tomorrow, November 1. The website, PictureBookMonth.com, features essays from thought leaders in the children’s literature community. Each day in November, a new essay is posted. This year’s Picture Book Month Champions are: Chris Barton, Aaron Becker, Kelly Bingham , Sophie Blackall, Arree Chung, Anna Dewdney, Johnette Downing, Ame Dyckman, Jill Esbaum, Carolyn Flores, Lupe Ruiz-Flores, Robin Preiss Glasser, Deborah Heiligman, Marla Frazee, Stefan Jolet, Kathleen Krull, Rene Colato Lainez, Loreen Leedy, Betsy Lewin, Ted Lewin, Brian Lies, Kelly J. Light, Debbie Ridpath Ohi, Alexis O’Neill, Sandra Markle, Ann Whitford Paul, Aaron Reynolds, Judy Schachner, Linda Joy Singleton, and David Schwartz. Please join the celebration!
As you prepare for PiBoIdMo, think about the titles of your picture books. In a recent interview for California Kids! magazine, Patricia Newman asked me, “How do you come up with titles for your books?” This started me thinking in depth about picture book titles. What’s in a title? How important is a title to a book? Can a book be centered around its title?
As it turns out, titles are vital to a book’s success. Author Scott Westerfield says, “Titles name a book, and names are important. A good name can make or break you.”
Brandi Reissenweber of Gotham Writers “Ask the Writer” column says, “A title is a story’s first impression. People make a first impression with appearance, wardrobe, and body language. Stories do it with a title.”
Eric Ode says, “Dan, the Taxi Man began as nothing more than a title. And one of the books I have coming out next year began as a title.”
PiBoIdMo founder and picture book author Tara Lazar says, “Most of my books begin as titles. It’s just the way my mind works. I want a BAM! concept, something that really hits you, and I find that people get HIT best with a succinct, powerful title.”
Corey Rosen Schwartz says, “I have written several books around titles! Like Tara [Lazar], most of my books begin that way. Goldi Rocks and the Three Bears, for example, was just a title on my PiBoIdMo 2009 list.”
Many picture books have character-driven titles. The character of the book IS the title. Do you have a book character that is so compelling that the character’s name should be the book’s title? Here are some examples:
- Olivia by Ian Falconer
- Splat the Cat by Rob Scotton
- Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown
- Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish
- Biscuit by Alyssa Satin Capucilli
- Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor
Clever, Punny Titles
I am a big fan of clever, punny titles. In fact, several of my books have punny titles. Here are some examples that are just too clever for words… almost.
- Crankenstein by Samantha Berger
- The Monstore by Tara Lazar
- Little Red Hot by Eric Kimmel
- Pinkalicious by Victoria Kann
- Epossumondas by Colleen Salley
I am generally a fan of the “less is more” title for a book but sometimes, a garrulous title is EXACTLY what the book calls for. Can you imagine these books with a short title?
- Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
- Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems
- How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You? by Jane Yolen
- There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly by Simms Taback (a folktale retelling)
- The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore by William Joyce
Some titles beckon you to open the book. These titles are based around the book’s plot. Yes, as short as a picture book is, it can still have a plot. In fact, these picture book plots were so inspiring that they were turned into Hollywood blockbuster movies!
- Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett
- A Night at the Museum by Milan Trenc
- The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
- We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story by Hudson Talbott
- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
A picture book title can also be short and succinct, even one-word. These acclaimed picture books prove that a word is worth a thousand pictures.
- Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
- Blackout by John Rocco
- Ninja! by Arree Chung
- Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds
- Hug by Jez Alborough
Aaron Zenz says, “Hiccupotamus started with the title. I really wouldn’t have had any desire to write a book about a bunch of jungle animals chasing around a disruptive hippo if not for the title. In my mind, the pun ‘Hiccupotamus’ is the most important thing about that particular book.”
As you create and engage your imagination this month, think about your picture book’s title. In what way can an engaging title enhance your picture book? How can you use the title to attract readers? Perhaps you can be the Author with the Terrific, Tremendous, Oh-So-Grand, Very Remarkable Title.
As you celebrate PiBoIdMo and Picture Book Month, read LOTS of picture books. Comment below and share with us your favorite picture book titles and why you think they are so splendiferous. Here’s to Picture Books! Read * Share * Celebrate!
Dianne de Las Casas is an award-winning author, storyteller, and founder of Picture Book Month. Her performances, dubbed “revved-up storytelling” are full of energetic audience participation. The author of 24 books, Dianne is the International Reading Association LEADER 2014 Poet Laureate, and the 2014 recipient of the Ann Martin Book Mark award. Her children’s titles include The Cajun Cornbread Boy, There’s a Dragon in the Library, The Little “Read” Hen, The House That Santa Built, and Cinderellaphant. Visit her website at diannedelascasas.com. Visit Picture Book Month at PictureBookMonth.com. Twitter & Instagram: @AuthorDianneDLC Picture Book Month Twitter: @PictureBkMonth Facebook: fanofdianne and PictureBookMonth. Dianne is the proud mom of 14-year-old culinary celebrity, Kid Chef Eliana.