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by Hillary Homzie

Sometimes a picture book manuscript begs to become a chapter book. This has happened to me. Several years back, I wrote a picture book about an exuberant kid’s attempts to become class flag leader. Yet I couldn’t make the story viable. Even when I took out the set up or made the dialogue pithier

It was like trying to wedge my size-nine feet into size-six shoes on the sale rack. No matter how hard I tried, the story felt constricted.

This is not an uncommon experience.

Picture book Author Pat Zietlow Miller (Be Kind) told me recently that: “There was one time I started writing what I fully intended to be a picture book, only to discover it really wasn’t. There was too much stuff to be contained in the limits of a picture book. So I turned it into a chapter book.”

Author Candice Ransom (Amanda Panda) has also successfully turned part of a picture book into a novel. But it wasn’t obvious that it was something that she should do right away. “It’s never easy to tell,” she reports. “Picture books require a Big Idea to differentiate them from a magazine short story—a pleasant interlude, but nothing that lingers afterward. Even then, sometimes the idea is too big.”

Too big. Yup. I understand what “too big” feels like. That’s exactly why I turned Ellie May on Presidents’ Day into a chapter book, and it’s coming out this December (squeeee!), along with a companion novel, Ellie May on April Fools’ Day (more squeeee!)

   

The question becomes—how do you know when you have “too much stuff”?

In other words, how do you tell when your picture book manuscript actually wants to grow some words and turn into a chapter book?

I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ve come up with five central questions that will help writers discover the answer.

 

1. Is your exposition illustration-independent?

Picture books almost always require an interplay between words and pictures. Chapter books don’t. If you find yourself leaning towards exposition that doesn’t require illustration, you might have a chapter book on your hands.

As a quick explanation or reminder, exposition is the introduction of important background information. For example, setting, characters and events.

But wait, you’re saying. Don’t chapter books have illustrations?

Yup. And some are heavily illustrated. Jeffery Ebbeler created close to thirty interior illustrations for Ellie May on Presidents’ Day. They add to the story, but a reader doesn’t require one of Jeff’s illustrations in order to decode the text. The pictures are additive versus essential. Of course, that doesn’t make them not awesome, because they are (and yes, I’m heavily biased)!

For example, in Ellie May on April Fools’ Day, we have this illustration of the second grader and her family about to go out birdwatching:

Here’s a sentence that encapsulates the scene: “Dad reappeared with a pair of binoculars.” The illustration shows Dad in the doorway with a pair of, well, binoculars. The text helps readers to visualize and understand the scene, but there aren’t visual cues that move the story beyond the words. In a chapter book, an illustration doesn’t usually act as an ironic statement.

For clarification, here are some strong examples of visual irony that one typically sees only in picture books.

A page in Doreen Cronin’s Diary of a Worm, reads:

Fishing season started today. We all dug deeper.

We learn important background info about the season. However, the text doesn’t tell us how this time of year affects worms. We need to see the illustration in order to glean the meaning.

A cutaway illustration reveals a giant shovel (with an empty pail labeled “bait”) and the worried worms sequestered in their underground home. This creates a sense of irony. The worms aren’t digging deeper to find bait, but instead to escape from being bait. In order for the humor to work, the reader requires visual cues.

We see the same thing in Anne Marie Pace’s Vampirina Ballerina. On one of the early pages, we have:

If you’re worried about meeting the other dancers, bring along a friendly face or two.

The text on its own suggests that the young dancer is bringing along a friendly looking family or some pets. However, the illustration reveals that Vampirina (who could easily be an Addams Family cousin) brings along a green-skinned, Lurch-ish looking companion, a black cat and a bat. At first, none of these characters appear conventional friendly.

Yup, more visual irony.

In sum, chapter book texts don’t usually offer up visual irony opportunities (I say usually because every rule is meant to be broken, but that’s a topic for another post). Instead, they are much more prescriptive.

In the picture book version of Ellie May on Presidents’ Day, I was overwriting and not allowing room for the illustrator. In other words, I was acting like a chapter book writer. Here’s a few lines from my manuscript that just don’t work as a picture book text:

I scooped my hands into the box, and tossed worms and mulberry leaves across the room. “Be Free!” I said. Worms landed on the floor. One landed on Ms. Silva’s head.

For a picture book, there’s going to be an illustrator. That means she or he will draw the worms and the mulberry leaves, and yes, the worm landing on the teacher’s head. If the above lines were more picture book text appropriate, they would read something like this:

I scooped my hands into the box. The worms must be set free!

So ask yourself, do you want to step aside and allow the illustrator to do his or her job? Or do you really—in your heart-of-hearts—want to create more of the visual narrative work? I guess, in my inner core, for the Ellie May books, I wanted to paint the complete scenes with my words.

Side note: none of the above text actually appears in the chapter book version of Ellie May on Presidents’ Day because of how much I revised. Ah, revision. How wonderful and yet how hard it is to throw away your darlings, but you never know—you might get to show them off in a blog post.

 

2. Does your picture book manuscript cry out to be longer?

In today’s picture book market, texts are short, averaging about 500 words. Now that doesn’t mean in the nonfiction market we aren’t seeing 700-page manuscripts or that someday the 1200- word picture book won’t make a comeback, but, on average, short is the operative word.

If you must heartily chop in order to get your picture book manuscript down to the golden 500 words and it’s mightily upsetting, you might consider taking your story into a longer form, such as the chapter book. Maybe you want to be more expansive. Perhaps you want to write 3,000 – 8,000 words or even more. Allow yourself this. If you really want to write a picture book manuscript, please, go ahead. But, maybe, somewhere deep down, you don’t want to go on the picture book diet. You want to expand a bit, or even a lot.

 

3. Does your picture book manuscript have a subplot?

Picture books should typically contain one plot stream. I’ve critiqued picture book manuscripts where a secondary character steals the show and we learn about his or her wants and needs. This is not a good idea. In picture books, the protagonist is the star. There just isn’t enough real estate for you to truly explore other characters’ goals.

However, this can be done in a chapter book. But not a whole lot. Chapter books can only handle very small subplots that don’t take up a lot of space.

Simply think about how other characters’ needs interrupt or illuminate the main character’s goals. For example, in Ellie May on April Fools’ Day, Lizzy, Ellie May’s best friend, sometimes slows her down. We find out that Lizzy doesn’t feel very confident in athletics and really wants to win at something.

Lizzy thumped the red ball into Mo’s square. He slammed it into another square.

“I’m not out yet,” Lizzy said. This was a surprise, considering how she normally plays.

“Okay, I’ll cheer for you.” I raised my hands in the air, pretending to wave swishy pom-poms. “Way to go, Lizzy!”

Owen smashed the ball into Lizzy’s square. She missed the return.

“Out!” yelled Pablo.

Lizzy pushed up her glasses and harrumphed. “I never win.”

Later, in the book, you can bet that I’m going to have Lizzy win at something. Learning how to lose and how to win gracefully is one of the themes in Ellie May on April Fools’ Day. Remember, in a picture book, you’re not going to want to use subplots. That means if you really want to employ them, maybe you should try out longer form fiction.

 

4. Is your protagonist over the age of six?

Most picture books protagonists are preschool through early primary school-aged children, although there are exceptions, especially for non-humans. But when you are dealing with people, if your protagonist is seven or eight, it’s likely a chapter book. If the main character is nine or ten, then it’s probably a middle grade novel.

Author Saadia Faruqi created a picture book featuring spirited Yasmin, and was very content with her story. In fact, she says she would have been “perfectly happy with it as picture book.” However, her publishing company was excited about bringing Saadia’s story to older kids, and that’s how Meet Yasmin, a much-lauded chapter book came to fruition. Sometimes this all comes about in a rather surprising but auspicious way. The lesson here is to be open!

 

5. In addition to having a big idea, do you have a larger-than-life character?

In general, chapter books are not sold as individual titles, but as a series of four (to start). Picture books, on the other hand, are usually sold as individual titles. That doesn’t mean you can’t get an entire series going. Witness the Vampirina books. The Fancy Nancy books etc. But usually, authors don’t sell a picture book series. They sell one book that does so well that readers demand more. However, if have a really appealing and distinctive character who just calls out—please make me into a series–then you might want to think about writing a chapter book because that’s how they usually roll—in multiples.

The basic message here is that you have options. You can revise your overstuffed manuscript and refine it so that you’re within picture book conventions or, just maybe, you have a chapter book on your hands, or even a middle grade novel.

So many possibilities! Isn’t it all exciting? Okay, I admit it. I still, to this day, will forget my shoe size and try to squeeze my foot into a sleek pump that’s a size too small, as long as it’s on the 75% off blow-out sale rack.

After all, a girl can try.


Hillary Homzie is the author of the forthcoming chapter book, Ellie May on Presidents’ Day (Charlesbridge, Dec.18, 2018), which is about a second grader navigating honesty and leadership. Hillary promises she didn’t set up the current political climate to tie-into her book. As a former sketch comedian, she (hopefully) knows a thing or two about how to be funny and not hurt feelings, which is the theme of Ellie May on April Fools’ Day (Charlesbridge, Dec.18, 2018).

As the author of the chapter book series, Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin), she particularly enjoys collecting antennae to occasionally wear to school visits. Hillary has also written middle grade novels, including the Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin M!X) The Hot List, (Simon & Schuster/M!X), Things Are Gonna Get Ugly (Simon & Schuster/M!X), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl), and the forthcoming Apple Pie Promises (October 2, 2018, Sky Pony/Swirl).

Hillary teaches chapter book and middle grade writing online at the Children’s Book Academy. During the summers, she teaches in the children’s Writing and Illustrating MFA Program at Hollins University. 

Check out her chapter book course here and her middle grade course here.

She loves answering questions about all things chapter book. You can reach her at HillaryHomzie.com.

@HillaryHomzie

by Hillary Homzie and Mira Reisberg

You have an idea for a book! Yahoo! It’s one of those ideas that hits you so deep in your gut that you immediately scribble it into a little notebook. Your stomach bubbles, not in an indigestion sort of way, but in a nervous-happy–giving-birth-to-a-germ-of-an-idea way. So how do you know if the idea is really picture book idea? What if it’s actually a chapter book or a middle grade novel, how do you know?

Well, you don’t. Not right away.

Of course, there are the obvious tip-offs that your idea is not a picture book. Take your idea through this list and see how it stacks up.

  1. Age of the protagonist.

These days picture books are generally geared for ages 2-7, although there are still picture books geared towards older elementary school, especially in nonfiction. Still, there’s no question that picture books are skewing younger with shorter word counts. If your primary character is in first through third grade (or ages 6-9), and is longer than 700 words, chances are you have a chapter book. And if your character is a fourth or fifth grader, chances are you have a younger middle grade novel (for ages 9-10). Now sometimes, often, older chapter books overlap with middle grade. Is Stuart Little an illustrated chapter book or an early middle grade? There is no hard and fast answer here, especially since the term chapter book has often been used in a general way to indicate a book for elementary school children that has chapters. However, often in publishing when we say chapter book, we often mean an early chapter book. Think Magic Tree House, Junie B. Jones or Geronimo Stilton. Of course, exceptions apply in everything (and really, would it be any fun if there weren’t?). But read on to help you determine where your idea fits best.

magictreehouse

  1. Interest of the main character.

Is your main character interested in something that will be appealing to younger children? E.g. If you’re story is about a child who’s excited about writing cursive, this means the main character is probably eight, and chances are it’s a chapter book story. If you’re an author/illustrator who has created lots of charming or edgy black and white illustrations to go with the story, chances are it’s a chapter book. Early middle grade books are also starting to feature illustrations more. This is great news for illustrators.

Page from "Notebook of Doom" chapter book series by Troy Cummings

Page from “Notebook of Doom” chapter book series by Troy Cummings

  1. Period of time.

Does your story occur over a year? Six months? You may have a chapter book or young middle grade on your hands. Now there are exceptions, picture books such as Diary of a Worm, which chronicles a character over a large period of time, or nonfiction picture books that occur over a long time like biographies. The majority of contemporary picture books take place over a brief period of time, while chapter or middle grade books usually have the luxury of taking their time with a story.

diaryofaworm

  1. Type of protagonist.

Are your main characters animals or personified objects? Chances are it’s either a picture book or an early chapter book. Older kids generally want to look more sophisticated with “grown-up” books, but of course there are always exceptions, like the fresh middle grade graphic novel Low Riders in Space, which features a dog, an octopus, and a mosquito as main characters.

lowridersinspace

Generally, if you like writing really short manuscripts with simple plots, often with animal characters on topics of interest for very young kids, you’re a picture book person. If you like the luxury of time and space for writing slightly longer books (from 1500 to 15,000 words) that still have pictures for slightly older kids ages 6-9, with or without animal characters, then you’re a chapter book writer (or maybe even an early reader person, but that’s a post for another day). And if you like much more complex plot lines, much longer storytelling, stories for early middle school kids, then you have an older middle grade idea.

So…what kind of ideas do you have?

Bonus info: Mira and Hillary will be co-teaching an outrageously fabulous interactive e-Course, the Chapter Book Alchemist, starting January 12th. Together and with the help of Mandy Yates, they make it ridiculously easy to write a chapter book or early middle grade during the 5 fun-filled weeks. The course features optional critique groups, weekly live webinar critiques, lots of lessons and exercises, the option for critiques with Mira or Hillary (with a free Scrivener course) and Golden Ticket opportunities to submit directly to agents and editors. Click here to find out more about this once-in-a-lifetime adventure with potential life and career changing benefits! Click here to find out more

Hillary Homzie photo by Suzanne Bronk

Hillary Homzie photo by Suzanne Bronk

Hillary Homzie is the author of the chapter book series, Alien Clones From Outer Space as well as the middle grade novels, Things Are Gonna Get Ugly, The Hot List, and Karma Cooper Unplugged (forthcoming). Some of her books are currently being made into an animated television series. Hillary teaches in the graduate M.F.A. program in children’s writing at Hollins University as well as for the Children’s Book Academy. She is also a former stand up comedienne. Visit her at HillaryHomzie.com.

mirareisbergMira Reisberg is an award-winning children’s book creative, a former kidlit university professor and a former literary agent. She is also the Director of the Children’s Book Academy and has taught many now highly successful authors and illustrators. Visit her at childrensbookacademy.com.

 

 

7ate9
Winner of the 2018 Irma S. Black Award and the SCBWI Crystal Kite!
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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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COMING SOON:


illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019

THE UPPER CASE:
TROUBLE IN CAPITAL CITY
illus by Ross MacDonald
Disney*Hyperion
Fall 2019

FOUR WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illus by Vivienne To
HarperCollins
Spring 2020

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Spring 2020

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