uTales‘ editorial panel is led by children’s book editor and consultant, Emma D. Dryden, who has, over the course of the past twenty-five years, edited and published hundreds of books for young readers in her work with Margaret K. McElderry Books and Atheneum Books for Young Readers, imprints of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. Emma oversees drydenbks, her own children’s book consultancy company, is a member of the American Library Association, and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Board of Advisors.
This post, written by Emma, aims to guide and support uTalers when creating their uTales books. Hopefully it will make your books even more likely to become uTales bestsellers!
WHAT IS A PICTURE BOOK?
Picture books are, in the very simplest terms, stories for very young children (ages 2-5) that unfold and entertain through a thoughtful balance of words and pictures.
The words in picture books should be written with the intention that they will be performed—shared and read aloud repeatedly.
Because picture book texts are meant to be read aloud and because picture book illustrations are meant to tell much of the story, each syllable, each line break and page turn, each sentence’s structure and placement on the page, the rhythm, the word choice, and the repetition (including rhyme, if it’s done well) are all critical to the success of a picture book.
When we talk about a successful picture book, we’re not simply talking about a book that sells—we’re talking about a book that a young child will love and want to see and hear read over and over and over again.
WHO IS THE PICTURE BOOK AUDIENCE?
It’s important to recognize and keep in mind the typical audience for whom you’re creating picture books:
- The very young child who wants to be entertained and engaged and who, at the same time, can easily become bored and has a short attention span
- The adult who’s often tired at the end of a busy day who wants to be entertained and engaged and who, at the same time, is going to be the one to read the story aloud—over and over again—to and with a child or children
To best entertain, engage and compel this very specific audience, then, picture book texts need to be taut, tightly crafted, spare, and succinct while retaining a lyrical rhythm and flow, leaving enough unsaid so the illustrations can do their job to express the rest of the story—the visual story. Picture book illustrations need to be clear, energetic, colorful, and both supportive of as well as complementary to the text. The best picture book illustrations not only bring the text to life, but tell a secondary visual story—adding another layer to the picture book that will further compel and interest young children and adults alike.
WHAT ARE THE UTALES EDITORIAL QUALITY PANELISTS LOOKING FOR?
Short, concise texts: Picture books with fewer than 1000 words tend to be the most successful to suit the intended audience; even shorter texts of fewer than 500 words can still be richly realized stories that allow more room for larger type and more artwork on the pages. In a picture book, every word must count, so we will be looking for texts that are taut, crafted, streamlined, and allow the story to be shown rather than told, leaving enough to the imagination for the illustrations to “tell” a lot of the story. [For reference: THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle is 225 words; THE SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats is 319 words; IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE by Laura Numeroff & illustrated by Felicia Bond is 291 words; BEAR SNORES ON by Karma Wilson & illustrated by Jane Chapman is 404 words; FANCY NANCY by Jane O’Connor & illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser is 418 words; WE’ RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT by Michael Rosen & illustrated by Helen Oxenbury is 410 words]
Read-aloud-ability: We will be reading the texts aloud ourselves to determine how smooth, rhythmic, and compelling they are to the ear as well as to the eye. We urge all authors to read their work aloud and have their work read aloud to them prior to uploading anything to the uTales site. This way, the author can catch any sticky passages or stumbling blocks in the flow of the text. We will also be looking at the size and spacing of the typeface/font to be sure it’s easy to follow for a child just beginning to learn their alphabet and words.
Text/Art balance & layout: We will be looking at the size of the type to be sure it’s large and clear enough to be read on Smartphone screens as well as on tablets; we will be looking at how the pages are laid out with a balance of text and artwork to be sure there’s a rhythmic flow from one page to the next and from one spread to the next, and to be sure texts are not too long or too dense and artwork is clear.
Age-appropriate concepts & ideas: Keeping the world-view and experiences of the young picture book reader in mind is critical when crafting compelling picture books. We will be identifying whether concepts are clear enough, whether there are too many concepts at play, and making sure subject matter is appropriate to the frame of reference the picture book-age child brings to the experiencing of the story.
Proper usage of punctuation & grammar: Not only is a proper use of simple punctuation and grammar important to help children begin to learn and recognize these aspects of the written language, but it’s an element of an author’s writing that expresses professionalism and mastery of the written language. Before any uTaler uploads a project, we would expect the author to utilize proper punctuation and grammar.
If uTalers need assistance in this area, there are a lot of online resources available. Here are a few links for reference:
- http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/08/punctuation-in-dialogue/ (punctuation in dialogue)
- http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/writingexercises/qt/punctuation.htm ( punctuation in dialogue)
- www.grammarbook.com (general grammar/punctuation usage; click on “free online English usage rules”)
- http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/commas.asp (comma usage)
Appropriate & necessary use of special effects: While it’s great fun to take advantage of the special effects uTales offers uTalers in the way of sound effects and animation, not all stories need it and some can even be distracted or weakened by it. Be prudent in your usage of these special effects and avoid using too many on any given page or spread.
To rhyme or not to rhyme: Many authors assume a text needs to rhyme in order for the text to express rhythm and repetition; this is not necessarily the case, however—rhyming can be extremely difficult and if it’s not done well, if it doesn’t read aloud well, if it’s not smooth and flawless, it’s going to be jarring to a reader and won’t make for a memorable and successful read-aloud that a child will want to hear and recite over and over (not to mention, the adult reading to or with that child). If an author does choose to rhyme a text, we encourage uTalers to follow these general guidelines as often as possible – all for the sake of creating texts that are accessible and appealing to the very young eye and ear:
- Do not capitalize the first letter of each line
- Use proper and consistent punctuation
- Avoid using forced rhymes
- Avoid using awkward or archaic turns of phrase simply to suit a rhyme
- Maintain consistency of style throughout (i.e. prosody, syllabication, scansion)
RESOURCES ON CRAFT:
For uTalers who want some excellent resources for learning more about the craft of writing, illustrating and creating picture books, there are many excellent resources online, through international children’s writer & illustrator organizations, and in books and articles. A few titles I particularly like include:
- Paul, Ann Whitford: WRITING PICTURE BOOKS: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication
- Salisbury, Martin: ILLUSTRATING CHILDREN’S BOOKS: Creating Pictures for Publication
- Shulevitz, Uri: WRITING WITH PICTURES: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books