My Deepest, Darkest (Picture Book) Secrets

This post goes out to all the beginning picture book writers, who are at the start of your writing journey. Allow me to begin by telling you where I’m at now: last year, Viking (Penguin Random House) acquired my debut picture book, Vampire Vacation, and it will be out in 2022. Exciting!

My deal announcement from Publishers Weekly!

But this post isn’t about that. This post is about when I was a brand-new picture book writer. A newborn, if you will.

Rewind!

It’s 2015, and I’m pregnant with my first kid. I want this baby to be smart! So, I start reading picture books to my stomach. Old picture books. You know, the kind I read when I was a kid.

Lightning bolt! ZAP, CRASH! Brilliant idea!

I could write picture books!

I’d been trying to write novels for years. I even finished a lovely Bildungsroman in my mid-20s—100k words, baby!—but couldn’t hack the revision process after my beta readers sent feedback.

But picture books are easy to write, right?!

Here I am circa 2015, with a bun in the oven.

Fast forward: one day later.

I wrote a picture book.

Fast forward again: one more day.

I Googled what to do now that it was written. I looked up a few agents. I queried it.

(Oh My God. I am so embarrassed to have just publicly admitted that to the world.)

Did the book land me an agent?

(Drumroll, please…)

NO! It did not.

Okay, new plan: I shall join a critique group!

I loitered for a bit, and then, with a deep breath and a confident smile, I submitted my first manuscript. My new critique partners read the story, and they…

(Drumroll. Again. Just do it.)

…politely explained all the rules of writing picture books, and basically pointed out that my story had no narrative arc, no conflict, no tension, nothing. Oh, did I mention it was written in rhyme? Yep, it was. Was it bad rhyme? Oh, indeed.

This was the moment when I realized that writing picture books isn’t easy, and you apparently can’t just read picture books published pre-1995 and use them as mentor texts.

I cracked my knuckles. I set to work. I learned the rules. I read recently-published picture books. And read more. And more. And more!

(This all happened via movie montage, set to an 80s power ballad.)

Eventually, I learned the basic structure of writing a picture book. I learned which rules I could break, and how to do it. I submitted an application to a mentorship contest and landed a fab mentor. I got an AGENT! (Also fab.) I joined more critique groups. I started this blog!

I continue to keep reading, writing, and learning, every day.

What you can do if you’re a new writer: Listen to what experienced writers are telling you. We aren’t trying to be cruel by saying your story isn’t ready, or that you might want to read up and learn the basics of writing for kids, or that you should actually have five polished manuscripts before you start querying. In my experience, writers are some of the kindest people out there. We are trying to help! Also, check out Josh Funk’s Guide to Writing Picture Books. It’s free, and amazing!

What you can do if you’re an experienced writer: Take a new writer under your wing. Offer critique giveaways, or a mentorship opportunity if you have the time to do so. Consider letting a new writer into an established critique group, so you and your CPs can help them learn the ropes together. My first critique group was invaluable—and it’s because it was made up of writers who were largely more experienced than me. Be mindful that not everyone has a big budget for classes and memberships. Help make the dream of becoming a published author possible for everyone who is serious about learning, growing, and putting in the work.

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