Top-Notch Titles

Psst. Want to know a secret?

When I’m brainstorming story ideas, I nearly always come up with the title first. For whatever reason, my very unscientific process involves thinking up a catchy title and spinning the story from there.

Let’s talk about what I mean by catchy. I’m talking titles that automatically grab someone’s eye, make them think Hmm, sounds intriguing! and give a general sense of what the book is about.

These titles are typically short, sweet, and to the point. More importantly, they feature a great hook that will stand out in the market. If you’re writing a book about a bear, you’d better have a darn-tootin’ good way to make your bear story unique, interesting, and different from all the other bear books out there.

Take Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins for example. It’s a book about a bear, sure, but it’s specifically a book about a very grumpy bear who finds himself in the unfortunate position of being followed around by a bunch of goslings who think he’s their mother. What a hook! What a title! And this, my friends, is the perfect segue into my first title tip.

Top-Notch Title Tip #1: Take a fairytale or nursery rhyme & twist it!

One way I brainstorm story ideas is by making a list of classic nursery rhymes and fairytales. Then, I remove a word or two and try to fill in the blanks.

For example, I might look at Little Bo Peep Has Lost Her Sheep. Can I think of any words to replace Peep and Sheep?

Little Bo Moo Has Lost Her Shoe? Is this a story about a fashionista cow?

Okay, probably not the best example, but take a look at Tammi Sauer’s fashionista tale, Mary Had a Little Glam. Not only is the title fun and catchy, it gives you a good idea of what the story’s about. Other examples include Lynne Marie’s zombie book, Moldilocks and the Three Scares, or Tara Lazar’s figure skating story, Little Red Gliding Hood.

While the titles above feature word swaps that rhyme with the originals, you can also use words that are just fun & wacky. Linda Ravin Lotting did this with Little Red Riding Sheep, as did Corey Rosen Schwartz in The Three Ninja Pigs. I mean, come on. Ninja pigs? That’s hilarious! This brings me to tip #2.

Top-Notch Title Tip #2: Unexpected Pairs

I got the idea for my debut, Vampire Vacation, by creating a list of potential characters that had an obvious weakness or nemesis.

One idea I had was about a cell phone who wants to swim. Superhero rice grains to the rescue! (That one got scrapped immediately, because it was terrible.)

A better idea? A little vampire who wants to go to a sunshine-y beach!

I also love to play around with word banks. If you’ve never used a word bank, it’s just a list of words associated with a particular topic: hobbies, holidays, clothing items, etc.

Here’s a brief example: in one column, I have a word bank of foods, and in the other, a word bank of potential picture book characters:

Pizza                                       Hedgehog

Chocolate cake                       Unicorn

Watermelon                            Pirate

Stinky cheese                          Wolf

Try making your own word banks, then see what combinations could be funny or intriguing. Looking for some examples? See Diana Murray’s Ned the Knitting Pirate, Adam Rubin’s Dragons Love Tacos, and Jason June’s forthcoming Porcupine Cupid (out from McElderry Books in December).

My little vampire story was originally called Vampire Loves the Beach, but that title wasn’t quite working. I put on my thinking cap (it’s made of tinfoil and noodles, in case you’re wondering)…

How about an alliterative title? And BOOM! There’s my next title tip.

Top-Notch Title Type #3: Make it roll right off the tongue!

For this title type, I do a similar exercise. I might create side-by-side banks of rhyming words to create a clever rhyming title, like Ashley Franklin’s Not Quite Snow White or Tammi Sauer’s Wordy Birdy.

Or, I could create lists of words that start with a particular letter:

Lemons

Lemur

Lovely

Lots

Loops

Little

Any good alliterative titles in there? Carrie Finison’s upcoming debut, Dozens of Donuts (out from Putnam in July), rolls right off the tongue, as does Jory John’s Penguin Problems. Bonus: Penguin Problems tells you there’s an issue right in the title.

This brings me to tip #4…

Top-Notch Title Tip #4: State the conflict

Think up a character. Now think to yourself, what could that character’s problem be?

Do you have a rabbit who really doesn’t like to hop to it?

A water-fearing witch who loses her favorite umbrella?

A dinner guest who can’t stop burping?

Some titles flat-out tell you what’s up, like Dev Petty’s I Don’t Want to Be a Frog, Alastair Heim’s No Tooting at Tea, and Becky Scharnhorst’s upcoming debut, P.S. Wildwood Elementary Stinks! (out from Philomel in 2021).

You can also state the problem in the form of a question, like Can I Be Your Dog? (Troy Cummings), Can U Save the Day? (Shannon Stocker), or How Could a Bear Sleep Here? (Julie Gonzalez).

Titles that ask questions automatically get you asking questions, and hey—there’s a great segue to my last title tip.

Top-Notch Title Tip #5: Get readers curious!  

For me, this title type is the most difficult to brainstorm. (Likely because it’s the most obscure.) I start by asking myself random questions:

What would happen if it never stopped snowing?

Why would a tiger make a terrible pet?

How could a tiny mouse win a pizza-eating contest? 

Could any of these questions spawn clever, curious titles?

For examples of titles that make you go Hmm…, see The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, You Don’t Want a Unicorn by Ame Dyckman,  Llama Destroys the World by Jonathan Stutzman, 7 Ate 9: The Untold Story by Tara Lazar, and Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds.

You might notice that some of the titles I’ve mentioned fall into more than one category. Creepy Carrots hits three out of four:

  • It’s alliterative
  • It combines funny, unexpected things (scary vibes paired with a seemingly innocuous vegetable)
  • It definitely makes you curious—what could be creepy about a carrot?

Now there’s a winning title! It also has a great hook. Imagine if the author had gone with Celebratory Celery instead. Doesn’t quite have the same effect.

Pick some of your favorite picture book authors and go peruse their websites. I’ll bet you’ll find that many of their titles fall within at least one of the title types listed above.

Now, fetch your favorite notebook.

Pick a title category.

Put on your thinking cap.

Annnnnnd… GO!

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