Bending Picture Book Rules by Katelyn Aronson

Hi everybody! I’m here to talk about rule-breaking.

It’s mildly hilarious to find myself presenting such a topic. I was something of a rule-follower growing up. You know, the firstborn, well-behaved, straight A-scoring kind of kid. But please, spare me the eye-rolling. I have since embraced the value of risk-taking, even straight up rule-breaking! Er, maybe bending…Yeah, better go with rule-bending. All things in moderation, right?

We children’s book creators ingest a lot of “rules” when learning the ropes of this industry. There are structure, style, formatting, and submission guidelines to follow. There are DOs and DON’Ts about how to craft a good story. (Do let the main characters solve their own problems/ Don’t involve parents too much; Do leave room for the illustrator/ Don’t overdo it on the art notes; Do use as many words as the story calls for/ Don’t go over 550 words though, etc.)

With all of these in mind, we draft multiple manuscripts, undergo peer critique, and revise endlessly, hoping to hone our own unique “voice” … just like everyone else. We read, analyze, and compare all the picture books we can get our hands on, to see what our fellow creators have been up to…

I know, we aren’t Mac Barnett or Jon Klassen. We may not have the creative license to break the rules on a daily basis (yet). But maybe we can try our hand at bending them? Since the lovely Laura Lavoie invited me here today in honor of my Piglette sequel (illustrated by Eva Byrne & out from Viking on May 25th), here’s a little rule-bending I did in Piglette 1 and 2.

Book cover for Piglette, featuring a pig in a red beret, riding a bicycle with a basket of flowers on the front.
Piglette, published in May 2020 by Viking Books for Young Readers

Case Study 1: Piglette

Rule: AVOID (A LOT OF) ALLITERATION

Reason for Rule: It’s too cutesy, corny, campy...

True, it can be. I was fortunate to find an editor who liked the playfulness that alliteration brought to my French fable. Still, we all know that too much alliteration kills the alliteration. Most editors prefer small sprinklings only–to each their own alliteration threshold. So how did Piglette get away with so darn much of it ? I think constantly changing things up helped a lot. I varied my sentence length. I changed the letter I chose to “riff” on. Even if “P” is the letter of predilection throughout Piglette, I played with other letters, too, using consonance, assonance, and internal rhyme as well. I also made sure that alliterative words and phrases were spaced out between un-alliterative words and phrases, to avoid overkill.

Here’s an excerpt:

so sometimes, she escaped to the one place she preferred… (page turn)

The pasture.

There, in the open air, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply, catching the scents of the trees and blossoms. She memorized the perfume of every posy she picked–Lily. Lilac. Lavender. Rose–and spent hours making crowns of flowers.

It came as no surprise when, one day, a pungent pickup piqued her curiosity… (page turn)

Cover of Piglette's Perfect Surprise, featuring a pig in a pink dress and white chef's hat, surrounded by cakes.
Piglette 2 is available now! Published in May 2021 by Viking Books for Young Readers

Case Study 2: Piglette’s Perfect Surprise

Rule: DON’T MIX POETRY & PROSE!

Reason for Rule: It’s confusing. It throws off a read-aloud. It’s forcing two literary antipodes to cohabitate.

Well, I went and bent this rule in Piglette 2. Not only did I use abundant alliteration all over again, I mixed poetry with prose. I have one character who speaks in rhyme while the rest of my characters don’t. Egads. What possessed me to do such a thing?

When I chose pastry as one of the themes in Piglette 2, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac sprang to mind. It’s my all-time favorite French story, and I just had to make a nod to the character of Ragueneau, the pastry chef/eccentric wannabe poet (modeled off a real historical figure, by the way) who welcomes Cyrano into his shop. I decided to make my off-beat Chef Pistache a rhymer, while everyone else in the story speaks normally.

Bonjour, Piglette! Come taste the dream! I made it all with buttercream!

“Merci,” said Piglette. “It’s too pretty to eat!” But she nibbled anyways. “Mmm… lavender-lemon?”

“Mais oui!” said Pistache. “The sweet and the sour! It’s true what they say, then? You know every flower?”

In order not to catch the reader completely off-guard, Pistache’s speech is always in italics. Still, the inside joke was a risk, since only my editor and I were in on it. But now you are, too! Welcome to my goofy inner circle.

Interior spread from Piglette's Perfect Surprise, showing a chef named Pistache, who is a pig with a mustache, standing behind a bakery counter.
Interior spread from Piglette’s Perfect Surprise, featuring the rollicking rhyme of Chef Pistache

And there you have them. Two examples of yours truly bending the rules. Thanks for stopping by!

Uh, what’s that you say? I should be following The Rule of Three, citing no less than three examples to round out this blog post? Okay, but since we’re all about bending rules today, here are two more examples from a book I have releasing from Candlewick next year.

Case Study 3: Poo-Dunit? A Forest Floor Mystery (illustrated by Stephanie Laberis, published by Candlewick Press, 2022)

Rule: CAREFUL, POTTY HUMOR IS POLARIZING!

Reason for Rule: Certain adults find it gross and off-putting.

Notice the key term ‘adults.’ It isn’t that scat is a hard sell when it comes to kids themselves. It’s not. Still, not all gatekeepers are open to an overtly scatological manuscript. My own agent was a little iffy when I first submitted Poo-Dunit? to her, but then ultimately said, “I admit, this made me giggle…” So I knew all was not lost.

Back in my kidhood, Tarō Gomi’s Everybody Poops was the only star picture books on the subject. Times have changed, and we’re seeing more poop books than ever before. When breaking through pre-conceived notions about a taboo like poo, it’s best to couch the naughty (kid-pleasing) element in plenty of “redeeming” layers. Mix your low-brow humor with loftier aspirations and over-arching truths. For example, Poo-Dunit? is a funny read-aloud, but it also happens to be a mystery, a lesson in adjectives and their opposites, and a STEM book featuring North American forest animals and their scat. Then, at its heart, it’s an existential question about how we react when bad things happen. In short, Poo-Dunit? is about so much more than poo.

A massive pile of manure located near the author's home in France.
A real-life poo-dunit! This massive pile of manure was found on farmland near the author’s home in France. Life imitating art, perhaps?

Oh, and Poo-Dunit rhymes, which brings me to the next no-no…

Rule: RHYME IS A HARD SELL

Reason for Rule: It’s difficult to pull rhyme off without a hitch. Plus, not all agents/editors feel comfortable editing meter and scansion. Translating rhyme is also tough, which limits one’s chances of selling foreign rights.

Let’s face it, there aren’t many gatekeepers who are begging for rhyming manuscripts. On the contrary. But sometimes your manuscript asks for it anyways. Poo-Dunit? was just such a manuscript for me. So I aimed for rhyme that was simple and accessible–as easy to read aloud as possible.

I’m not at liberty to share from my text quite yet, but for me personally, rhyme works best when geared to the lower end of the picture book spectrum, for ages 2 to 5. Now, there are plenty of beautiful, serious, quiet and lyrical picture books out there, but I find that simple rhyming stanzas are particularly suited to short, silly concepts rather than long, narrative storytelling. If you are newer to rhyme, start with low-word count manuscripts of roughly 300 words and under. (And if you’re wondering about the technical nitty-gritty on how to rhyme, my favorite sources are Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books and Renee LaTulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab.)

It’s crucial to field test your rhyme. Invite people from all walks of life to read your work aloud to you. If they stumble even once, that’s on you. Rework it. Smooth it out. Give it to your French husband to read aloud, and if he nails it, you’ve nailed it, too! Oops, I just got a little autobiographical there. But truly, there is no better test of your rhythm and meter than asking someone from a non-English language background to read your rhyme aloud. They won’t be there to honor your personal idea of stressed/unstressed beats. They’ll read it as they see it, and only the most solid scansion will come through unscathed!

In conclusion, are there actual rules of thumb on bending the rules? Nah, of course not. But here are some made-up ones:

  1. DO have a method to your madness. DON’T be a rebel without a cause.

You’ve heard it before: You have to learn to apply the rules well, in order to bend/break them well (i.e. in the most constructive/creative/elevating way possible). Breaking rules out of laziness or ignorance wins zero points. It actually loses them. Reinventing the rules after proving you can abide by them? Now you’re talking!

  1. DO be selective in your rule-bending. DON’T overdo it.

This goes back to point #1. Select only one or two rules to bend, while adhering to the rest. If you disrespect too many industry norms at once, no one is likely to buy what you’re selling. This is a business, after all. I don’t mean you can’t be innovative, disruptive, and revolutionary. But early on in your career, you may first need to earn the right to take further liberties later.

  1. DO experiment. But DON’T think you won’t be criticized for it.

Expect the criticism. For every person who likes what you’ve done, there’ll be another one who doesn’t. Both Piglettes have gotten great reviews from Kirkus, and I’m truly grateful. However, one critic couldn’t resist taking a tiny jab:

Chef Pistache’s habit of speaking in rhyme when the narration and none of the other characters employ it is a bit baffling, however.

D’oh! Perhaps I went further than bending the rules this time around? Maybe I full on broke them. What a rush! And since I have reasons behind my choices? I can, in good faith, say: #Sorrynotsorry

Own your experimentation. The world will not always welcome it with open arms. You aren’t Mac Barnett or Jon Klassen. But neither are they YOU. So risk as you are able. Break it ’til you make it. And imagine what your idiosyncrasies might do if they go on to grace the printed page. They just might mark the hearts and minds of your audience, causing them to laugh, to play, to dream, to question, to venture a little out-of-bounds themselves.

What is your favorite rule-bending picture book? (Mine is B.J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures.) What rule(s) is your work-in-progress bending, and why? I’d love to hear in the comments!

Photo of the author, Katelyn Aronson

Katelyn Aronson grew up in southern California, where she went on to work in indie children’s bookshops. Today, she lives between France and Switzerland and works as a foreign language instructor for several international schools. She has a degree in Liberal Arts, a degree in Language Didactics, and is finishing up her MA on French translation at La Sorbonne University, Paris.

Katelyn is starstruck to announce that she’s teaming up with (the fabulous) *Beth Ferry* to do a double-book online event this Saturday, June 5th at 11am Eastern. The authors will be reading their new releases, TEA TIME and PIGLETTE’S PERFECT SURPRISE, then interviewing one another. Stay tuned for the event link this week!

Because your support determines whether Piglette 3 will ever come to be, I would so appreciate your purchase of Piglette’s Perfect Surprise.  Send me a proof of purchase and I’ll send you a little ‘merci’ from France!

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Psst, readers! Laura here. If you enjoy my blog, let’s connect on social media! You can find me on Twitter and Instagram: @llavoieauthor

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