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Why does everyone think it's easy to write a picture book?


Why does everyone think it's easy to write a picture book?

Why do they think you can dash one off in five minutes between brushing your teeth and wolfing down breakfast?

Why do picture book authors often hear:

"Picture books are so short.

I bet it takes you no time at all to write one."

"It must be a nice little hobby to write picture books and teach children lessons."

"My grandkids love my stories. One day I must have them published." And then there's the most annoying comment of all:

"So when will you write a real book"?

I've heard comments like these so often that I no longer roll my eyes, groan or have the urge to stick my tongue out at the speaker. I now say, "Try writing a picture book and see what you think." And anyone who has seriously attempted to write one never again insists that it's simple or contends you can knock one off while waiting for your nail polish to dry or your pasta to boil. They confirm that it's challenging to compose a story that has depth, memorable characters, fast-paced plot, tension, layered meaning and universality in fewer than 800 words. They recognize that crafting a picture book may take hours, months and often years.

Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of the pitch perfect Where the Wild Things Aresays: "I've never spent less than two years on the text of one of my picture books, even though each of them is approximately 380 words long. Only when the text is finished--when my editor thinks it's finished--do I begin the pictures."

Author Rachna Gilmore, winner of the Governor General's Literary Award for her picture book, A Screaming Kind of Day, says: "A good picture book is like a beautifully decorated, harmonious and clean room--what you don't see is the work that went into it."

So what is that work? How does an author proceed from idea to published book? Here's a behind-the-scenes portrait of one author's journey. It's a tale of agony, ecstasy, hope, rejection and a lot of waiting. I should know. I'm that author. I'm also the interviewer.

Q: You've had over nine picture books published with more on the way. Many have won awards. After all that, isn't it easier for you to write a new picture book text?

A: No. I still agonize over each word. I still revise and revise and reshape. It still takes me years to get a manuscript right.

Q: Where do you get your ideas?

A: Most of my ideas come out of my life. That doesn't mean I write autobiographical stories but that they all start with an event, a feeling, a conversation or a memory and then take off from there.

Here are some examples:

Maggie Can't Wait: When our daughter was an infant, the mother of one of our friends (a say-it-like-she-sees-it woman) came to visit. She took one look at our then round little baby and said, "She's porky, isn't she?" I was aghast. How could she say that about our beautiful, wonderful, sweet little girl? And that's when the seeds of Maggie Can't Wait were planted. The book will be published this fall--only 22 years after that annoying remark.

Jennifer Jones Won't Leave Me Alone: When our son was in Grade 2, he came home one day from school and said, "This girl is bugging me." One look at his face told me he relished the attention. The story of pesky but loveable Jennifer Jones took root that day, but it took years to get the story right.

Each One Special: My father was a pastry chef. When he retired he began to sculpt and the first things he sculpted were flowers out of clay. I was awed that he could use the skills he'd acquired from one art form (pastry design) and transfer them to another (working with clay). For years, I couldn't figure out how to turn the story of an older baker into a picture book. Then I imagined a boy named Ben, who'd become the baker's friend. Seven years after I first started writing the story, the book was finally published.

Q: Where do you write?

A: I write mostly at home in my second floor office with a view of my neighbor's trees or in coffee shops that have good lattes and luscious French pastries. When I'm in a coffee shop, I pull out my big red bag filled with stories in various half-baked stages and start to write. When I hit a wall on one story, I switch to another. As I write, I sip my latte and nibble on one of those pastries. Then I go home and type.

Sometimes I also write standing in line at the supermarket, traveling on trains or in airplanes or even waiting to see the dentist. (I've tried thinking about stories in the dentist's chair but the buzz of the drill drives out any creative thoughts!) Still, I never know when an idea will hit so I always have paper and pencils ready to write an idea down. I know that if I don't write it down, I may forget it.

Q: In your opinion, what are the elements that make an exceptional picture book?

A: There are five elements.

(a) A Distinct "Voice." Writers should always write in their own voice. Trying to write like someone else never works.

(b) Memorable Characters. Some good examples are picture book characters like Lily or Chester in Kevin Henkes' stories or George and Martha in James Marshall's tales. They're so vivid and memorable that I know, and often recite, some of their "lines."

(c) Good Pacing and Rhythmic Language. These two elements are what make you eager to turn the page or read the book over and over again. (By rhythmic I don't necessarily mean rhyme. Good rhyme is hard to execute well. Bad rhyme is torture to read.)

(d) A Big Idea or a Universal Concept Expressed in a Fresh Way Through a Story. An anecdote is not a story--neither is a moral or lesson.

(e) The Ahh Factor. A good picture book has an ending that's satisfying and surprising, but never pedantic or contrived, and is always true to the story.

Q: Why should picture book authors read other writers' picture books?

A: When I'm stuck on how to proceed with a story I turn to my "mentors"--books by Kevin Henkes, Phoebe Gilman, Bernard Waber, James Marshall, Arnold Lobel, William Steig and so many other gifted picture book authors. I note how they've handled plot, character, humour and pacing. I also visit bookstores and check out what's new. I ask experienced booksellers to point out the best of the new picture book crop and I read and learn from them too. I also enjoy them!

Q: Do you consider illustrations when writing a picture book?

A: I keep illustration possibilities in mind because as Marie-Louise Gay, the illustrator of our book Please, Louise! says: "You need to give the illustrator something to draw." If a book is all talk, with no change of scene or location, there's nothing for the artist to illustrate and the book will be flat and boring.

On the other hand, I don't interfere in the illustrator's art and I never know how the book will turn out in the end. Of course, it will never look like the pictures I've created in my head. But if I'm lucky--and I have been with many illustrators such as Marie-Louise Gay and the illustrators of my two fall titles, Kady MacDonald Denton and Dean Griffiths--the art will add a whole new visually exciting dimension to my words.



Q: What do you appreciate about a picture book editor?

A: I love getting positive yet clear and specific critiques. The best editors respect the "voice" of the writer. They never try to rewrite my words but, through our talks and their comments, I view my story in a new light.

Q: What is the hardest and easiest part of writing a picture book for you?

A: The easiest part is getting the idea. The hardest part is figuring out the ending. The ending has to parallel the beginning and feel satisfying and surprising.

Q: Why is the "Put Away" factor important?

A: When I'm absorbed in a story, I'm often too close to it and I can't evaluate it objectively. If I put it away and return to it after a week or two--or more--I look at it with fresh eyes.

Q: Why are picture books important to readers and who are these readers?

A: Good picture books are universal stories that go right to the heart of a feeling or situation. Whether you're a reader of six, sixteen or sixty, the emotions a good picture book evokes are "real" and "true."

For years, I sent my niece, Rebecca O'Connell, my favourite picture books for her birthday even when she was way past the picture book age. Her parents often made "cracks "about that, but Rebecca loved the books. Rebecca, now a mother, children's librarian and the author of five acclaimed children's books, recently wrote me: "Those wonderful books you sent me had a profound effect on me--on my tastes, on my career, on my reading habits ... "



Good picture books "stay" with you throughout your life. They comfort you, make you smile or laugh like an empathic friend, sibling, parent, grandparent, uncle or aunt.

Q: Is it hard to get a picture book published these days?

A: It's very hard. The market is changing rapidly. Publishing companies are consolidating, shrinking or disappearing. Picture books are competing with television and the Internet for readers' attention and authors are competing with celebrity books and TV and movie tie-ins. No one is sure what people will be reading in the coming years or how they'll be reading.

Q: The picture book market doesn't sound very promising. Why are you still writing picture books?

A: I believe that wonderful picture books will still get published even in tough times. We all need stories. Stories sustain us through good times and bad. But most of all I keep writing because I love to write. (I even love to revise.) Each of my books is a part of "my story."

Q: We've heard about the agony, rejection and waiting in creating a picture book. What about the ecstasy?

A: When all the pieces in a story finally fit, when the writing feels seamless and flows, when I feel I've created strong characters, a riveting plot and a surprising yet comforting story, I feel great. And when I hear that a child has begged for my story again and again or a parent or grandparent says they love my book too, well, that's as good as it gets.

Thanks to all my picture book expert colleagues and friends who shared their thoughts for this article.


Please, Louise! illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay (Groundwood Books)

You're Mean, Lily Jean illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton (Scholastic Canada)

Maggie Can't Wait illustrated by Dean Griffiths (Orca Book Publishers)

Jennifer Jones Won't Leave Me Alone illustrated by Neal Layton (Scholastic Canada)

Each One Special illustrated by Werner Zimmerman (Orca Book Publishers)

Frieda Wishinsky is the author of 36 books--picture books, first readers, nonfiction and novels. Her picture book Please, Louise! (illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay) was the winner of the 2008 Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award.
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Title Annotation:FOCUS: WRITING ABOUT PICTURE BOOKS; Frieda Wishinsky
Publication:Canadian Children's Book News
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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