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What Makes a Good Picture Book

Earlier this year I discovered some great webinars on writing for children. A webinar is a seminar conducted over the internet. The cost of attending varies. Some are free. Some, sponsored by the Society of Children’s Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) regional chapters, are offered at a reduced rate for members. Others cost more. All are easily accessed if you have internet access.

Last month I logged on to the 12 X 12 Webinar--What Makes a Good Picture Book with Emma Dryden and Julie Hedlund. The talk was about what makes a good picture book and how to write one.

Emma Dryden talked about qualities that make an outstanding picture book. They are—
1—Read-aloud-ability—Read your own text over and over, ten times in a row!
2—Rhythm
3—Musicality
4—Illustration possibilities

As a freelance editor and consultant, Dryden looks for distinctive main characters, and a main point of view. The reader, who is a child, must be able to relate to the main character.

Voice

One way to develop your picture book character is by giving them a distinctive, memorable voice. Ways to do that:
Use rhythm
Use a refrain or a tag
Change some of your narrative into dialogue

One example of a book whose main character has a great voice is THAT BOOK WOMAN. The author Heather Hensen’s main character has a narrative, Appalachian voice which gives his voice a ‘tone.’

“Why, even critters of the wild will keep a-hid come snow like this. But sakes alive—we hear a tap tap tap upon the window-glass. And there she be—wrapped tip to toe!”

Regarding whether to write your story in 1st person or 3rd person, Dryden said that most picture books are told in 3rd person, and there is more than preference to consider here. Young readers (ages 3-6) are not emotionally developed enough to understand (or make the connection to) ‘I’ in a story. Making the leap from ‘me’ to ‘I’ is more difficult because the young child can’t put themselves into someone else’s shoes. They ‘get’ the narrator better. She said that it’s often the same with middle grade books and for the same reason.

Emotions

A great picture book ‘shows’ emotions well. One example of a picture book that ‘shows’ emotions is LIBRARY LION by Michelle Knudsen (illustrated by Kevin Hawkes; Candlewick Press 2000). I checked this book out from the library and it’s become one of my favorites. Here’s one example of ‘showing’ emotion from the book—

“Story hour is over,” a little girl told him…. The lion looked at the children. He looked at the story lady. He looked at the closed books. Then he roared very loud. RAAAHHRRRR!"

I think the reader can easily figure out that the lion is not happy that there are no more stories.

Show, Don’t Tell

Dryden looks at whether the author can ‘show’ not ‘tell’ the information in the manuscript.

Ways to do that:
Do something with body language
Use dialogue

Dialogue can get dull, and feel flat. What to do?
Have some activity along with your dialogue.
Change it up—think ‘page turns.’ Dummy your picture book to see what page turns can do.
Alternate dialogue and narrative.
And if no one else is around, your characters can talk to themselves.

Regarding non-fiction picture books, the advice was very similar.
Develop your main character.
Create a voice in narrative non-fiction.

A wonderful example of a non-fiction picture book was MOON SHOT by Brian Floca (Atheneum 2009). This book is also one of my favorites. Floca uses a poetic (but not rhyming), rhythmic, narrative style:

Here below
there are three men…
who—click—lock hands
in heavy gloves,
who—click—lock heads
in large, round helmets.


One quality of a good picture book is ‘musicality.’ Like music, a picture book text has a beat and has pauses. Is writing lyrically or rhythmically a learnable skill? “Absolutely!” both Dryden and Hedlund agreed. But it takes discipline.
Read a lot of picture books out loud!
Use sound effects to help create a rhythm.
Use the help of a critique group.

Keep in mind the top two qualities of an outstanding picture book
Read-aloud-ability and
Rhythm—even in narrative.

Now it’s your turn to sit down and create an outstanding picture book!

Emma Dryden is a past editor of board books through YA and has edited over 500 books. She currently does freelance editing and consulting. You can find her at:
www.drydenbks.com
@drydenbooks (Twitter)
Dryden books (on facebook)
Emma's blog

Check out these upcoming or ongoing webinars and podcasts for children’s writers:

Picture Book Craft Intensive: Telling Children's Stories in Today's Market
An On-Demand Webinar
Guest Speaker: Mary Kole

Chapter Book Craft 101 with Simon & Schuster editor, Amy Cloud
October 20, 2015 from 7:00-8:30 pm
hosted by North Texas SCBWI
very reasonable price with reduced rate for SCBWI members

Keep your eye on this Writers’ Digest link to up-coming webinars

And take a look at the SCBWI Podcasts, which are free to members!
SCBWI brings our members engaging podcasts with leaders in the children’s book field. Sit in on these conversations to get informed and inspired!

For information on how to become a member of SCBWI, click here or go to http://www.scbwi.org/about/.  Read More 
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Missouri SCBWI Conference Highlights


Earlier this month I attended the MO-SCBWI conference in St. Louis. The high point of attending a conference is, of course, the speakers and all that they have to offer to both aspiring and published authors. Here are some high points from this particular conference:

from Emma Dryden, consultant and former editor—Your website is key. Editors and agents check your web presence. If you’re not published yet, at least secure your domain name, which should be your own name.com, then create a simple page with your bio.

from Ellen Hopkins, YA author and poet—novel writing is ‘story-telling,’ and is not didactic; poetry is ‘painting pictures with words.’ She talked about writing bravely.

from David Harrison, author, on poetry collections—Know the common core state standards and what kids are studying in school. Choose a theme and make a list of possible poems to go with that theme.

from Will Terry, illustrator—The story is most important, then perfect your craft. The ‘tides are changing’—he does illustrations digitally now, and gathers his audience on places such as blogsites, facebook, flickr, twitter, UTube, and eblogger.

from Joyce Ragland, MO-SCBWI Regional Advisor— find a critique group; go to conferences and national conferences; network with other authors and editors.

Some other perks of attending conferences for children’s writers and illustrators—gathering together with others who understand what writers really do; meeting with old friends and making new ones; networking—sharing experiences and learning from each other’s past; getting face-to-face with editors, agents and authors and having an opportunity to ask those ‘burning’ questions.

Some perks of volunteering to help at a conference—spending one-on-one time with speakers as you drive them to the airport or time their critiques, and schmoozing at dinner the night before the conference starts.

There’s always so much to absorb and follow through on following a conference! Look for conferences for children’s writers and illustrators in your region at the SCBWI website at www.scbwi.org.
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