When I guest post here on Picture Book Builders, I tend to use the space to bring you some of my favorite people, editors! I guess it’s because picture book editors possess the most control over the many parts of the publishing process. As a certified control freak I’ve always been a bit jealous (and a lot terrified) of the idea of having the whole book come together under my watch. Editors choose the manuscript/writer, illustrator, work with art directors, weigh-in on production values, budgets and marketing. It’s got to be a daunting task leading a team that sometimes goes in five (or 50?) different directions.
And make no mistake, picture books, more than most other kinds of books, are a team effort. After that flush of ego that results from “my first book,” I try not to say “my” illustrator, “my” editor or even, “my” book. Why not? Because it’s false, (and way too author-centric.) The story may be mine, but the picture book itself? That’s not just “mine,” in any way. A picture book is a piece of art created by a group of talented professionals. The book is “ours.”
The person who taught me that concept most clearly is Michelle Frey, Executive Editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers. Michelle treats all our projects like a team effort. She is the leader, yet consistently gives away credit, to the author, the illustrator, the art director, the marketing team…and somehow I don’t believe I’ve ever heard her take credit for her own considerable contributions. We’ve worked together for a number of years now, but I’d never asked her specifically about her ideas on picture books…so today I did…and also couldn’t resist the impulse to make a few side comments that struck me in her answers…
From an editorial and sales perspective, do you think picture books are viable in a digital age?
Picture books are not only viable, they are essential. Picture books are as much about the experience of sharing and connecting as they are about the text and pictures themselves. (BR: note to self, make sure every story has some warmth.) There’s something about holding a book close— as you hold a child close—that just doesn’t have the same feel on a screen. That said, I do think of digital as just another format, like paperback. So there’s a place for that out there, too. It’s been hardest for digital to work in the market for the youngest readers, though, and I suspect that will persist.
What kinds of picture book manuscripts are you most likely to pass on? Is that typically personal taste or a corporate decision?
I’m most likely to pass on rhyming picture books or picture books that cover ground that’s well-trod (alphabet books, goodnight books). That’s both personal taste and a business decision. For example, it’s extremely hard to pull off rhyme. (BR: 2nd note to self, STOP trying to write in rhyme, just give it up!) And in a market flooded with “goodnight” books, it can be hard to make another one stand out in the crowd. Also, just as a matter of personal taste, I don’t like treacly-sweet “I love you” books.
What’s the most common mistake you see in the manuscripts of beginning writers?
One of the most common mistakes in picture book writing is saying too much. The writer does not carry all the weight—there will be a talented illustrator involved who will be bringing your text to life and interpreting it in their own way. (BR: think actions, not words.) This means that robust physical descriptions, for example, are usually repetitive. And much about emotion can be communicated visually as well. Picture books are like poetry—each word matters, and needs to be there for a reason.
Any kinds of picture book manuscripts you think the market is missing?
I always love a nonfiction book that covers a topic in a new, insightful way, or uncovers a little-known but important historical figure. (BR: remember the person or event has to be truly important.) I also love playful, silly picture books for very young readers who are just beginning to come into their own with the power of language. One of my personal favorites along these lines is GO! GO! GO! STOP! by Charise Mericle Harper.
Will you tell me about some of your favorite upcoming projects?
Sure! We don’t have a final title yet, but I’m working on an exciting book about trailblazing women who have made an impact in sports with Lesa Cline-Ransome. I’m also working on a beautiful bedtime picture book called Child of the Universe with professor of physics and astronomy Ray Jayawardhana, to be illustrated by Raúl Colón. It’s a great example of a book that takes a classic genre (bedtime book) and approaches it in a fresh way that makes it stand out.
Thanks to Michelle for answering my questions! And I should probably mention that our team recently published a book, Vincent Can’t Sleep, which is the follow up to The Noisy Paint Box. Also we have a third art-related biography coming out in 2018 called, Through the Window (views of Chagall’s life and art) Once again, our book will be illustrated by Mary Grandpré, art directed by Isabel Warren-Lynch, edited by Michelle Frey, marketed by Adrienne Waintraub and Lisa Nadel, print production by….well, you get the idea…GO TEAM!