Monday, April 13, 2009

Picture Book Reading Challenge

I'm mainly an illustrator, but I'm working on writing picture books too.

Lin Oliver quoted Richard Peck as saying, "For every one book you write, read 1000." I know I've read loads of picture books these past couple years, but I don't know if I've hit 1000 - possibly. I always have a huge stack of picture books checked out from the library. A couple months ago I gave myself a Picture Book Reading Challenge. I checked out over 60 picture books from a great-read-out-loud list and read them all that one night! I felt like an editor reading slush (except these were published books, so probably a whole lot better than most slush).

I divided them into three piles: 1) books I loved and wanted to read again, 2) books I thought were ok but didn't want to read again, and 3) books I thought were boring or not to my liking. I ended up with only 6 books in the "books I loved and wanted to read again" pile.

Then I read my picture book manuscripts I'm writing. Here's the real meaty question: Which pile do my work-in-progress manuscripts belong? All of them went in the middle "ok" pile.

How do I get my manuscripts into the best pile so that they'll actually be acquired? I studied in-depth each of the books I put in the best pile to see what kind of books I love and what I loved about them. I found out that I love picture books that are hilarious, clever, fast reads, and that the illustrations tell at least half the story, sometimes even contradicting the words to be funny. I decided to rewrite one of my manuscripts completely with the intent of it landing in my "books I loved and wanted to read again" pile. After rewriting it (and drawing as I wrote), I feel it's much stronger, and now I'm sketching it into a dummy to submit to publishers. (If you're an illustrator as well as author, you can submit a sketch dummy instead of just the manuscript to publishers.)

So if any of you picture book writers or illustrators want to check out loads of picture books, read them all in one sitting, divide them into piles based on your tastes, and study the ones in the best pile, I hope it'll help you too! That's my challenge for you. And I may join you and do it again with another big stack of books.


Sean Ashby said...

Wow, that's great! I think a lot of people think it's easy to write a picture book, but they're flippin' HARD to do well!

I haven't tried my own yet (I probably will at some point) but I'm discovering the same thing as I read books to my son over and over and over. There are some I just can't do more than once, and others I love just as much as him!

Kristi Valiant said...

Exactly - it's super hard to write a truly great picture book! I find that in the books that I totally love, there's usually one line or illustration that I absolutely adore and can't wait to see/read again. Usually something funny, quirky, and off-the-wall.

Ginger*:) said...

Kristi, what a great challenge. All of us should do this if we want to become great author/illustrators.

I know what you mean about the great , good, and maybe not so great picture books. Since I work in a bookstore once a month I spend most of my time reading all the new, old and used picture books.

It seems that I also take home a bunch each time I am there and somehow squeeze them into my overflowing bookshelves.

All the best on your pursuit !

Mary Uhles said...

hey Kristi, this is an interesting bit. I'm curious where you got your readout loud list. and which books ended up on your great list?:) I know with the hundreds of books i've read over the past 3 years to the kids that there's a lot of mediocrity out there. I always wonder what appealed to the editor about those? often these are books we receive as gifts so i also wonder what appealed to the person that bought it? (often from touchy inlaws so i can't ask)

Kristi Valiant said...

I found the read-out-loud list online. I didn't save the exact list I used, but here are some more you could try:

I took those books back to the library and didn't write down the ones in my best pile, but one I remember and plan on buying soon is Giggle, Giggle, Quack. Clever, hilarious, and spare amount of text. The illustrations complemented the text perfectly and told part of the story.

Most of the picture books from my own bookcase that I've bought are because the text is clever and hilarious, or I adore the illustrations.

What makes a picture book your favorite?

Mary Uhles said...

cool, thanks... i'll look at those while the babysitters here.I"m familiar with Giggle Giggle Quack, its a funny little book.

i think my favorite kind of books fall into 2 categories: those where the story nugget is funny and clever and remind me of being a child - Small Sister and the Knuffle Bunny books are the two that leap to mind. the other are those where the language is just beautiful even if there isn't much of a story... like On the Day You Were Born... where reading the words is almost the same as looking at beautiful artwork or eating really good food.... I think Margaret Wise Brown wrote several that fall in this category too. I like both these kinds of books equally but for different reasons.... its hard to find one book that falls into both categories though....

MamaDrama77 said...

I find that when my children appreciate good picture book, I do too (most of the time! We'll place "Sponge Bob Goes to the Doctor" in the "exception" pile. Sigh...). Lasting qualities like a fascinating storyline, engaging characters, and unique perspective often grab us. I think it's the same reason we just love the stew out of the Pixar films. Those guys are committed to developing characters and storylines of quality, worthy of re-visiting. Now, as an adult, I also appreciate when the author manages to appeal to me and my children simultaneously. Currently, my 21-month-old's favorite book is "Llama Llama Red Pajama." I've read it about sixteen times since Monday and I really haven't minded. The illustrations are magnificent, and the storyline is simple but effective. And we've both just about got it memorized. Good thing, because it's due back at the library in a few days!

Vicki said...

Wow, great idea... and I'm so glad you're finishing up your dummy! Now I'm just sad that I don't have my day job anymore, so I won't be able to ask you to send it to me! :( But I'm sure it's going to be great, so also :)

Kristi Valiant said...

So Ginger and Mary, do you want to take the Picture Book Reading Challenge? I'll do it again too and post the books in my "best" pile.

Mary - I haven't read Small Sister; I'll add that one to my list. Knuffle Bunny is wonderful.

MamaDrama - the Llama Llama books are fun and easy to read over and over. Have you read Little Hoot and Little Pea yet?

Vicki - I'm sad you're not at Greenwillow anymore; I would have loved to send you my dummy! Especially since you were the one to get me fired up to write about my dancing penguins... but it's great to hear on your blog that you're loving the west coast. Now you probably get to concentrate a lot more on your own illustrating. I can't wait to see Bea!

tammisauer said...

Great post!

I am always lugging home enormous piles of pbs from the library. Every couple of weeks, I stop in at the local bookstores and readreadread all of those shiny, new pbs.


Mary Uhles said...

hey i'm up for the PB challenge.... shall we set a date to post or just post as we are able?

Kristi Valiant said...

How about we set the date to post for the end of the month - April 30? That should give us adequate time to plan out full day of reading and get the books. The challenge works best to read as many as possible in one sitting, because it really helps to see which ones stand out as best and which ones are tedious to get through.

I may take my laptop to B&N or Borders and do the challenge there. That way I'll read all books being sold right now and apparently deserving shelf space according to the bookstores.

Anyone else want to join this challenge?

Penny said...

Kristi, This was such a great post that I had to chime in. I'm always taking out tons of picture books for the kids and me but I never thought to make the piles- what a fabulous idea! I have so many ideas for books and and partially done book dummies- this would be a great help to me!

Dee said...

Oooh, I would love to! I've been checking out dozens of books a week, but would love to have a list of "recommended" titles.

(I'm an illustrator dipping my toes into writing as well)

Kristi Valiant said...

Dee: So you want to join us and post about the Picture Book Challenge on April 30? Fuse #8 has been counting down the top 100 picture books based on a poll she conducted. Google her blog to get that list. I also posted a few other lists here in the comments. Maybe one of those would work well for you? Or combine the lists together and see what books your library has. I love libraries!

Dee said...

Thanks, Kristi! I've been following Betsy's list with fascination and have been compiling the books in an ever-growing list. I'll definitely consider it as my base list with a few books from those other lists you recommended.
I've already started gathering a few books from the library for the challenge...I heart libraries as well!