The last few weeks I've been neck deep in picture books. I've been trying to learn to write one for over a year and I've come to believe the two most valuable assets for PB authors are imagination and a child's voice.
By imagination, I mean the mental flexibility that leaps past the real world into a limitless one where animals and inanimate objects talk, ships sail on deserts and monsters are tamed by peanut butter. The youngest readers or listeners (as many aren't reading yet) don't know laws of gravity. They don't distinquish between reality and fantasy. They are learning good from evil but they also believe their parents can protect them from everything. So almost anything goes in a PB. The more outrageous the better.
The ability to access a young child's voice is gold. To re-experience the love of sounds, giggle at funny words and delight in rhyme. To play with language, rearrange it in ways that speaks to children. The youngest book lovers don't need to understand every word. They have adults to explain if they feel they must know. But the words must mesmerize. Young minds have very short attention spans. If the words don't entice them, they wander off to find something that does.
Illustrations are the other half of the PB story and they should be equally imaginative. They aren't simply pictures illustrating the author's words. They are a separate part of the story, shown in art. Picture book illustrators are masters of expression, exaggeration and whimsy. They set the tone with line and color.
I, sadly, have neither a flexible imagination nor access to a young child's voice. But I'm trying to find them and I'm having a fabulous time hanging out with writers who are as witty and playful as the books they write.
The last few weeks I've been working on art for picture book dummies and some of that art is already discarded after feedback from peers altered the story. You'd think I'd learn. The image at left is from a dummy book I presented at my first PB meeting last April. The story was miles from being picture book material.
Since then, I've learned gobs about the genre and I hope my writing is approaching the mark. But hard as I try, I can't control the urge to create the other half of the equation, to SEE the story. I start with thumbnail sketches in pencil. Then a pen slips into my hands and I ink the lines. Next thing I know, I'm enlarging those images and refining.
The trouble is, I'm not sure of my stories. I take them to critiques, happy with their potential. I come home, knowing they aren't there yet. Tonight, I'm submitting a story for a second review. I've revised it multiple times and scribbled piles of sketches. I hope, oh I hope, it receives the kind of support that screams: It's Ready. Go For It! I've gathered research material for subject matter and I envision the drawings. My fingers are eager to begin.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor