Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Michael Bourret discusses picture books and "Zen-like discipline"

Writing is hard. Any writer worth his (or her) salt knows that writing takes time, patience, practice, Zen-like discipline, and at least a few temper tantrums. I’m not saying that every step of the process is a Sisyphean task, but it’s inevitable that writer’s block, or difficulty finding an agent, or a particularly harsh rejection letter will produce some pain.

This applies to all kinds of writing, whether it’s the Great American Novel, a hot paranormal romance, or a searing indictment of the two-party system. And this applies, most importantly in my mind, to kids’ books, as well.

Nothing gets my goat more than writers who think that writing children’s books is easy. Let me rephrase that: Nothing gets my goat more than writers who think that writing good children’s books is easy. We get a lot of queries at DGLM, a fair share of them for picture books. I’m the guy around here whose world view most resembles that of a twelve-year-old, so naturally, I’m the guy who represents juvenile fiction and nonfiction. I see them all. And, I greatly respect all the writers who toil away at their keyboards day after day – even the ones I choose not to represent. But, I’m disturbed by the queries that say, “I wrote this picture book manuscript on a lark last night. Want to be my agent?”

As it turns out, writing for kids is really tough. The younger the audience, the harder, if you ask me. In a picture book, you’ve got 3,000 words or less to tell a whole story. That’s it. With so few words in a book, every word counts. Just a few mistakes – poor word choice, awkward phrasing, ridiculous rhymes – and the entire thing falls apart. Then there’s the whole issue of age-appropriate language and content; it’s easy to miss the boat if you’re not aware of the audience you’re writing for. Those issues are rather concrete, though, and I think the more adept technician can learn the rules and turn out something that won’t offend. What isn’t so easy to mimic or learn is most important, and I feel that even many published writers miss the mark on this: to write for children, you must view the world through the eyes of a child. I don’t mean this in a touchy-feely, New-Age way (for the most part). What I look for in a manuscript is an understanding of how a child sees, explores and understands the world. Not being a writer myself (I leave that to people far more talented than me), I’m not sure if this is something that can be learned. I’d be interested to hear what others think about that.

I work with a wonderful author who definitely sees the world through children’s eyes, Anne Rockwell. Through her words and illustrations, she’s able to explain rather complex concepts to children. Though some of her books have less than 300 words, they all speak volumes. More impressively, most of them would still be engaging without her (or her collaborator’s) brilliant illustrations. Though the books are short, Anne works as hard as any author I’ve met. Her research is nothing short of remarkable -- you can ask her about her sources for a book she’s doing on Toussaint L’Ouverture – and she hones and crafts a manuscript for weeks.

In my humble opinion, the literature written for children is the most important; it provides inspiration and comfort to these impressionable readers. I don’t mean, in any way, to discourage anyone from writing anything. Getting a great new submission makes my day, and I’d love to represent more picture books (despite the difficulty of the market), and middle grade and young adult fiction. But I do want to encourage authors, of every stripe, to respect the art and craft of writing. I want to represent authors who write not because it’s easy, but because they have something to say and they’re willing to work their butts off to make it happen.


  1. "Just a few mistakes – poor word choice, awkward phrasing, ridiculous rhymes – and the entire thing falls apart."
    It has often occurred to me to try my hand at a chidren's book...until I take my kids to the library and realize that I don't get exactly what it is that makes them pick up a book and say, This one! This one!" I'll see a book about dinosaurs or dragons and think, Oh, my son will love this..only to have him shrug it off with a "Nah" because the content is too predictable or just doesn't grab him the way it should. I'm firmly convinced that the best authors of kids' books have the ability to not only see the world as a child sees it, but to transmit that vision onto paper in a way that gives both kids and adults an Ah-ha! moment. My hat's off to writers who have that gift.

  2. Hey, it's Michael!

    I've been an Anne Rockwell fan since my first days working in a children's bookstore in 1985. Writing picture books sounds horribly difficult to me...I've tried to write them.
    Failed miserably.

    Maybe one day I'll try again. :)

    Thanks for a great post!

  3. As a parent who has had to read stories each and every day... I'm touched by how you view that aspect of our literary world. I'm always amazed at what my children giggle at, or repeat endlessly from a book.

    I don't think that I could ever master that ability. I'm far too "wordy" for that. But the delight and excitement I see in my children ups my respect for those writers.

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  5. Huge thanks for this blog. Can't wait to share it with my critique group. Much to learn, much to write.

  6. Wonderful post, Michael! And so true--the fewer the words, the better they have to be. I have an immeasurable respect for picture book writers.

  7. M. Pfister's "The Rainbow Fish" comes to mind. It was hugely popular a decade or so ago, and my sister purchased it for my then-very-small son. The artwork is stunning -- truly a feast for the eyes. The writing is, in my opinion, weak. It's one of those stories that makes me cringe as I'm reading, it's just that bad.

    In fact, I gave the book to Good Will several years ago. I only get rid of books that I really hate.

    I would agree that writing GOOD children's literature is an exceptional skill.

  8. Great post - thanks.
    You're absolutely right about how long it can take to get it "right". I have some picture book manuscripts I've reworked 20 times. Some have taken three years or more. And then you get to a point where you just can't tell anymore whether it's working or not. That's when the critique group comes in handy.

  9. In regards to children's books, I think your theory is absolutely correct. My mom taught first grade for over thirty years and I spent many summers (she was on year-round schedule) helping her out in the classroom. As someone who spent an obscene amount of time reading picture books aloud to kids (that was pretty much the one thing my Mom could always trust me to do in the classroom, everything else bored me silly), I have had a lot of exposure to the genre.

    Personally, I am in awe of those select few who can create an engaging children's book.

    As a teen, I would often be reading a kid's book alound and thinking that I could write something so much better. Whenever I entertained that foolishness, I would take the finished product to the kids in Mom's classroom and they always laughed at my pathetic attempts (although they were very polite with their laughter). Even if it was technically well-written, I never managed to hook their attention with my trite stories.

    Although all of the points you've mentioned are definitely important (poor word choice, awkward phrasing, etc.) it really comes down to the actual story itself most of the time. I've seen kids fall in love with books where the story/plot far surpassed the actual writing, whereas no amount of good writing will save a book with a poor story as far as a kid is concerned. (And I hope you agree that having a kid-engaging storyline goes hand-in-hand with writing through the eyes of a child.)

    Hopefully all of that rambling makes sense.

  10. Wynken, Blinken and Nod, Pat The Bunny, Good Night Moon are all masterpieces, as far as I'm concerned.

  11. I am always so impressed with PB writers.

    I remember trying to write a PB a few years ago. I failed miserably, but I still keep it tucked away for a day when I'm feeling ambitious enough to read it again.

    I'm better off with MG and YA, I think.

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