LEYLAND PERREE CHILDREN'S AUTHOR
First off, you'll notice that the title of this article is not a statement, but a question. What does make a winning picture book? Is it the story, the characters, illustrations - or something else?
The intention of this article is not to provide answers, but to provoke thoughts and ideas of your own.
To date I have four published childrens picture books under my belt. Two more are in the pipeline at the time of writing. I also have a couple of childrens novels underway, one of them featuring pirates (hence the image accompanying this article - and I put it there for no reason other than I like the picture and I have pirates on the brain at the moment!)
My point is this: I do not claim to be an expert in my field, but I AM in the field. I've been toiling steadily away, tilling the soil of infant entertainment as best I can for the past 4-5 years, and in that time I have picked up a few things worthy of passing on. For instance, I've learned that the industry standard length for a child's picture storybook is 28 or 32 pages, including end-papers. Some go a little smaller or larger, but not much more. In terms of wordcount, anywhere between 500-800 words is fairly normal, but above 800 and you might find your editor getting snippy.
In terms of content, the words and picture should complement each other.It's no good having a light, bouncy story with dark, gothic illustrations. Also, in my opinion, the illustrations need to tell a story of their own, but one which supports the written word, rather than tries to compete against it. If the book has a specific function or purpose, then the illustrations and indeed the layout ought to support that purpose.
Often authors have no say over which illustrator their publisher happens to pair them up with. But where they are able to have creative input, it is important that both the author and illustrator see eye-to-eye over the project and work collaboratively in a positive way in order to make the very best book they can.
Disagreements may happen. Probably will, in fact. When you're dealing with two creative force (which may well have opposing viewpoints) sparks tend to fly. That's good. It's all part of the learning process. You both need to understand your own (and one another's) needs, and prepare to be a little flexible. Authors: yes it is your story, but it is the Illustrator's job to bring your words to life, and that takes creative thinking and their interpretation of your "brief" may not always be what you imagined. Sometimes it's better.
Illustrators: expect there to be changes. Just as the author's story wasn't written in a single draft, or two, or three, so will your lovingly rendered creations become the object of examination and critique. Sometimes, "back to the drawing board" is a literal reality.
Back to the writing desk now. To rhyme or not to rhyme? Well...does it suit the story? Some stories benefit from a rhyming format while others don't. One reason that you rarely see published rhyming stories of over 1000 words, is because after a while the rhythm ceases to be a pleasure to the ear and instead becomes something akin to water-torture. Drip. Drip. Dripetty-drip. Drip-Drip-Drip. Rhyming should always play second fiddle to Story, and rhyming isn't always better or suitable.
If you find yourself having trouble writing a rhyming story (and if you can bear it) try rewriting your story in two flavours: rhyming and non-rhyming. You'll find non-rhyming less-restrictive. The same deal goes for non-rhyming stories - try a rhyming version to add a nice sense of rhythm and bounce, but always remember to remain true to the story and don't let the rhyme dictate where your story is heading.
A few further words about rhyming: it's not just about making sure that the end-words of every line or so rhyme; the rhyme has to flow. The meter (the rhythm) has to "sound out" nicely without jarring the ear or forcing the reader to cram in those few extra syllables in order to make it scan. Good meter is all about that inner metronome ticking along at every second, third or fourth syllable, whichever is the natural fit to your rhyme. Rhymes that scan well with good meter read comfortably when spoken aloud and are pleasing to the ear. Syllables should sound clean without unnatural emphasis being placed on them in order for them to scan right or to fit the meter. Rhyming words should rhyme as perfectly as possible. Some near-rhymes are forgiveable. Others are not. Your ear should be able to tell - as long as you are honest with yourself.
A rhyme should enhance a story, not dictate it. Oh no, we mustn't forget about Story. Story - above all else - is paramount. A winning picture book has colourful and memorable characters, strong mental imagery that is brought to life through illustration, messages and morales that are age-appropriate and easy for the children to identify with. A logical flow with a beginning, middle and end, and a clear conclusion. And fun, of course. They ought to be fun.
For me, a good picture book is a multi-layered beast; the illustration should support the text and tell a story of its own; if verse is used then the rhyme and meter should work perfectly or not be used at all; the story should be the hero and everything else fits in around it to make the book a cohesive whole.
So do we now have the formula for a winning picture book? No. A few well-grounded guidelines, maybe. The winning formula happen to be within you. Or not, as the case may be. I can't tell you what makes a winning picture book, but I can make some suggestions.
<p>Similarly, author Juliet Clare Bell can tell you how NOT to write a rhyming picture book in her excellent blog of the same title - link below.
Leyland Perree is the author of five picture books, two of them published by Ghostly Publishing; The Great Reef Race, and Which Witch is Which? (due out Sept 2013).