Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Jazzy, Picture Book, New York Day

Yesterday was a nice New York day. In the spirit of research for my April talk, I went to the Central Children's Room of the New York Public Library, Donnell branch, and sat down with a two-foot-high stack of excellent picture books to think about what they had in common. I made lots of notes on pacing, writing style, characterization, etc., and found I was dividing most of the books I read into two categories: "Writing" picture books, where the story was mostly carried through the words and the pictures served as illumination and spirit more than an integral part of the narrative (Bread and Jam for Frances, Strega Nona, the mouse books by Kevin Henkes, much of William Steig's wonderful oeuvre); and "Art" picture books, where the art was so integral the story would make no sense without it, and which were mostly created by artists, unsurprisingly enough. (Aren't you impressed by my imaginative category titles?) The perfect picture books are the midway ones -- Kitten's First Full Moon (which has much the same structure as Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, the same crescendoing of effort), Where the Wild Things Are -- not that the individual Art and Writing ones aren't lovely themselves. And I am not sure these categories are useful anyway. I said hello to Betsy and John Peters, who was doing an enthusiastic storytime in another room, and I read Wilfrid McDonald Gordon Partridge, which I loved, and The Paper Bag Princess, which was funny but not quite as satisfying as it could have been, I thought -- in any case, they lifted my score here to 80.

Oh, and I glanced through a book called "How to Write a Children's Book and Get It Published," by Barbara Seuling, to see what she had to say about writing picture books. It seemed excellent advice, but I was tickled by one of her chapter titles:


I don't see why those identities have to be mutually exclusive.

Then I went down to the East Village, where I had dinner in a Puerto Rican cafe on Avenue C while reading the first draft of Charm School Dropout; and thence to stand in line in the cold outside a tiny storefront on the corner of 2nd St. and C, where Cassandra Wilson was in concert. Truthfully I wanted to go home after the library -- I had a bit of a headache from my contact lenses -- but a visionary jazz singer playing at an unmarked location in the East Village was one of those "only in New York" things I felt I couldn't pass up, and I was glad I didn't. She and her band played four songs based upon Yoruban principles of music and religion: the drums a waterfall, the saxes low bird cries, the voices mourning and benedictions.

Off to church now with me; wishing equally restful and thoughtful Sundays to all of you.


  1. The band sounds cool! When I was in college the men's chorus had a tradition of singing an African song called "Bethelehemu" at their Christmas concert. I loved the combination of drums and straight-singing.

  2. Interesting that you separated picturebooks into catetories of Text and Art. I think the Art category is mostly done by illustrators, because editors don't allow writers to do them. The comment is always that the text MUST stand on it's own. Yet, we authors often have ideas for a book that would have both art/text as integral. We're not allowed to add art suggestions (I'm not talking about the character's shirt should be blue, but other suggestions that would make the story something other than slight); We're not allowed to write something that won't stand alone.

    Any suggestions on how to present a text that we visualize (yes, authors can visualize) as needing pictures to tell the complete story?

  3. I second anonymous's inquiry. I've had some frustrating experiences with editors (sharp editors, too) not comprehending my meaning, and I was not allowed to explain.

  4. That's one of the questions I'm trying to figure out myself, Anonymii.

  5. Well, that's sorta a cop-out.

    The author could describe how the illustrations could add depth in the cover letter or in a separate letter.

    The author could put notes in the text. Possibly provide one copy of text with no notes and another with notes.

    Note: We do respect the illustrator's right to do things his/her own way; we're only talking about adding notes to bring a short mss up to a level of depth and out of the slight category. Illustrator could change/add/subtract anything to make that happen. We just want the Editor to see the possibilities that we see.

    The author could abandon any attempt to make space/possibilities for the illustrator, and thus you see only the Text type picturebooks from authors; you won't know what you miss, but from MY POV, you're missing a couple great picturebooks which would be the classic combination of text/art.

    As it is right now--authors only have the last option. Help us find another option, please.

  6. Anonymous, let's look at the history of our interaction here, shall we? I was musing about picture books, you asked a question, I said "Hmm, that's something I still need to figure out," and you not only said "That's not acceptable" in an unnecessarily rude and insulting manner, you demanded a proper answer when I had already said I didn't know. And you do all this anonymously, which means you're not even allowing me the courtesy of your name -- much less my right to come to *your* blog and demand that *you* speak for your entire industry on a matter that may not be relevant to your actual practice. I'm glad to take questions from writers here, and I try to answer them as time and taste allow; but I remind you, I'm blogging here on my free time and for my own interest, and there is absolutely no call for being rude to me (as indeed there's very rarely reason to be rude to anyone). Either show some courtesy or don't post, please. Thank you.

    As for your question, I have no hard-and-fast rule about art suggestions, and I don't mind entertaining them myself, so I can't speak for editors who have problems with it. But I discussed this issue with an editor friend today (who reads my blog regularly and was appalled at your rudeness, Anonymous), and she said that what's worked for her is having the illustration concept laid out in the author's cover letter, with the text then standing on its own. This sounds like a good policy to me as well, as it allows the author to put forth the essential information while still preserving room for the artist's vision. Of course, this is not guaranteed to solve the "slight" problem, as a manuscript can be fully illustrated and still lack emotional depth or narrative interest/development/reason to give a damn; but you will have done the best you could in putting your concept forward, and it's up to the editor after that.

  7. Jeepers Cheryl! I have to say that I’m puzzled over some of the blog comments that you’ve been receiving as of late. Could it be that children’s book writers are jerks? I guess that’s a possibility in some other alternate reality, but the writers I know are some of the nicest people on the planet and I’m sure that the writers that you work with are too. Could it be that blogging brings out the wanker in people, allowing them to write things online that they would never dream of saying in a face to face conversation? Granted, your posters are more literate and don’t type things like “u kno what u sux lol” but you’ve been getting the equivalent of spit wads lately. What gives?

    Or, pondering on, is it because some writers don’t understand what the editor’s job is? As I see it the editor is the buyer and the creatives are the sellers. If I wander into Sportmart to buy a hat, I, as the consumer, am not required to fill out a note explaining why I bought a baseball cap and not a knit one. I will just buy the one I need. The cap manufacturers job is to make sure that their product is as perfectly designed as possible.

    Anyway, thanks for the good Sunday wishes. Ours was anything but... we had a house full of Cub Scouts making Pinewood Derby cars. It was a hoot. The hub and I were recovering from seeing Bowling for Soup the night before.

    Am I looking forward to your talk? Heck Yeah! With the love of a thousand Whos down in Whoville!

    I personally divide picture books into two categories… books that get read once and put away and the stories that are in constant rotation for months. Our list around here included, “Mouse Count”, “Just So Stories”, “Freight Train”, “Good Night Moon” and the greatest children’s book ever written, “Go Dog, Go” If I had to hazard a guess as to why these stories were so loved night after night it would be the language, the way the words sound when they are read out loud.

    Hope you are having a great week!

    Best thoughts,



    "What really knocks
    me out is a book that,
    when you're all done
    reading it, you wish
    the author that wrote
    it was a terrific friend
    of yours and you
    could call him up
    on the phone."
    ~ J. D. Salinger

  8. Dear Cheryl,
    I realize that to you, the demand for information may seem rude. I just want to suggest that perhaps anonymous's impatience comes from the frustration caused by trying to get published. I'm a bit empathetic toward others in the same boat as I am.

    I enjoyed your blog (this is the first time I've visited) and found the discussion helpful.

    I am not leaving you my full name simply because I would like to get published someday. To get blacklisted this early would be a real shame. Forgive my cowardice.

    Thanks for reading and hopefully not hating,