Inside Scoop: Dish From a Literary Agent Intern… 4 Things I Learned about Picture Books From Visiting a Bookstore


Today I’m going to talk about an experience I had involving a visit to the “mothership” (that’s what a friend and I lovingly call bookstores). I was learning how to write an editorial letter for a picture book and I discovered *gasp* I had no clue what I was talking about! I realized that my conception of what picture books are was stuck in 1995; lyrical, wordy and beautifully illustrated. Although I do believe classics like The Hungry Caterpillar, The Giving Tree, or Love You Forever will continue to have a place in the market, I had to discover what’s happening in picture books today. Here is what I found:

  1. Meta is betta – well not so much that it’s better, but a lot of meta picture books are on the bookstore shelves today. There are tons of books about books, books that involve the readerPress Here in an engaging journey (think There is a Monster at the End of this Book), books that are introspective and just fun for fun’s sake. I was surrounded by books like Press Here that brought me through the book interactively by pushing colored illustrations, which actually made it feel like I was creating the book as I went along.
  2. Quirky is where it’s at – I discovered books that were offbeat and What Does the Fox Sayoutside the box, like What Does the Fox Say. You know, that song by the Norwegian band Ylvis? Yeah, there’s a children’s book about that! I have to say it was great! When I first spotted it, I literally laughed out loud, thinking that it wasn’t going to be anything I would like. But how wrong I was. The Illustrations were so different and entertaining and reading the lyrics was so much fun!
  3. Morals aren’t for everyone – or they shouldn’t be shoved in the reader’s face while reading. Kids (and I think it’s safe to say adults) don’t want to know they are being taught something while reading.  Remember when I said “fun for fun’s sake” like a minute ago? That’s what picture books are about. They might have a lesson, but it isn’t one that is glaring a child in the face saying “look at me, you need to be a good boy/girl!”
  4. Less is more – There are an abundance of picture books out there that don’t even reach 500 words. They are filled with questions, interactive fun, self-searching queries or just nonsense (remember that fun factor I keep bringing up?). The smaller word count and engaging illustrations create a road to discovery that I think gets lost when there are too many words.

When I left the “mothership” I felt I was able to recognize and better understand where the picture book market is at the moment. Now, I’m not saying you should write to a trend. But do you think it would be wise to write an 1,800 word lyrical picture book? Probably not. It probably wouldn’t sell. However, you should allow yourself to be open to what is out there, recognize what is selling, and still remain true to who you are as a writer. If you do, you will do just fine.

Tell me in the comments below one of your favorite picture books on the market today!


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14 responses to “Inside Scoop: Dish From a Literary Agent Intern… 4 Things I Learned about Picture Books From Visiting a Bookstore

  1. A couple of my favorites, This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris-I love that you aren’t introduced to the main character until the very end. Another is Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein-the way David uses the art to tell the story is really fun to study.

    • Kimberly

      I’ve never read either of those, but I like stories that are different and that have great illustrations (I love looking at every little detail in them).

  2. Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller
    Shoe Dog by Megan McDonald
    Little Night by Yuyi Morales
    This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
    President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett

    The Worst of Friends by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain
    Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell
    Dave The Potter by Laban Carrick Hill

  3. Much of what you noticed is true, but nonfiction allows for many more words. Nonfiction must be entertaining, and it should come with a bibliography and resource links. It can also be a single moment in the subject’s life or a single event. Lyrical still counts if you’re not writing funny. Meaning, the author must pay attention to and use poetic devices. Compression, compression, compression. Can’t recall who said it, but today’s picture book has been likened to writing War and Peace in haiku.

  4. SIDEWALK FLOWERS, the new wordless PB from Groundwood Books by JonArno Lawson. Brilliant illustrations by Sydney Smith.

  5. LMNO peas by Keith Baker. C’mon, how can you not love a book with peas as the main characters?!

  6. Please, Mr. Panda By Steve Anthony
    Love it! Love It. And if you read it to a kid or adult without the title first its even better.
    Also Nighttime Ninja by Barbar Decosta and
    Snatchabook by Helen Dorcherty and, and, and,
    Oh how I love thee…Let me count the ways…. Ok I guess I will move on but there are sooooo many its hard to name just one.
    But what I try to remember is that books are like people varied and unique and without that we authors won’t meet the full needs of every kid throughout the world that needs variety and diversity.

  7. “This Book Just Ate My Dog” Brilliant! What happens when the spine in an open book sucks up a girl’s pet, among other things? Soooo clever.

    • Kimberly

      Yes! I loved that book and thought the same thing when I read it. I love seeing creative and different picture books like that.

  8. Janet Richardson

    “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L Frank Baum art by Robert Sabuda a marvelous short version of the original with magnificent pop ups on every page complete with Emerald City eye glasses & sparkling colorful foil. It’s a real gem!

  9. Just read The Octopuppy by Martin McKenna. It’s about an octopus named Jarvis who tries to be the dog his owner really wanted. Loved it!