Tag Archives: picture books

Guest blogger Jodi McKay: Why We Love Quirky Picture Books

Jodi McKay

Jodi McKay

Is it just me or are we seeing more and more quirky picture books elbowing their way onto bookstands? I’m not complaining, as that is what I like to write, but I am curious about why they are becoming so popular. What is it about this style of writing that has agents and editors adding it to their wish list and readers asking for more? For me, I believe it’s because of the following:

They exercise the imagination. These types of books go above and beyond reality, allowing the reader to explore possibilities that they didn’t even know existed. Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers is a prime example of this. No one in their right mind would think to throw a bicycle in a tree to dislodge a chair, but somehow it makes sense to then throw a kitchen sink to unstick the bike. Jeffers made sense where sense didn’t belong and it made me think of what else could happen. That’s how we want kids to think as well.

They have a sophisticated sense of humor. Just as books are evolving, so are the jokes. Quirky books tend to have a subtler, clever humor that children understand and enjoy, and parents can appreciate. The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, hits humor spot on. Kids find the anthropomorphized crayons and stories funny; parents love the perfectly appointed personalities of each crayon. This type of humor creates cross over appeal and that is a huge win for both readers and the author.

They surprise. We will often see skillful little twists or unexpected endings in books like these. For example, the classic meta-fiction book, Monster At the End of This Book has the reader believing that if he/she gets to the end of the book a monster will be unleashed. Spoiler Alert: we come to find out that the monster is the lovable Grover himself. What a brilliant way to increase suspense and then, BAM! it’s not what you thought it was going to be. Things aren’t always the way they appear to be in these books and that is a great message given in a non-didactic, humor-driven way.

They are all about connection. Authors have a duty to give children books that they can connect to and these eccentric books work overtime to do that through creating a reading experience. They pull the reader in to the story through interaction or by the character/narrator breaking the fourth wall and by doing that, the reader feels as if he/she is a part of the book. Take Chloe and the Lion for example. Through their dialogue, Mac Barnett and Adam Rex, do an incredible job at helping the reader understand what it takes to produce a story and they are entertaining at the same time. Genius!

What are some of your favorite quirky picture books and why do you think they work? Do they make you think, or laugh? Is there a sneaky twist or do you feel like you are a character in the book? Maybe it’s something else entirely, and if so, I want to know! Feel free to post your thoughts.

Jodi McKay writes off beat picture books. Jodi holds a master’s degree in Developmental Psychology and is a graduate of several writing courses. She lives in Detroit with her husband and son. She is an active member of SCBWI, 12×12, and various other writing organizations and you can find her online at JodiMcKayBooks.com and @JLMcKay1

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The Low Down on Writing Picture Books

children-s-book-clipart-booksDon’t kid yourself thinking that writing a picture book is easy. In my opinion, writing a picture book takes more skill and craft than writing a novel. Well, perhaps that’s not true, but it takes a very specific kind of skill and craft, that not everyone has. Here are some of the things you need to think about if you’re going to write picture books.

  • The current market for picture books supports very low word counts. When I started in the business 6 years ago, we were looking for word counts of <1000. Now, it’s not unusual for word counts to be <500. Keep this in mind when you’re writing.
  • Some of the things that make a picture book manuscript work are interesting word choices, repetition, assonance, internal rhyme, meter. Pay attention to this. It’s not only about the content of your story, it’s about how you tell your story even on the sentence level.
  • If you’re going to write a rhyming picture book text, have the rhyme serve the story, don’t jam a story into a rhyme.
  • Picture books can’t be too teachy-preachy or didactic, or kids aren’t going to want to read them. If you have a “message,” don’t slam your reader over the head with it.
  • Don’t talk down to the miniature humans you’re writing for. Kids are astute and will pick up on a condescending tone.
  • The world that you build in your story usually has rules to it, even though it may only be 467 words long. Don’t break those rules, or the story won’t work.
  • If you’re not an illustrator, you just send your manuscript text when you’re submitting to agents or editors. You don’t need to find an illustrator. The publisher will want to do that if/when they buy your manuscript.
  • Only include illustration notes if you need something in particular in the illustration to tell your story. Otherwise, it just feels like you’re micro managing the illustrator’s job. (Plus it’s unprofessional and will peg you as a novice.)
  • Picture books are usually 32 pages long. If this is new information for you, read this blog post to familiarize yourself with just how picture books are laid out.
  • There are all types of story structures: cumulative, circular, increasing/decreasing, parallel, linear, etc… As with rhyme, have your story structure serve your story, don’t jam a story into a particular structure.
  • Remember that the game is to write a book that kids are going to want to read again and again and again and again.

This is not a comprehensive list. What other things do you think picture book writers need to keep in mind? 

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What I’m looking for in 2015

This is always such a difficult post to write, trying to encapsulate in a blog post “what I’m looking for” in a manuscript. Six months from now I might feel differently. I might even feel differently right after I hit the “publish” button on this blog post. I fear that what I’m looking for comes out of an amorphous, organically burping puddle of orange purple pink black lava, spewing fumes of sulphur (or is that lavender? patchouli?), continually giving birth to odd, original, quirky-yet-well-written children’s books. Yes, that explains it (or doesn’t). (I’ve posted this video before, but it’s worth starting 2015 with a laugh, as it’s often exactly how I am.) Ok, here goes with some “what I’m looking for” and what I’m not looking for…

1. Basically, I’m currently looking for unique, well-written children’s literature, from picture books through young adult, including both fiction and nonfiction.

2. For picture books, I like a strong voice, and when it’s funny, quirky and unusual. If you’re too didactic and teachy-preachy, it’s not for me. I don’t mind rhyme if it works for the story, but if you’re jamming your story into a rhyme scheme it’s not going to work, for the manuscript or for me. I’m looking for authors and author/illustrators. Also, I would never take on a new client who has only one picture book manuscript, so although you should only pitch one project at a time, make sure you have other things you can show me if I ask.

3. I like character-driven middle grade fiction with lots of action. I like middle grade mysteries, fantasy, scifi, realistic contemporary, historical, and when the lines between genres blur. Some recent middle grade books that I don’t represent but I wish I did: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead; Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage; Hook’s Revenge by Holly Schulz. I want you to make your middle grade characters relatable and knowable, or your awesome plot will feel hollow.

4. For YA sometimes it’s easier to tell you what I’m not looking for. I don’t like or read Gossip Girl or Pretty Little Liars kinds of books and I don’t like things that are scary or horror stories. I’m not into “gritty” or “urban.” I do not like “issue” books (i.e. rape, abuse, eating disorders, run-aways, drug abuse, bullying, etc) where that’s what the whole book is about. I don’t like romance or paranormal romance (although I do like when stories get romantic). Here are some things I do like though: I like realistic contemporary, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, historical, GLBTQ, literary, funny, serious, nonfiction, fiction, re-tellings, epistolary, novels in verse, and I’d take a collection of linked short stories (but otherwise I don’t represent short stories). In YA, make sure your teenaged characters are really teenagers, not what an adult thinks teenagers are like, not a whitewashed version of a teenager, not what you might wish a teenager were like, not a caricature of a teenager. If it doesn’t really read authentically teen, I’m not going to want it, I wouldn’t be able to sell it, and teenagers won’t read it.

5. Genres I don’t currently want, for any age (mostly because I can’t sell them): dystopian or post-apocalyptic, almost anything with vampires, demons, mermaids, genies, etc… unless (because there’s always an exception!) you’re bringing something totally new to it.

6. I’m on the lookout for stories with diverse characters written by diverse people. By diverse I mean ethnically, racially, socioeconomically, all across the gender and sexual orientation spectrum, with and without physical “handicaps,” and including any other kind of “other” one might think of or create. As always, I want to represent, read, and promote voices that don’t traditionally get heard.

7. I am specifically looking for manuscripts that are well written and readable. I want to get so lost in the experience of reading your story that I forget it’s a submission. What that means is that not only should your story be well written, but it should be super polished, almost perfect, without any typos, spelling or grammar errors, etc… It should be a page turner! I’m looking for manuscripts that don’t still need a ton of editorial work (even though I’m a very editorial agent).

To submit, send me a short, snappy, professional query letter with the first 20 pages of your manuscript in the body of your email. Don’t send me an email asking me if it’s ok to query. Don’t ask me in the comments section of this post whether <insert what you’re writing> would be something of interest to me. Put “Query” and the title of your manuscript in the subject line. Send it to QueryLindaEpstein (at) gmail (dot) com. That is my preferred email for queries, even though it’s not what is listed on my agency’s website (new website is under construction).

If you’re not sure whether you have something I’d like, do your research. I’m on Twitter, Facebook, have been interviewed, and have blogged enough here that you should be able to get a sense of who I am and what I’d like.

Ok, that’s it from me for the moment. I’m going to push that “publish” button on this blog post now…

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