A Diamond In The Slush: What Picture Book Editors Are Really Looking For

Originally Posted: Dec. 30, 2009

by Melanie Hope Greenberg

Alexandra Penfold, Associate Editor from Simon and Schuster and Alisha Niehaus, Editor from Dial Books for Young Readers spoke to and answered questions from a full audience at the October SCBWI Metro New York Professionals Series. They had handouts with lists of what they are looking for when a book project is submitted.

Both editors shared books they’ve worked on and loved… their own favorite examples of book creators “getting it right”. Going down her list, Alisha Niehaus talked about Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman (illustrated by Caroline Binch; Dial, 1991). She said it is a “moving story with universal themes and emotions we can relate to” and that the “vibrant expressions on the character’s faces” helped to generate sales of over a million books and subsequent sequels.

Alexandra Penfold shared Mostly Monsterly by Tammi Sauer (illustrated by Scott Magoon; Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2010). The text is sweet – but not too sweet–, sparse and well paced, yet sophisticated for adult readers. The text also utilizes “white space for the illustrator to take over, invent and create, and tell the story”. Sauer’s story is about a monster who learns to make friends while still being herself. Magoon’s illustrations convey zany details and facial expressions that capture a child’s world.

In assessing manuscripts and dummies, both editors agreed that the main priority is a good story. Penfold said that each story needs to have “a twist; why is your story different?” Niehaus reminded writers that the most popular books retain their appeal even as readers return to them again and again: “Can you read your story 10 or more times and not get tired of it?” she asked.

She also pointed out that characters need to be delineated clearly and quickly in the writing: the title character in Amazing Grace is described in the first two sentences of the book.

Both Penfold and Niehaus emphasize that authors have a clear idea of who the audience for any given project. Penfold said: “Ask yourself: who is the book for? And does it meet the needs of that audience?” Niehaus said “to think about why and where the book will sell”. In developing a project, however, they recommend that authors keep looking for ways to broaden its appeal. From the very start of a book’s life, a wide range of tastes will have to be pleased: even if an editor loves your manuscript, she still needs to bring it before a committee for acquisition. The most successful books are those that hold their core intended audience but are able to bring in readers from beyond the edges of the target.

For the illustrators in the audience, there was one message: have a website. Art directors are checking websites and blogs all the time to view artist’s work and “work closely with editors choosing the artist for the manuscript” said Penfold. Our visiting editors gave great suggestions on how to polish up your Diamond in the Slush so it’s clean and shiny…and sold.

Melanie Hope Greenberg will celebrate her 20 year anniversary of being a published picture book author and illustrator with a solo picture book art retrospective exhibition in the Brooklyn Public Central Library Youth Wing from April through June 2009. Her latest book is Mermaids on Parade, GP Putnam’s Sons. Visit her at http://www.melaniehopegreenberg.com or http://mermaidsonparade.blogspot.com/

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