The A to Z of Picture Books

by Lauren Shapiro

Kat and Rotem“Picture books are my heart; the key to creating a true picture book all starts with the heart,” began Ms. Yeh, setting the intimate tone for The A to Z of Picture Books. “A picture book is more than just a book. Integrated into the very being of it is that closeness. A child is on your lap – there’s a hug in it.”

Ms. Yeh recounted the process of writing her first book, You’re Lovable to Me. “I knew I wanted to write about love, intergenerational love and the love of a father for a daughter. The first draft was two thousand words, and I cut it to a couple of hundred words.” As an aid in editing herself, she belongs to a group of friends who critique each other informally. She advised writers to “join SCBWI, and read, read, read – not only to see what’s out there and what people are publishing, but to get the page turns and to find what sort of emotional things touch you. The most successful picture books tap into something that we all recognize immediately even though we can’t define it.”

She recommended TaraLazar.com for inspiration and literaryrambles.com as a source to find agents who might be a good fit for your writing. Ms. Yeh said her approach to finding her agents was the result of diligent research until she had whittled her list down to five agents she thought would “get me.”

Ms. Yeh’s editor at Disney-Hyperion, Rotem Moscovivich, supported this approach, affirming that when she opens a query, “You know when someone has researched what you’ve done, someone who’s going to connect with what you’re writing.” As it is Disney policy (designed to prevent lawsuits), Ms. Moscovivich is only open to agent submissions, however she is still often overwhelmed with submissions. When she receives a manuscript, “it’s either, a definite no, a definite yes, or something I’m going to agonize over. If I like it, I may show it to my friends or my boss or bring it straight to an editorial meeting. We talk about it, and it’s kind of opinion – ‘oh it reminds me of this,’ or ‘it’s not good enough,’ or ‘we love it, just take it to acquisitions.’” After mulling over the editorial meeting, Ms. Moscovivich may then decide to decline the manuscript, ask for revisions or proceed to Acquisitions – a marketing team comprised of publicity, school, library, production and sales personnel.

Giving a rare glimpse into the Mouse House, Ms. Moscovivich said that a memo to Acquisitions lists the title, author, and a log line, “for example ‘a charming picture book about friendship.’ Beneath that is selling points –great read aloud – perfect for classroom common core – potential for series.” She also said, notably, that “we might point to excellent writing” as a selling point.

Answering a question about rhyme, Ms. Moscovivich said, “It’s totally a preference. I think the tricky thing about rhyme is that it’s really hard to do well and the number one problem is that writers follow the rhyme instead of the story. Why are we talking about this – because it rhymes?”

In response to a question about the conventional one thousand word limit, she answered, “Thirty-two pages is what we think for 3-5 year olds, but we’ll do a forty page book if we need to.” She added that Disney is coming out with a picture book that’s going to be eighty-seven pages long because it’s about the civil war and it’s for middle grade kids. She declined to comment on the theory that middle grade children don’t read picture books.

If Acquisitions is on board, she then calls the agent with an offer.

If Acquisitions is on board, she then calls the agent with an offer and they prepare paperwork.

Along the way, while editing, Ms. Moscovivich is thinking about a number of things – “the narrative arc and what I want to go where, and what’s missing, and page turns. Are we doing the same thing on two spreads in a row? I may send it back for a revision saying the character should be feeling sad here. I think about what’s going to be next to what, what needs its own page. After the final artwork, it goes to copy editing. An author can often want to direct, and I’m making a space between the author and the illustrator so that they don’t talk directly to each other, so that I can see that the illustrator has ownership as well. Sometimes I’ll tell an author we’re cutting something out because the illustrator took care of it and it’s no longer necessary in the text.

Once we have all the mechanicals we send it off to the printer and we get proofs, mostly for color and the case. We send it to the illustrator, and to the author if there’s an extra set, but it’s really for the color, how it looks on the coated paper.”

If all goes well, then the waiting begins.

“We have two lists a year – eight books on a list, and I have to go in order so things are scheduled at least two years out. Right now, I’m looking at fall 2017. And then, it can be a quiet launch. Like today, Templeton Gets His Wish came out. Not every book gets reviewed by the NY Times, or has a bookstore party. Some books just grow and grow.”

There was a sense in the room that that would be just fine.

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Lauren Shapiro is a freelance writer. She has published over 50 articles in diverse publications including Crain’s American Dry Cleaner, Dance Spirit, American Small Farm and WorldandIOnline. Her article on Archie Comic Books and Literacy was published in Education Update in Manhattan, and reprinted in parent papers in Staten Island, New Jersey, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. She is hoping to find a way into the children’s book market.

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