Writing and Illustrating for the Very Young: Board Books and Picture Books with Joyce Wan

by Leah Heilman Schanke

Award-winning author/illustrator Joyce Wan shared her insights about board books and picture books at the May Professional Lecture. Her books originally began with designs from her first career as a greeting card artist.

Doing trade shows around the country for her greeting card business taught Wan to market herself and helped her create her own art style. Both experiences helped when she started working on children’s books.

Wan described how she sat for a year on an idea for a board book sparked by her line of new baby cards. She worried that it was so simple, no publisher would be interested. Later in the year, when she realized she was still thinking about it, she made herself act.

“I broke all the rules,” Wan said. She researched publishers and created a package to send by priority mail to those selected. One week later, an editor at Cartwheel expressed interest in publishing the project.

She ended up with an offer for a two-book deal for You Are My Cupcake and We Belong Together, both 14-page board books. Wan then started looking for an agent. At first, she was a little wary of agents; she had heard horror stories, but “they are absolutely necessary.” Agents know the marketplace and what editors are looking for. Agents also give feedback on your ideas. Wan didn’t immediately tell the agents she had a contract offer because she wanted to be considered for her work alone, without the enticement of a contract. Eventually she signed, and You Are My Cupcake went on to sell over 100,000 copies; it’s her best-selling book to date.

A lot of Wan’s books start out as a title or strong concept. For My Lucky Dragon, based on the Chinese zodiac, Wan brainstormed with her editor and agent. After developing the concept, Wan writes the text and then illustrates. She draws in pencil and then colors digitally.

Board books are expensive to produce, so they are usually one of the following:

  • Written by an author/illustrator.
  • Written in-house with an illustrator hired on a flat work-for-hire fee.
  • Derived from existing picture books (earn royalties but no advance).
  • Branded spin-offs of existing popular picture books and licensed characters.

Wan’s tips:

  • Submit to publishers who make board books. Not all do.
  • Look for inspiration in trends or themes from other industries and popular culture, and simplify them for babies.
  • Begin the text by making word lists. Then look for fun word combinations that go with the concept. That way, you are less likely to get wordy.
  • Create each page/spread so it can stand on its own.
  • Don’t worry about the number of pages; the editor will decide.
  • Keep doing projects and build a body of work. Your art will improve, and you will discover your voice.
  • Attend conferences. Do your research and try to meet agents at them. Finding the right agent is “like a matchmaking game.”

And finally, don’t listen to naysayers. “Don’t be afraid; put your projects out there!”

Leah Heilman Schanke was a winner in the 2017 KidLit College Picture Book Contest and a finalist in the PNWA Literary Contest in the children’s book category in both 2013 and 2014. By day, Leah is an assistant vice president of human resources for a New York State agency. She lives on Long Island with her husband and children.

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