Though we call ourselves the First Novels Club, we’re not all only novelists. My first-love is the picture book, so at the SCBWI Winter Conference in New York a few weeks ago, I was sure to attend Allyn Johnston’s presentation on picture book writing and publishing, and I was not disappointed.
Allyn Johnston is the vice president and publisher of Beach Lane Books, a small imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, just launched in Summer 2009. Johnston has worked with authors and illustrators such as Mem Fox, Lois Ehlert, and Avi.
Throughout her presentation, Johnston read several books aloud, sharing insights about picture book writing along the way. Here they are:
On Emotion: Picture books are an emotional medium—they are nothing if they do not cause an emotional reaction (be it laughter, anger, sadness, joy) in the reader. Picture books should engage the emotion, or as Mem Fox says, “change the emotional temperature of the reader.”
Picture books are often shared between a child who cannot read and an adult who reads the book to the child. Johnston says it is so important to keep this in mind while we write picture books. An emotional play occurs between those two people. It’s fun; it’s private; and it’s very very intimate. (Wow. What a beautiful image! And what a privilege it is to create such a moment between adult and child.)
On Form: The form is so important. Here are a few thoughts on form:
- A picture book is a theatre—a 32-page stage. The text is a play for the reader to perform for an audience of children. We should keep this in mind as we write—and write stories that will create an exciting performance by the reader.
- Think about the page turn of the book. The reader should really want to turn those pages to see what happens next.
- The text should have rhythm and repetition—and appropriate breaks in both.
- The text comes first, then the pictures. The words must be so fabulous that readers want to read it again. And again, and again, and again.
- Avoid sounding like a chapter book.
- Avoid descriptions and background information.
- Trust and let go. As picture book writers, we are only contributing half of the project. We must trust our illustrators and leave out the descriptions.
- Do NOT give directives for the illustrators. Do not describe everything. Leave something for the illustrators creativity. Leave lots! Illustrators love the challenge and the freedom to create.
- Leave out the stuff illustrators can fill in--these things can drag down the language.