Saturday, February 20, 2010

SCBWI: Picture Books with Allyn Johnston

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Think about the page turn of the book. The reader should really want to turn those pages to see what happens next.
  3. The text should have rhythm and repetition—and appropriate breaks in both.
  4. 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.
On Opening Lines:
  1. Avoid sounding like a chapter book.
  2. Avoid descriptions and background information.
On Writing Illustrated Text (that is, picture books):
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Leave out the stuff illustrators can fill in--these things can drag down the language.
Has the point been made? We picture book writers need to cut the descriptive crap.

On Revisions: Make a 32-page dummy, leave a few pages for the title, copyright, and dedication pages, then map out your book by page. See where the page breaks are working/not working. Let this reveal passages that may need to be reworked or cut.

I found Johnston's presentation riveting--she's a great reader. She does all the voices. I found her insights equally helpful, and my work has already benefitted from them. I hope you can glean from them as well.

Thanks, Allyn!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks so much for reading our blog, and we really appreciate you taking the time to comment! We read every one, and we try to respond to all of them via email/comment.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...