To Be a Better Picture Book Writer, Be a Better Picture Book Critiquer

Picking Picture Books Writing a Picture Book is not an easy task. I know people who spent more than five years learning the craft before they made their first sale. It seems like it should be an easy thing to do. After all, everyone has made up a story or two that they told to a child at one time or another. Being able to tell a story and writing one, while similar are also quite different. When you tell a child a story, the child is, in a sense, a captive audience who might hear the story only once. A good Picture Book, however, is measured not by being told as much as it is measured by being told again and again and again.

In order to write a good picture book, it helps to be able to recognize a good picture book. You should be able to effectively critique a picture book in order to determine how good it is. The next step for a Picture Book writer is, of course, to be able to apply the ability to critique a Picture Book to his or her own writing. That’s why I’ve been collecting some tips and suggestion about critiquing Picture Books.

It seems the best place to begin is with a list from Kathy Temean of the top ten questions the Editors at Dutton ask themselves when looking at Picture Book:

Top Ten Questions Dutton Editors Ask Themselves When Looking At A Manuscript

  1.  Who is the readership for this book?
  2. Does this story surprise me and take me to places I didn’t expect?
  3. Is this a main character I care about?
  4. Am I moved by this story or situation?
  5. I this a theme/emotion/concern that a lot of kids will be able to relate to?
  6. Has this been done a million times before?
  7. Will I want to read this manuscript ten (or more) times?
  8. Is the voice/character authentic and real?
  9. For picture books:  Would this story be visually interesting for 32 pages?  Could I easily envision the illustrations for this?
  10. Does the action of the story move at a good pace and hold our interest?

The blog Writing on the  Sidewalk has a great list of questions to ask when critiquing a Picture Book.

  • Does something happen? Does someone change?
  • Is there a through-line from the beginning to the end? Can you hear echoes of the beginning at the end?
  • What drives the story? Character? Action? Theme?
  • Is the character’s goal a child’s goal? As opposed to an adult’s? (Especially for bedtime books)
  • Is there a simpler way to say the same thing?  On a sentence level – can one strong verb do the job of several adjectives? Can sentences be combined into one clear thought?
  • Does it pass the read aloud test? Do the words flow off the tongue?
  • Does the form fit the content? Are the sounds/language choices right for the mood of the story? Lyrical can be lovely – but not for quick action.
  • What experience is created? What sort of world is inside these pages?

Finally, here’s my list, compiled from things I’ve read about what makes a good Picture Book.

  • Stop reading after the first page (the first 2 -3 sentences). Set the book aside. If you do  not find yourself wondering what is going to happen, then a child won’t either.
  • After every sentence or two close your eyes and picture what is happening. You should be able to ‘see’ it and what you see should change often. Also, be sure the story is not being explained to you.
  • How does the story read? Does it flow or do you stumble or get confused
    at any spot. You should be able to read it out loud about as easily as if
    you were telling the story. If there is rhyme does it ever seem forced,
    again in a way that people do not normally speak? Is the language fun or funny, exciting, interesting?
  • If there is any place in the story where you feel like you’re saying, “Let’s get this over with,” then a child will be saying that too.
  • Are there better ways something might be said or shown?
  • Was the story enjoyable?
  • Did you like the way it ended?
  • Did the main character grow in any way (seem to have learned something or changed)?
  • Would the story be better if it was told by a different character or in a different tense or in first person rather than third, etc. Perhaps a different setting or a different character would help.
  • Word length: Board Books 2-3 year olds, less than 300 words; books for 4-6 year olds, less than 500 words; all others, less than 1,0oo but 700 is better.

Rough draft Rough draft (Photo credit: juliejordanscott)

When critiquing an unpublished work I read it through before I do much (I might point out some glaring errors). I try to get a feel for the book (see the above list). Then I comment on the story itself, explaining how I feel about it and why. I also try to brainstorm and give suggestions about things I think the writer might consider trying or doing to improve the story.

Personally, I critique another writers unpublished work in the same way I would want mine critiqued. I want to know if it’s good or if it needs a lot of work. When we’re in the middle of something it is not as easy to look at it from the outside and see it for what it really might be.

These two blog posts nicely capture what makes a good critique of an unpublished Picture Book: Laura Sassi. I Tinkle Thoughts on Critiquing Stories and Iza Trapani, Critiquing a Picture Book

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