Chapter 8: Picture Books and Easy Readers

This is the second part of a sample chapter from the third edition of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books. The complete text of the chapter will be included, when all the sections have been posted, with minor corrections, but the format has been altered to suit the Internet.

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Previous section: Fiction versus nonfiction, and picture books versus books with chapters

Types of Picture Books

Class Rules

You'll read a lot about word count and page length in this chapter. Use these numbers to help you figure out what a manuscript might be, not as rules for writing. As Jane Yolen says, "Should be, what an awful concept. A book should be as long as it needs to be, not some arbitrary length. I must remind myself that a story has a beginning and a middle and an end. Not a word count."

Picture books probably account for more books on the children's department shelves than those in any other format or for any other age level. Children beg for them, parents love them as a vehicle for literacy, and people buy them as gifts for children and adults all the time. They can be fiction or nonfiction, and because adults read them to children and they're used in schools, they vary in length from a few hundred words to as many as 2,000. This is a very flexible format, allowing for all kinds of subject matter and approaches. You need to know about the common types, so you can understand and talk about what you're writing or illustrating.

Concept Books

Concept books are both a special type of picture book and the most common format for toddlers and younger. They explore a concept rather than tell a story; in a way, they are nonfiction for the very young. Ruth Krauss's classic A Hole Is to Dig was one of the first concept books and is well worth reading. For more recent examples see Tana Hoban's Colors Everywhere or Suse McDonald's Peck, Slither, and Slide. Concept books are often but not always illustrator-created because text is minimal.

Picture Books

Moving to older children—by which I mean children old enough to follow a simple story—we come to "true" picture books. The stories in these books are carried at least as much by the pictures as by the words. Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is a good example of this type. You couldn't follow the story without the pictures, and you generally find illustrations on every page. The best of these books, including Sendak's book, are designed and laid out as a coherent whole.

Can You Keep a Secret?

All these types of picture books work with fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction picture books tend to have higher word counts then their fiction counterparts, though.

True picture books may have only a few hundred words and be intended for pre-schoolers, such as John Lawrence's This Little Chick. Or they may run considerably longer, up to and beyond 1,000 words, as is the case with Kevin Henke's Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. These two examples also show typical thematic differences for books from different ends of the picture book spectrum. Little Chick's story is one of exploring the world away from Mom, but returning to her at the end. Lilly's story focuses instead on school, dealing with rules, and relationships with classmates and teacher.

Illustrated Story Books

Illustrated story books, or picture storybooks, have a story that could be read on its own. The illustrations add to the story, but it would still make sense without them. Virginia Burton's Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is a good example of this kind. Illustrated storybooks also often have more text, perhaps a full paragraph per page, or a chunk of text facing an illustration. Many classic children's books fit in this category; it's less common today.

Board Books

I've left board books for the end of this discussion, because they're really a binding format like hardcover and paperback, not a different type of story. Board books run the gamut of the picture book range. Some, perhaps specially made for board book publication, are concept books. Many others are reprintings of already existing picture books, perhaps with pages cut or condensed. Some are created as part of a licensing program.

Board books not an area of great opportunity for writers. It's not just that board books are so often converted from an existing picture book; even the originals being made are either created by an illustrator or written in-house by a publisher. Writers and illustrators should both keep in mind that many more true picture books are published, and no matter how much they interest you, the way into board books may be through picture books.

I Can Read This: Easy Readers

Playground Stories

The Arthur books by Marc Brown are a good example of the first easy readers kids pick up. You might also want to study an entire program, such as Simon & Schuster's Ready-to-Read books and the careful gradations between the levels of its program. Easy-to-read books can be nonfiction, too, as in the Harper Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science program, actually originated by the now-defunct Thomas Y. Crowell publishing company in 1960 and still going strong 40 years and a change of publisher later.

Remember the thrill of reading your first book yourself? Children may start with those picture books that have fairly simple texts, but beginning readers soon crave more than books like those that relatives read to them. They want more—more words, more length, and more to read.
But be careful. You don't want to overwhelm this reading group. Because parents don't read these books (under various names) to children, the vocabulary must be simpler than in picture books so beginning readers can handle it. Sentences must be short and simple, and stories can't be too long or too complicated. Illustrations, although still important, are subordinate to the words.

Author Larry Dane Brimner notes these basic distinctions among books for beginning readers:

Lengths vary from several hundred to 1,500 words.

Can You Keep a Secret?

For more detailed information on writing early and easy readers, surf over to "Targeting the Emergent Reader," an excellent article by Joan Broerman that examines this tricky area.

The best thing you can do to focus your energies in this area is immerse yourself in the books. As you browse, note that series dominate in this area, unlike picture books and novels. You can find single titles, but kids just starting to read want more of the books they like. So by publishing them in series, publishers make those books easier to find and more likely to be purchased. Note, too, that many of these series aren't being added to continually, so if you want to write or illustrate early readers, you'll need to find the publishers interested in new titles. (Proposing an entire new series, for a beginner, is almost impossible.)

In most kinds of books, you can just sit down and write a story, using your judgment about vocabulary. But easy readers are one of the types of books that often must be built around a carefully selected vocabulary list. When even Make Way for Ducklings proves too advanced, or when the audience delights in simple rhymes and sounds, books like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish appear on the shelves.

Also commonly found in textbooks, controlled vocabulary does not have to cramp your style. It inspired The Cat in the Hat, which Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) crafted from a list of a little more than 200 words for beginning readers, using every single one of those words and no others. If a publisher's guidelines call for a controlled vocabulary, be sure to use their word list. You can assume most children's publishers don't care about this, however.

Next, on to books for older readers.

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Copyright © by Harold Underdown 2008 ( Google + Profile ). All rights reserved. One copy may be printed for personal use, but may not be otherwise reproduced, either on paper or electronically.