Category Archives: Writing

Blog articles on writing children’s picture books

The adult reader of the children’s picture book.


What would a children’s picture book sound like if it were a children’s picture book for adults? What is a children’s picture book for adults? Yes I’m suggesting a little different way to think about the genre of children’s picture books. Let me borrow your logical understanding of picture books. Just for about 3 minutes. Don’t worry; I’ll give it back to you. 

So why do it? Why even look at children’s picture books from a different vantage point? Because as I mentioned in my article, “Rhyme = Rejection Letter?” we aren’t writing for kids, ”We have to write for the adult deciding what another adult will probably think a kid might like.” If the kids actually like it, the adults buy more of your books for their kids.

So I started thinking about what that meant. What are the most successful stories for children that were purchased by adults but consumed by kids WITH adults? We can all rattle off dozens, and in doing so, I realized there was a common denominator to the success. Every Pixar film, Disney film, children’s story, or book that is successful - contains layered writing. There is a direct story for the child AND a little something for the parents. In one of the opening scenes of the movie Cars by Pixar, the line of cars outside the women’s bathroom is long as the boy cars zip in and out of the men’s room. Hilarious. Kids don’t get that but parents do. It’s really living up to the overused sales pitch “fun for all ages”.

So I started thinking about my past writing experience. I spent a good number of years in advertising writing ads, radio spots, jingles, and TV ads. Those are all stories for adults. You are entertaining the adult and holding their attention for 30 seconds to one minute.

What does that have to do with writing children’s picture books? Children’s picture books that are wildly successful accomplish layered writing wherein they tell the story to the child and simultaneously tell the story from a different vantage point for the adult. An example of this can be read in Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama series. In Llama Llama Red Pajama, The kids seeing the book are focused on the bedtime routine and the baby llama’s experience. The parents reading the book are seeing the interrupted phone call, dirty dishes, and their evening time being impacted in a funny way. There are two stories there, one for the child and one for the adult. And using the same text and the same illustrations, two stories emerge for two audiences of the same experience.

It is a form of layered writing.

So there really is such a thing as children’s picture books for adults, they are called children’s picture books. And your target for the bulls eye MS is going to be a layered story for both child and adult disguised as a children’s picture book. As authors, we spend a lot of time focusing on what kids want in books. Go look at Dewdney’s books again from this (maybe new, maybe not so new) perspective and you’ll realize just how smart Anna Dewdney really is.

I’m betting she understands the adult mind’s fun center as well as the child’s. Do you? Do I? It’s an interesting concept and one that has dominated much of my thoughts lately. To start to understand what the task involves, we first have to go to the fun zone of the mind of the adult reader of children’s picture books.

So I looked for examples in life where an adult reader or receiver of a story didn’t initially want to engage with the author, but then does, due to an extrinsic motivation. I thought immediately of advertising because it’s one of my backgrounds. OK, so now I’m starting to see how this can all tie together.

You will read an ad or listen to it, if you are standing around waiting for some mode of transportation. You have nothing to do anyway (pretend you can’t get 17G coverage*). You are a captive audience member. Just like you love your children and you’ll read them the book because it’s important to them (and you – its together time you cherish). You are again somewhat of a captive audience, you might as well pick out something you’ll enjoy reading as well (this is the moment that defines your success in repeat sales, or sales of other titles you’ve authored).

So let’s take a look at the pinnacle of the written word in advertising. Here is (in my opinion) the very finest radio ad ever written. It’s a 60 second spot with 146 words. It was written by advertising genius, Roy H. Williams author of the book series “Wizard of Ads”. He wrote the ad for a business called Justice Jewelers.

“You are standing in the snow, five and one half miles above sea level, gazing at a horizon hundreds of miles away. It occurs to you that life here is very simple: You live, or you die. No compromises, no whining, no second chances. This is a place constantly ravaged by wind and storm, where every ragged breath is an accomplishment. You stand on the uppermost pinnacle of the earth. This is the mountain they call Everest. Yesterday it was considered unbeatable. But that was yesterday. Rolex believed Sir Edmund Hillary would conquer Mount Everest, so for him they created the Rolex Explorer. In every life there is a Mount Everest to be conquered. When you have conquered yours, you’ll find your Rolex waiting patiently for you to come and pick it up at Justice Jewelers. I’m Woody Justice, and I’ve got a Rolex for you.”

THAT is what a children’s picture book would sound like if it were a children’s picture book just for parents. It was fun being on top of Everest wasn’t it? You’re really up there because he takes you there.

What I’ve learned from Roy H. Williams and the Wizard of Ads series is completely unrelated to children’s picture book writing in terms of direct subject, but it’s the finest training for understanding the fun center of the adult mind, something many call “the kid in all of us”. Ugh. I was trying really hard not to say that even once in this article. It snuck in. Sorry.

What I learned in advertising while writing ads is, when you are stuck somewhere in the text…. get up and go around to the other side of your mind and look at the whole thing from over there. You’ll see over here differently. If it helps, go write from over there about over here. Just walk around in your mind and relax.

My best ad writing elicited the desired response from consumers because I activated the fun center of the adult mind. Sales increased for my former clients. My task now is to repeat that while talking directly to kids in picture books. Then using the same text, talk through the kids to the adults, and give them both a fun story simultaneously. What do you think? Can we do it? divider-horiz-725

Tracey Preston Cook is the author & illustrator of “Poofa the Puffagoo”, “The Shapelets”, and “Glowbee & Tricycle”. All unpublished literary works in the genre of children’s picture books. Tracey Preston Cook is actively seeking an agent or publisher for his latest work, “Poofa the Puffagoo”.

*17G Coverage: Wireless Internet available for all smart phones in the year 2027. It’s an attempt to ensure my blog is forward compatible.  It also sounds cool, like I’m aware of some emerging technology. I’m not. But only the “asterisk-aware” like you, know this.

Rhyme = Rejection Letter? Rhyming children’s picture books.

Do you use rhyme when writing your children’s picture books? There are some agents, editors, and blurp-phoneticpublishers in the publishing profession that oppose the use of rhyme in children’s picture books. Some flatly refuse to review any manuscript that rhymes. If they even suspect there are two phonetic friends in your manuscript…it goes in the garbage.

As harsh as that sounds, it is understandable how some in the publishing industry have reached the point of refusal of any and all rhyme in children’s picture books. Rhyming “bed” with “red”, or “table” with “able” allows you to almost see the writers’ in the shallow end of the literary pool with arm floaties. I know because I just looked under my writing desk and there’s a neat little pile of the floatation devices. Do I feel childish because I’ve made some of the very mistakes publishers have outlined on their sites as things to avoid? No. Writing is rewriting. Rewriting is learning.

While teaching at a local college, I once held up a sheet of paper that had been typed. I asked my students to tell me how long it took to type the page. Some asked how many words per minute I type and then proceeded to do some math. Others replied that it’s impossible to tell. The latter are correct. It’s impossible to tell. The same is true with a manuscript. It’s impossible to tell how long it took to type and it’s irrelevant how many iterations and rewrites were required. Agents and Publishers don’t want to know how long it took to produce work (unless they are specifically asking for book #2 and want a time table). They care only that it’s a compelling story full of fun that will sell.

Here’s the awful truth. Most authors can’t rhyme outside of typical parameters. Yes, everyone can write verse like, “There once was a mouse, which lived in a house.” That won’t get you published. Ever.

When you start to see the criteria publishers are requiring before publishing a rhyming book, you will begin to see just how steep the hill is. I had NO idea. Consider the article by Nosy Crow Publishers. After you get done learning about scansion, rhyming in RP English, translate ability, and the fact that before they even consider sending you any kind of encouragement, they read your text in 4 different English accents aloud to see if it still hangs together. Compounded with the fact that your text MUST be telling a compelling and strong story, while using unique and fun twists on English words that rhyme – you start to see what I’m talking about. Furthermore, publishers are intent on finding ways to port your book into other languages – translating in rhyme. Ugh.

Writing a children’s picture book in rhyme is similar to painting in oils. Every brush stroke is intentional and there are no happy accidents. It’s impossible to get an oil painting to come out with luck. Watercolors? Yes. Pastel, pencil, crayon, and every other art medium will produce an occasional happy accident. But not oils. Oils are absolute. If you see a good oil painting – there is an intentional, practiced, and accomplished master behind the work. The same is true of rhyming picture book text. Its oils. There are no happy mistakes or lucky breaks. You can write in verse all day, every day, all year and have not one happy accident or luck out with something publishable. When you see the examples given by the Nosy Crow (above) and Tara Lazar (below) you will see the oil painting analogy holds water. The work they refer to are masterpieces.

And I’m guessing that publishers, agents, and editors are tired of watching authors try and paint in oils, hoping for a happy mistake they can take to market. It’s never going to happen unless it’s practiced, learned, inherent and driven by natural talent. Can it be learned? I don’t know. Can you take oil painting lessons? Sure. You can learn the mechanics but it won’t produce a masterpiece.

blurp-adult-kid-quoteUnfortunately, what I’ve learned is agents and publishers that publish picture books that rhyme are only publishing masterpieces. You can imagine how I felt when I learned that an already low potential of decision makers in the publishing industry was further reduced simply because I want kids to have fun with the words in my book. I’ve written a children’s picture book that *gasp* uses some standard rhyme. I’ve considered many forms of compensating for the bad news. Rewrite it? Abandon the text and start over? Revise? Write in prose? The answer is to produce a masterpiece.

So what’s my proof of the masterpiece theory? Flat out refusal of all rhyming manuscripts is a bit like a major toy design company refusing the use of the three primary colors because new toy concepts using red, yellow and blue have been less than ideal. The knee-jerk rejection would obviously result in prevention of the next big idea from ever seeing the shelf. So they can’t all be just flatly refusing all rhyme for the sake of being terse with verse. They only want a masterpiece. It’s that simple.

Those opposed to mediocre rhyme are not without some very valid points. These points are the guard rails that should guide and temper our efforts in authoring our children’s picture books in rhyme while we strive for master-level performance. I believe we as authors must all endeavor to produce our work with finesse, skill, and fun at the highest possible level. If rhymed words enhance your story, do not let the above criteria discourage your masterpiece. Rise to the challenge and meet it. But how? Well, we have to establish where the bar is. Every time I think I know, it’s moved yet higher by another blog, article, or intelligent analysis of the subject of rhyming picture books for children.

While researching, you will likely find articulate and extremely intelligent authors like Tara Lazar, author of The Monstore.  She is a gifted and accomplished writer who wrote an article on this very subject (click HERE to read the article). Here is a summary of her 5 reasons some publishing professionals are refusing to review rhyming manuscripts:

1. Rhyme scheme can dictate story–but shouldn’t.
2. Common rhyme schemes can be stale.
3. Forced rhyme or near-rhyme can ruin a story.
4. The meter (or beat) must be spot-on.
5. Rhyming books are difficult to translate into other languages.

What I’ve figured out is that it’s not so much the act of rhyming, or even bad rhyming they eschew. It’s the context, purpose and medium by which they intend to make money on your book. There is an innate ability of the picture book reader to separate and hyper-analyze your words because it’s static. You can turn to a page, ignore the picture and then just sit there and chew on those poor little words. No one is going to back up a pop song on the top 40 dozens of times to hear the same quatrain to see if it’s absolutely perfect. But the picture book is analyzed and scrutinized be even the casual reader. It’s a read-aloud activity and every single flaw is amplified through parental voices worldwide.

I did some additional research, and what I found was many parents who actually said in online reviews, forums and children’s book comments in blogs, that if the book DIDN’T rhyme, they wouldn’t buy it. They know full well, that if they are buying the book, it’s because they suspect their children will like it. If their children will like it – the parent(s) will be reading it multiple times. I would argue that I’ve read “Llama Llama Red Pajama” as many times as Anna Dewdney’s editor (Well maybe not, but I’ve read it over 40 times). It’s a masterpiece and it stands. When you learn where the performance bar really is, you appreciate her work that much more. Dewdney is a brilliant author and illustrator.

Perhaps you think Publishers are just tired of reviewing MS. For a publisher or editor to simply say they are tired of reading bad rhyme is like the X Factor, American Idol, or Britain’s Got Talent saying they are sick of bad singing auditions. Almost everyone is bad. So it can’t be that. It’s because there is a standard that isn’t being met. On those very same shows, singer after singer performs near pitch-perfect renditions of songs we all know. Yet we feel uninspired and unmoved. And those pitch perfect singers don’t move to the next level or get the votes. The show only accepts exceptional potential producers of a masterpiece performance.

Even publishing professionals vehemently opposed to picture books that rhyme would admit Llama Llama books by Dewdney are top sellers. If pressed for an explanation they would likely say something along the lines of “Well that’s different, it’s an exception to the rule.”

imagineYes. And that is my whole point. It’s not the exception to the rule of rhyme; it’s the exception to the rule that most picture books submitted are average. The exception to the rule is the masterpiece. It is the production of this masterpiece that I believe every agent and publisher will fight over to get their hands on if you produce one. I believe that’s what I need to do as well.

Neat fluffy little fun rhymes probably won’t get you or I published. You and I are both going to have to dig deep and do our very best and produce a masterpiece. If you know you can, you should. Don’t submit anything less than a masterpiece. If you aren’t a master with the use of rhyme, either learn how, or use prose. I don’t think mediocre will get published.

Just remember who you want to write for, and who you are really writing for.  If you were actually writing just for, and to, children…this article and the ones by Tara Lazar or Nosy Crow, would not exist. You are an author writing for an adult deciding what another adult will probably think a kid might like. Ultimately sales are driven by a child’s request for re-reads of a picture book. I would say that kids are the foremost experts on what kids would like. Kids like a story that is fun. To make that work in rhyme is an intentional writing performance.

Published Tuesday April 2nd by Tracey Preston Cook, an author and illustrator in Northern Minnesota.