Hello, hello! It's been a HOT minute. Seriously. HOT. I hope you've been able to stay cool. I've been escaping to the beach and pool whenever I can. I've also made it part of my summer morning routine to sit right by the air conditioning vent with a ginormous pile of picture books (and my daughter, and my son, and my two huge dogs) all on my lap. Okay, so it doesn't stay cool for long. But it's snug in the best way.
It's no secret that in order to write well, you have to read a lot of books in the genre that you write in. It's also common (and very good) advice that if you are trying to submit new work for publication, then you should be reading new books, so that you are up to date on what the market looks like right now.* So for this post, I'm focusing my examples on books that have published within the last two years (including my newest picture book, SOMETIMES LOVE, which just published this month!)
In addition to reading a lot this summer, I've critiqued a lot of picture book manuscripts (which, by the way, is another highly recommended, and stellar way to get better at writing your own manuscripts!). During these critiques, I found myself asking the same questions over and over again.
In this post, I'll share some of these questions, and show you some recent picture books that answer these questions exceptionally well, to help you dig deeper into revising your own picture book manuscript.
*More on marketability of picture books on this previous blog post.
Is this the best title for this story?
How can you create a clearer cause-effect relationship between what the character wants, and what happens as a result of their attempts to reach that goal?
I'm going to use my TEENY HOUDINI chapter books as an example here, again. Because this question was the one I struggled with the most while plotting out each of the books. In order to move your story along in a clear, linear, way, this question needs to be considered. In TEENY HOUDINI: THE GIANT PANDA PLAN, Bessie meets a baby panda and realizes that pandas are in danger. So she crafts a plan to help save them, and rallies her first grade class to do the same. But, as a result, she competes with her classmates to come up with the best plan, and mayhem ensues. At the lowest point, she's the farthest from her goal of saving the pandas, and it's all a result of the trouble she (and her classmates) caused along the way.
Your Turn: Can you clearly connect the events in your story? A causes B causes C?
Does every scene have the same energy/intrigue and passion as the opening scene? Where do you purposefully change this? For what effect?
In Abi Cushman's ANIMALS GO VROOM! we immediately are hooked and want to take part in this guessing game. But we're going to be surprised when we turn the page! This pattern continues (all while building and showing a narrative through the art) throughout the entire book. It's the perfect suspenseful set up, and it carries us through the whole way.
Your Turn: Are you changing the energy level as you move from one scene to the next? For what effect?
Is there something another character could do, or an opportunity that presents, that would really endear to the main character's strengths to show us their growth and/or consistency?
In LALA's WORDS by Gracey Zhang, Lala is, in my opinion, perfect. She doesn't need to change (but the grown up around her does!), so she doesn't. Instead, we get a really satisfying moment(s) in the story where there is change. And, it reinforces Lala's behavior, her strengths, and the fact that she is perfect just as she is. You'll have to get the book to see for yourself. (This one also has one of the best under the jacket cover reveals. I love it so much!)
Your Turn: Is there such a moment in your story? Or does your character do the changing? (Why?) Note: one answer is not better than the other. But one answer might suit the story you are trying to tell better.
Is there a refrain that might serve this story well?
In Jyoti Rajan Gopal's AMERICAN DESI, illustrated by Supriya Kelkar, the main character asks a question, "Which is the color of me?" Throughout the story, she explores this question beautifully. Not all stories need a refrain. But, when a story has one that works so well to carry the movement forward, and remind us of the character's struggle/goal, it's so lovely. Look at how beautiful this book is, too!
Your Turn: Would your story be enhanced with a refrain?
Where are the places where you make us have to flip feverishly to find out what happens next?
In Matthew Forsythe's MINA, he does this immediately! The opening spread introduces us to Mina's lovable character, then leaves us hanging.
"Mina lived in her own little world where nothing every bothered her.
Except for one thing."
We need to know, so we turn the page. And then...and then... he makes us wait five more page turns before he lets us know "the one thing." During those five page turns, we are introduced to dad, made to laugh, and the tension from that initial suspense builds and builds until we reach a very satisfying, and yet more suspenseful answer. This book--every part of it, is masterful.
Your Turn: How are you keeping us on our toes? Where are you leaving us in suspense?
What could go wrong for this character? What's the worst thing that could happen?
Such a cruel thing to do! Torture your main character? Why would we do that?! Well, because we want our books to reflect the lives of our readers. And sad/bad/terrible things happen to all of us. How can we show them that they are not alone? How can we bring them on a journey with our character? How can we bring the story to a close with a truly satisfying ending? In SOMETIMES LOVE, by me and Joy Hwang Ruiz, our main character has to say goodbye to her dog. It's devastating. But this terribly sad, lingered upon moment, does lead to a very happy ending (and, in fact, it's the ending I wish I could have given myself in real life! That's the power of our stories. We *do* get to write the ending).
Your turn: Are you raising the stakes for your character? Are you making it terrible enough for them? Are you delivering a satisfying and surprising ending?
Where can you switch it up on purpose? Can you give us a response we don't expect, and also break from an established pattern in a way that is really humorous?
Scott Rothman does this expertly in ATTACK OF THE UNDERWEAR DRAGON, illustrated by Pete Oswald. He gives us three logical examples, followed by one that is unexpected, silly, and funny!
"Cole had a lot ot learn. He learned how to sharpen Sir Percival's swords...spears...battle-axes...and knight pencils."
It also makes us wonder, what does Sir Percival need all those knight pencils for? What are knight pencils? It's intriguing, but not distracting.
Your turn: Where are you switching things up in your manuscript?
Is there a way you can make this more surprising?
Are you starting to sense a theme here? Surprises in the story hold our attention or re-engage us. Take a look at Rebecca Jordan-Glum's spread in KITTY to see how she does this. The text reads "so she grabbed the cat food and coaxed it back inside." This should give us relief. Whew. All is as it should be. Except that it's not! We see in the art that kitty has actually dashed outside, and a raccoon has come inside. Only Granny doesn't have her glasses on, so she can't tell that the wrong critter is in the house. Oh goodness. When I read this page to my six year old, his eyes grew huge. He covered his mouth to stifle a laugh, because he knew something that the main character did not. It was surprising, and so, so funny! And the start of major mayhem!
Your turn: Where can you surprise us in your manuscript?
What take away do you hope to leave the reader with?
Not all picture books need a message to impart! In fact, I would say that some of my favorite picture books do not have a strong, overt message. Rather, they leave me with a feeling, a wonder, a connection, a feeling of satisfaction. (I dive more deeply into satisfying endings here). So, then, if you're not hitting the reader over the head with a message, then what are you leaving them with? In Juana Martinez-Neal 's glorious book, ZONIA'S RAIN FOREST, we are introduced to Zonia, who we immediately love, her family, and her home, the rain forest. The rain forest calls to Zonia and we follow her as she ventures through it. By the end, we love her rain forest as much as she does. And so the last line of this manuscript is one that we feel. It's a call to action. It's powerful.
Your turn: What's your last line? Is it delivering to your reader what you hope that it will?
Overall, these questions have to do with intent and purpose.
Why are you making this choice?
What can you do on purpose to create the effect you want?
What is it that you're really trying to do here?
(By the way, these are also the same questions I end up asking myself while revising my picture book manuscripts). I hope this list of questions, as well as my Picture Book Revision Checklist, is helpful to you as you revise.
**If you want the complete list of DIGGING DEEPER INTO PICTURE BOOK REVISION QUESTION, then make sure you're signed up for my (free) Writing Blog! I've sent/am sending the list to all Blog subscribers.**
Do you have other questions you ask your manuscript/yourself often? What tried and true ways do you use to you improve your story when you know it needs something but feel stuck?
Share in the comments below!
P.S. *For those inquiring about manuscript critiques and editorial services, I offer a very limited amount, due to a full schedule. If interested, please use the form on my contact me page to reach out about availability and more.*
Katrina Moore writes in New Jersey. She holds a M.A. in Teaching and has been an elementary teacher for thirteen years. Her mission is to create books that children will hug for ages. She is the author of the picture books, SOMETIMES LOVE, a powerful and poetic exploration of love---from giving, to growing, to sometimes letting go, illustrated by Joy Hwang Ruiz (Penguin/Dial, Summer 2022), ONE HUG, illustrated by Julia Woolf (HarperCollins/Tegen Books, Dec. 2019), GRANDPA GRUMPS, illustrated by Xindi Yan, its forthcoming sequel, GRUMPY NEW YEAR (Little Bee Books, Dec. 13, 2022), the forthcoming HOPE IS A HOP illustrated by Melissa Iwai (Penguin/Dial, March, 2023), and more to come. Her humorous chapter books series, TEENY HOUDINI, illustrated by Zoe Si, star the magical, mischievous, mayhem-maker Bessie Lee. Books 1, 2, and 3 are all available now (HarperCollins/Tegen Books).
When she is not writing or teaching, she is cooking without a recipe, painting outside the lines, or snuggling up with her two kids, husband, pups, and of course, a cozy book. Connect with her on twitter @kmoorebooks or at www.katrinamoorebooks.com.
Katrina Moore writes for all, teaches many, and raises two young children. She holds an M.A. in elementary education. She's the author of ONE HUG, GRANDPA GRUMPS, SOMETIMES LOVE (Penguin/Dial, '22), and the forthcoming chapter book series, TEENY HOUDINI (HarperCollins/Tegen, '22), and more. Connect with her on twitter!