CRAFTING STAND OUT PICTURE BOOKS: A REVISION CHECKLIST PLUS BOOKS THAT CHECK THE LIST
By Katrina Moore
Before I’m ready to send a manuscript to my agent, and even to critique partners, I go through rounds of self-revision. Over time, I’ve found myself asking the same questions over and over again (and asking the same questions to my critique partners when giving them feedback on their work), so I’ve compiled the questions into a revision checklist for myself.
I’m sharing it with you!
Because I keep learning. And growing. And nothing helps me to learn more or grow faster than sharing what I’ve learned along the way.
In this post, you’ll find essential questions to ask yourself as you revise your manuscript to make it the best that it can be. I’ve also included an example for each checkpoint using recently released (within the past 3 years), stellar picture books.
Without further ado...here's the checklist:
PICTURE BOOK REVISION CHECKLIST:
1) WHAT’S YOUR BOOK REALLY ABOUT?
Write out the pitch.
-What’s at the heart of this story?
-What do I want this story to do? (Use this as a guide for revision)
2) IS YOUR CHARACTER FULLY DEVELOPED?
-Is this someone a kid can relate to?
-Is there depth?
-Why are we rooting for the main character?
Interview your character and ask all sorts of questions. This is to inform YOU even though most of it won’t make it into the text. The better you know your character the better you’ll write your character, the more your character will feel real and we’ll care about your character.
Example: Check out the first spread of JULIÁN IS A MERMAID by Jessica Love. In very few words, we know so much about Julián and we care about him. We’re immediately connected to his relationship with his abuela. Think about how much is not written in this text, but was necessary for the author to know in order to create such a powerful opening and introduction to the characters.
3) IS YOUR STORY TIGHT?
Go through the story sentence by sentence, word by word.
-Is this word/sentence serving the story?
-Is it driving the plot?
-Is it adding to character development?
If the answer is no—cut!
Example: Kelly DiPucchio and Greg Pizzoli’s DRAGON WAS TERRIBLE opens with:
“Dragon was terrible. Naturally, dragons have a bit of terrible in them because they’re dragons after all. But THIS dragon here? Super terrible.”
The first sentence here introduces us to the character and sets up the plot. Every word following this first sentence carries weight in establishing the narrative voice of the book, and also drives the plot by creating more tension. It engages what we already “know”—dragons are terrible. But this character is going to be even more terrible than those dragons we already know? Oh boy. As a reader, I’m eager to find out how bad this character is and what shenanigans he causes. How can he be that terrible?! See how she hooks us in with exactly the right words?
4) IS THIS PACED FOR A PICTURE BOOK?
Paginate it (12 or 15 spreads).
-Where do you envision the page turns?
-Does it end at a surprising moment?
-Are we holding our breath?
-Is there tension and build up?
Here’s what it looks like when I lay out a picture book:
Example: Check out this spread from Ame Dyckman and Scott Magoon’s MISUNDERSTOOD SHARK:
What is Shark’s excuse? I’m curious to find out. I am holding my breath. And I’m wondering, Will I believe him? I have to turn the page to find out. Since there is a literal pause that takes place when a picture book is being read aloud and the page turns, it’s beneficial to maximize the effect of those page turns.
5) DOES THE STORY FEEL RESOLVED?
-Was it logical but surprising?
-Are we satisfied?
Example: In BOATS WITH PAPA by Jessixa Bagley, Buckley carves beautiful boats and sends them out to sea in hopes that they reach his papa, who he misses very much.
I won’t give away the ending, because it’s so beautiful and you have to check it out for yourself. It feels inevitable—you know it’s coming, and yet, there's still a twist that's so heartwarming it brings me to tears everytime I read it (which at this point, is close to 100 times, if not more).
6) IS IT MARKETABLE?
-What are the recent comparable titles?
-How is yours fresh from these?
-Why would a kid love this book?
-What are the universal truths/emotions/themes that readers will connect with?
(these should be in and match the pitch)
Example: Check out BACK TO SCHOOL WITH BIGFOOT by Samantha Berger and Martha Brockenbrough, Illustrated by Dave Pressler.
It takes a familiar theme, starting school jitters, and makes it fresh (and funny) by making it about Bigfoot, which is a high interest, intriguing subject for kids (and adults). How does Bigfoot feel about starting school? What would he worry about? There’s tons of kid appeal here!
(*More on the marketability of your picture book in this post.)
Now it’s your turn! Does your picture book check the list?
Happy writing and revising! ✨
Katrina Moore writes and teaches in New Jersey, outside Philadelphia. Earning her M.A. in elementary education, she has been a teacher for almost a decade in Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York. Her mission is to create books that children will hug for ages. Her debut picture book, ONE HUG, illustrated by the talented Julia Woolf, is a lyrical celebration of the different ways that hugs bring people together, forthcoming from HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books in 2019. The book follows an Asian-American boy as he and his family prepare to welcome their immigrant relatives.When she is not teaching elementary kids or writing, she is cooking without a recipe, painting outside the lines, or snuggling up with her two kids, husband, pomapoo pup, and of course, a cozy book. Connect with her on twitter @kmoorebooks or at www.katrinamoorebooks.com.
6/29/2018 09:21:29 pm
Great article, Katrina! Your first tip is the first thing I review when a manuscript seems "off" to me. Love your mentor texts, too. I can't wait to read your books!
7/2/2018 04:52:48 am
Thank you, Brenda! THE LITTLE RED FORT will definitely be appearing as a mentor text in a future post. It’s terrific! :-)
Mary W Copp
7/1/2018 07:29:09 am
Thank for this list, Katrina! Such great reminders...
7/2/2018 04:54:11 am
You’re welcome, Mary!
7/1/2018 01:58:17 pm
Thanks for sharing. Great examples! My revision questions are similar to yours. I focus on big picture - character/story/emotional arcs. Then pacing, sentence flow and marketability.
7/2/2018 04:56:18 am
You’re welcome, Manju! Awesome. I find it helps to think big picture first and then narrow my way down to the sentence and word level edits only after I’ve really got the story established.
7/7/2018 04:03:34 pm
Katrina, this is helpful, concise, and the examples are great. From this article, I've added a couple of must-reads to my list. Thank you.
7/9/2018 01:32:23 pm
Thank you, Tiffany! I'm so glad it was helpful to you :-)
10/30/2020 01:46:10 pm
Thank you for yet another terrific craft post, Katrina! I've shared it with one of my critique groups, some of whom are newbies, but I think it's very helpful to long-time PB writers, too. :)
7/20/2022 04:41:58 am
Nicce blog you have
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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!