Writing picture books

One of my first full-size colour picture books was Down By The Cool Of The Pool. It was first published in 2001. When it was a fully fledged book, some time later, and I showed it to a senior editor in picture books at a major publishing house, she read it and said, “That’s a perfect picture book text.” However, its story is all but smooth and fluent.

It all began when an editor at another major children’s publishing house got in touch with me and asked me to have a go at writing a picture book text about “animals dancing”. So “animals dancing” was my remit.

I was given an “anything goes” as to whether to write in prose, in verse, or in what I call “cadenced prose” (by which I mean a prose approaching verse through its rhythms, pacing, phraseology etc). So I set to work and started to send texts to my editor. I think she took some of these to team, by which, at the time, she probably meant ‘editorial team’, though these days it would be a combination of editorial, sales & marketing, publicity and management (picture books are far more fiscally led than used to be the case / publishing has changed considerably across the last two decades).

As I wrote drafts that seemed to me promising I would send them over to my editor and wait to hear comments. So my subsequent drafts, or completely new approaches, were bounced back to me with thoughts about how or whether to proceed. I recall trying a range of approaches, plot lines, styles etc. But in the end the editor suggested we close the attempt. I hadn’t succeeding in wowing or wooing the team(s). Could we call it a day?

A little sadly I put my material away in my drafts folder and got back to other business elsewhere. I had hoped to get this book off the ground as I was keen to get a strong picture book out with this very prestigious publisher. For me as a writer back then it would have been a good coup.

It must have been 2 or 3 years later that a different publisher with whom I’d been working asked me to come over for lunch with them and bring any unused material I might have in file. They wanted to talk potential picture book material with me and felt that a flick through my folders might bring up something that could be developed further.

At this meeting I happened to read a version of Down By The Cool Of The Pool to them. This had been one of the failed drafts of my earlier attempts with the other publisher. When I finished reading it the senior editor exchanged glances with her colleagues and said, almost straight away, “We’ll sign that up here and now if we may? What do you say?” I agreed without the slightest hesitation.

It may have been a month or so later that we actually got down to work on the book. And when we did so we did make some changes. My editor asked me to personalise the animals a little more, which we did simply by giving them their animal names (eg Frog, Duck, Pig, Sheep) with capital letters and some an alliterating epithet (Prancing Pony, Capering Cow). And I think we sharpened up the text so that the turn from spread to spread worked more effectively as a sequence. But the resulting book was substantially that of the draft that they signed up at that lunchtime meeting. It was not radically different.

Which all goes to show that there is a relativity around what constitutes a ‘good or promising picture book text’. There is the text itself. But there are also other factors such as a) what the publisher may be looking for at a particular time b) things that are in fashion / ‘in the wind’ so to speak, topical or currently sought after c) things that sales and marketing feel are more likely to do well in the prevailing climate, such as it can be read.... and so forth.

I’m not suggesting that the first publisher didn’t appreciate a good thing when they saw it. There may well have editors or others who voted to take the book on. Or the publishing list for the next year or so may have had titles on it deemed more appealing in the current market. It’s not just a question of writing a good or promising text. There are other factors in play, and a good text is only one of these.

That book did well. It’s still in print over 10 years later, has done well in the US and in other languages, still achieves good library loan rates and is very popular as a read aloud in nurseries and early years classes and with librarian story readers across UK and US. The British Council have used it as part of Primary School English teaching in Portuguese schools. It is often cited to me as a favourite read.

I have another picture book currently in production, being published by a major publisher, illustrated by a celebrated, successful illustrator which shows a similar trajectory. It was for a long time on hold with one of my regular publishers. My editor was committed to it but couldn’t get her teams / panels to agree to go with it. In the end someone who moved from that publisher to another house got in touch and asked if it were still available. I said yes and it was signed almost immediately and is nearly at final stages. One publisher couldn’t quite ‘see’ it. Another really wanted to do it. They will probably show it at Bologna very shortly. The final version is not so very different from the version sent to panel at the first house.

Yet I have another text which I was extremely pleased with and regarded a potential ‘real winner’ (nb I’ve been looking at picture books in various professional ways now for over 30 years). I even managed to woo an illustrator with it who is of classic status and reputation. Her and my agents were unable to get a single publisher to show an interest. I still think it’s got all the ingredients of a very successful and popular picture book. But I simply can’t get an editor or publisher to bite at it.

Why is this? Who knows. I know it’s good. I know it could really work. I can feel these things in my bones. I can see them in my head. But I can’t transmit those feelings to those in the business who have the power to make these things happen. I have had and still have many successful picture books out there in the world, doing well in various ways. But I still don’t have power and control over what gets done and what doesn’t. Perhaps it’s time I opened my own publishing house?

By Tony Mitton



Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight