Tales of a Picture Book Writer: Do’s, Don’ts, and Maybe’s

Author Jon Scieszka

Picture book author and National Ambassador for children’s literature Jon Scieszka kicked off the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference with his opening keynote address. In it he shared what he wish he knew before he started, his journey, and why it’s so important that we write for children. The following are notes from his keynote speech.

Congratulate Yourself For Doing Something!

  • Everyone thinks they can write a children’s book these days. The pope, Celebrities, Glenn Beck, my dentist.
  • Do congratulate yourself for being here (at SCBWI). You are doing something! Unlike my  dentist, or neighbor, who all talk about writing a children’s book, you are actually doing it!

Stuff I Wish I Knew When I Was Starting Out:

  • Picture books are 32 pages long.
  • I sent submissions to anyone accepting submissions. It turns out that’s not a good way to go. It turns out some people only sell books about gardening.
  • The world doesn’t need any more pirate zombie cheerleader books.
  • Don’t believe everything you hear. Question what someone tells you!

Make Sure You Read:

  • Do read as many picture books in your genre as you can. It amazes me when people say there aren’t any good books out there. I always challenge them and ask if they’ve read X, Y, and Z. It turns out most of them aren’t reading! Go to your book store, your library, and stay until the security guard walks up and points out that you’re an older man in the kids book section.
  • Check out the library list of best picture books. There’s great things on these lists. The top three are Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
  • Connect with what YOU like when you read.
  • Read bad books! It’s very educational. (Scieszka shared a list of fake “bad books” including: Clifford Goes to Sleep, Ten Fun Activities With Fire, and Curious George and the High Voltage Fence.)
  • Learn about the market by reading: Horn Books, Publisher’s Weekly, Kitlit Blogs (Betsy Bird, Educating Alice, SCBWI Team Blog).

When You Start to Write:

  • Stop reading the blogs. Become an expert by reading them, then leave it all behind you.
  • Technique and details are important.
  • Whatever you’ve written right now, cut it in half! Leave room for the pictures!
  • Don’t rhyme.
  • Don’t write alphabet books, princess books, vampire books, or fart books. We don’t need any more of them!
  • Check out the book Robot Zot to see a strong marriage of text and illustration, where the illustrations really inform the story in a way the text cannot.

The Journey:

  • Scieszka took a year off to work on his picture books. He wrote them, submitted them, and got rejected. It’s part of the process.
  • Lane Smith and Scieszka got rejected for a whole year before someone was interested in our work.
  • There were lots of editorial suggestion we didn’t take along the way. Some included: Don’t use a newspaper cover (The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs has a newspaper cover). Don’t have the wolf eat the pig. (The wolf does.)
  • Inspirational books for Scieska include: George and Martha by James Marshall, because it’s well designed and simple and the illustrations tell half of the story.  He also really likes The Stupids Die.

Your Job as A Writer Is To…

  • Be a storyteller! This is your mission!
  • We will tell publishers where the future of publishing is going. We will control the new formats as creative content creators.
  • The picture book is an amazing piece of technology in and of itself!
  • Write what thrills you!
  • Question everything! And if it hits you, then go ahead and write the best darn rhyming vampire princess fart book that you can!

Jon Scieszka has been writing children’s books for 20 years. He is the author of picture books, early readers, and middle grade books including: Stinky Cheese Man, Robot Zot, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and Time Warp Trio. Scieszka taught elementary school for ten years, founded the literacy initiative GUYS READ, and was named the nation’s first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress in 2008.

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