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Josh Funk's Guide to Writing Picture Books

Picture book ideas show up everywhere. Some of them are great! And …


Some Ideas Don’t Work


While some of my ideas are solid enough to get published, I've written my share of terrible manuscripts along the way. Some of those ideas were doomed from the start – I just didn’t know it at the time.


A while back I thought I would jump into the vampire fad (I know they’re particularly popular in picture books), so I wrote a story about a vampire child who wants to be scary but all the little kids just love vampires now. I think it’s sort of like the end of the movie Hotel Transylvania – when they’re running through the streets but everyone loves the monsters and no one is scared. (Oops, is that one of those places I should have said spoiler alert?) My plot didn’t really translate to a young children’s audience, and I didn’t learn that until I worked on the story for a while and brought it to a critique group where nobody got it (and then I continued trying to revise it to no avail).


But it’s okay that this idea didn’t work! Lots of picture book ideas don’t work. That’s why Tara Lazar, one of my favorite picture book authors, came up with Storystorm - a month long challenge during which writers come up with one idea per day each January. Because it might take 30+ ideas to come up with the one that really hits.

Even the greatest writers have ideas that just don’t work. Author Kate Messner wrote about how she comes up with picture book ideas. Messner says “Hey! That could be a picture book!” nearly once a day about something, but over the course of a year she probably delivers only a handful of manuscripts to her agent. Her experience stops her from working on a bad idea for too long before she wastes much time on it.

Then sometimes, an idea will work. One autumn morning when my children were deciding what to eat for breakfast, they began arguing. “Pancakes!” “No, French Toast!” “No, Pancakes!” “No, French Toast!” Two hours later I had an awful first draft and my children were still hungry. Two autumns later I had an offer on that manuscript. And two autumns after that, Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was published by Sterling Children’s. (Remind me never to complain about bickering children again)


So don’t give up when an idea doesn’t fully materialize into the potential you once thought it had. Just grab your notebook and find another one. Draft it, revise it, and bring it to your critique group. And for the love syrup - always keep learning!

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