Rx for Writers


"Writing for the Picture Book Age" with Joan Chase Bowden

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Mel is Mel Boring, moderator of this chat with Joan Chase Bowden, and editor of the ICL

web site.

Joan is Joan Chase Bowden, author of 60 books for children, all ages, and both fiction and


Pink shows the user names of the people and questions that were asked of Joan.

Mel: I am PLEASED now to introduce Joan Bowden to you because she is a good friend of mine, as well as a top teacher of writing pre-Kindergarten and picture books. If I get a chance tonight, I'd like to ask Joan about her contributions to a series that is a classic, the Trixie Belden Mystery series. Thanks for coming this evening, Joan, and a WARM SUMMERY WELCOME to you from me and the rest of us chatsters!

Joan: Thank you, I feel welcome, welcome, welcome!

Mel: After some technical glitches, which Joan Bowden handled like the champ she is, we're back. Joan, what is considered to be the picture book age?

Joan: The picture book age is considered to be children who might be as young as babies to 9/10 years of age. There is some overlapping with age groupings, however.

kay kay: How do you KNOW if your idea is picture book material?

Joan: It is hoped you have been doing A LOT of reading, either in your bookstores or in your public library. The picture book field is a competitive one, so you'll want to think up fresh and different ideas. Picture books for babies are often published as board books, which means they're printed on stiff cardboard. Zippy and familiar subjects are needed for babies aged 0 to 2 years. To figure out your audience, in fiction editors often consider that the age of the main character is the top age of the reader/listener. This is often because youngers prefer to read about characters a little older than themselves.

Mel: What kinds of things are needed for ages 3 to 6 and 4 to 8, respectively?

Joan: Needed for both children 3 through 6 and 4 through 8 are fun-type stories. Adventure, humor, mystery, entertaining material is usually welcomed in the editorial office. Adults who are buying the books often look for learning concepts, too--alphabet and counting books, for instance. If you are writing the picture book, here are questions to ask: Do you have your young reader firmly in mind? Is your book intended to be read by the child or by an adult to the child?

Mel: How many words is it best to write for these young ages:

Joan: The number of words for the very young might be as few as none (where the illustration carries the story) to 500 to 750 words for, say, the 4 through 8s. The younger the child, the faster the text should fly along. Some editors are still looking for books for beginning readers. These are fun to write. These books may be divided into brief chapters. Simple, though not necessarily controlled, vocabulary is needed. In fiction, real-life stories about real-life children are always welcomed. Again, these stories should fly along in a minimum of words.

Mel: Do editors like to receive folk stories of this and other lands?

Joan: Some editors welcome this kind of material. Others rarely publish them. Animal stories also are still selling in the marketplace. In this category, animals may live in houses and experience the same problems their young readers do. It's true that fantasy stories are sometimes very difficult to place, though I agree they're a lot of fun to write. Many new writers jump to this genre right away, but a fertile imagination is often not enough. Believability of plot and a nonpassive main character are musts.

mbvoelker: Thank you so much for bearing with the glitches! How do you know if a manuscript is a board book, a novelty book, a toddler book, or an early picture book? I have several pre-K pieces that I don't know how to classify for submitting.

Joan: Hello, mbvoelker, Nice talking with you. A board book will sometimes include very few words and will rely heavily on the illustrations. One question to ask is what is the age of the toddler in your toddler book? And what do you mean when you call your work pre-K? Is this for children in nursery school? If so, an editor may feel this will appeal to a too narrow audience. How many words have you written for a pre-K audience?

thdwriter: What is a good market for a legend?

Joan: The secret to finding a good market is to pay a visit to your public library. You will find many fine legends on the shelves. Take a look and see which house published the books and try and send your manuscript there. Houses that may not want legends or folk stories don't change their minds. Pick a house that's already shown interest in this fine genre.

margieh: Regarding board books: can you send just text or do you have to be an illustrator?

Joan: Yes, by all means send just the text. An experienced editor can always imagine what the complete book would look like.

thdwriter: What was your first published book, Joan?

Joan: My first book was all about a silly rabbit who couldn't get home for dinner on time. And no, it wasn't anything to do with Assignment #1 and the rabbit who stole the pies in the ICL course!

Mel: A bunny-pile smile for that! J

mbvoelker: There are 11 pieces that I'm trying to figure out. They are mainly concept stories, ranging in length from 85 to 250 words. In market guides I see those categories-- board books, toddler books, novelty books, and early picture books but I don't know what the industry means by those terms so I don't know how to categorize what I've written.

Joan: Keep in mind the age of your audience. Board books are usually, though not always, published for the very young. The concept might be things found around the house, for instance. Toddler books are also published for children who might be in the 2 or 3 year-old range. I don't know what you mean by the term "novelty book." Do you mean something like PAT THE BUNNY, where a lump of cotton is attached to the book as a rabbit's tail so the child may feel it?

mbvoelker: Yes, that's what I meant--and thanks, Joan!

dianna: Should I include photographs of my main character with the manuscript when submitting a picture book?

Joan: Submitting photographs may be a fine idea if your photographs look professional. On the other hand, many editors prefer to find their own illustrators for a picture book, since it's often the illustrations that sell it.

nettyann: Should you always query first before submitting a manuscript?

Joan: It all depends on the publishing house. Many houses publishing picture books prefer to see the entire manuscript. Tip: Study your market listings to see which house wants what.

boris: Can a query be sent even if they state no unsolicited manuscripts?

Joan: Hello, boris. Everything is worth a try, but no unsolicited manuscripts usually means just that. If you decide to query anyway, make sure your query letter is a strong one. You'll find lots of help in your CHILDREN'S BOOK MARKET, which will give fine tips concerning how to submit.

topcat: Is it okay to send my manuscript to several editors and take the first one who accepts it?

Joan: Hi, topcat: NEVER use multiple submissions if the houses you're applying to ask for exclusive looks at your material.

Thdwriter: What is meant by an advance and royalties for a book?

Joan: Depending on the publishing house, an advance is a sum of money the house will pay you. This money will be deducted from your first royalties. On the other hand, some publishers buy a book outright for money and do not pay royalties at all.

libbyc: What is controlled vocabulary?

Joan: When books for beginning readers (children in 1st through mid-3rd grade) were first published, libby, the vocabulary had to be very simple indeed. If you read Dr. Seuss's CAT IN THE HAT, you'll see what I mean. When I published several books for beginning readers, I went to the local elementary school and asked for a list of words children were learning in class. Many publishers today do not look for controlled vocabulary. They do look for simple and easy-to-read material.

silverdove: I noticed that you use several different pen names. Can we writers do that?

Joan: Dear silverdove, I was young and foolish, but yes, if you wish you can use several different pen names. One of the reasons for the pen names was that I had several books being released at around the same time in the same year.

Mel: Joan, tell us how you came to writing for the Trixie Belden series.

Joan: I had already sold the Trixie editor several picture books. He was looking for another writer for the Trixies and knew I loved mystery stories. This same editor eventually went on to become editors for the Dungeons and Dragons people. I tried to write one of these but didn't have much luck.

nanny: What changes were made in the Trixie Belden books?

Joan: Hello, nanny, very few changes. There are rumbles that these books will be re-published in the near future.

seymour64: Hello, Is my 10-year-old too young to submit his stories?

Joan: Hello, , Many houses don't accept material from children, seymour, but take another look at your CHILDREN'S MAGAZINE MARKET and see the index where some magazines feature works written by children. My own granddaughter is trying her hand at this too. She's 13. I think children should be encouraged in their creative work. Don't let him become discouraged by rejection, though. This can be devastating to a child.

Mel: Joan, the time has sped by tonight, partly due to the technical glitches that delayed us, but also because you've been sharing about a subject that all we children's writers seem to LOVE and try, picture books. The time has also swifted by because you've done a marvelous job of answering all of our questions. I sure would like to have you return someday and continue what you've so talentedly begun here tonight--I hope you will!

Joan: Thank you, I would like to!

Mel: I hope you'll come back two weeks from tonight, June 26. Our guest that evening will be Linda Aksomitis, an absolute expert web wizard, as well as children's writer. You may remember sometime ago that I was so impressed with her website that I sent the URL to you as a gift. There are so many RICH resources for children's writers on Linda's web site that it would take months to explore. <http://www3.sk.sympatico.ca/aksoml/classlinks.html>

And she keeps supplying new resources. Come back in two weeks and chat with Linda Aksomitis about children's writing. I am itching to find out the secrets of her impressive work on the Internet myself. Please come back and talk with Linda two weeks from tonight in this ICL chat room.

Again, Joan Chase Bowden, we are indebted to you for the wealth of know-how you have shared with us tonight, most of whom have yearned for years to publish even one picture book. You've shed bright light here tonight on how to do that just right! And thank you ALL for coming. AND for being so patient with our technical difficulties. I appreciate all of you who sent in solutions for the problem. Next time it happens, we'll be ready!

Joan: Thank you all for your help, and goodnight!

Mel: By the way, there were so MANY questions, and so LITTLE time, so I'm going to ask Joan Bowden if she will answer the rest and, if so, I'll add them to the bottom of this transcript for you. GOOD NIGHT, and THANK YOU ALL!

Here are leftover questions from the evening of June 12, and answers from Joan Bowden:

cup: Can you address the question of learning to write a grade-leveled book?

Joan: If you visit your local elementary school and study the text books, and if you visit your public library (a real treasure trove) and study the books for beginning readers you'll find on the shelves, you'll soon learn what's what. In other words, read, read, read.

mac g: Is it appropriate to send in art work with your story?

Joan: Unless the illustrator can produce professional-looking work, it'soften not a good idea to send artwork with a story. Many editors will team a well-known illustrator with an unknown author--and vice versa, of course.

thdwriter: Do you have an agent or do you represent yourself?

Joan: I do not have an agent; I represent myself.

passion: What age and how many chapters was your first book?

Joan: My first picture book was for children 3 through 6 and was written to about 500 words. My first YA novel contained 21 chapters.

novelist06ans: How old were you when you published your first book?

Joan: I was in my 30s at the time.

seymour64: What markets are good for YA's right now? Thanks :o)

Joan: Study the listings in your CHILDREN'S BOOK MARKET. Turn to the index and study the listings under YA's. Tips: Send out for a catalogue from those markets that catch your eye. Borrow your public librarian's latest copy of Publishers Weekly! Watch for those houses about to change editors--new editors often are looking for new authors.

gramma: Should we submit to magazine publishers BEFORE book publishers?

Joan: It's often a good idea to get as many credits under your belt as possible in preparation for submitting to the highly competitive book field. These credits are often more easily obtained in the magazine field.

mbvoelker: Thank you so much for bearing with the glitches! Is there a word count

difference between an early picture book and a regular picture book? Or is it just a different intended audience?

Joan: Usually, the younger the child, the faster the story should fly along in a minimum of words, possibly 250 to 500 words for children 3 to 6, 500 to 750 words for children 4 through 8. This is not to be taken as a hard and fast rule, of course.

margieh: Would nonfiction for toddlers and preschoolers include just concept books or

other things as well?

Joan: By watching a group of preschoolers and toddlers, you can spot their interests. Concept book are still a good bet for children 2 through 5. Other nonfiction might be acceptable if very simply written.

boris: If a house offers you Work For Hire, when it shouldn't be, should you take it?

Joan: If a house offers you Work for Hire and you're an unknown, why not take it? This will add to your writing experience and to your needed credits, yes?

industriousone: I just graduated from the Institute of Children's Literature. What next?

Joan: Congratulations on having graduated from ICL. This is a real accomplishment. What next? Why not sign up into ICL's book writing course? It's excellent!

featherpen: Why do authors use different pen names?

oceanbreeze: How did you develop your pen names?

Joan: featherpen and oceanbreeze, I developed my various pen names from names I wished my parents had endowed me with at birth but didn't.

pearlygates: Are direct quotes accepted by editors?

Joan: I'm not sure I know what you mean by your question. Perhaps you can explain more to me next time?

clararose: How well do original folktales or parables sell? Is it more difficult when they are


Joan: Some houses publish folktales and legends and parables, both retold and original. They're fun to write, I know. Some houses never publish this type of material, however, so study the shelves in the public library and see who's currently doing what.

anonymous: Do you do the illustrations at all, Joan? If so, what do you draw them on?

Joan: No, I have no talent whatsoever for illustrating my books and always submit my work unadorned. The editors always choose my illustrators for me.


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