Dear everyone: stop pitching me your picture book ideas.
The first and frankly best reason for this is that I don’t write picture books! I had to try my hand at it for a workshop in my Master’s program, and while the experiment was kind of fun, the end result was very bad. I don’t have any ideas for picture books, and I have no desire to offer my feedback on anyone else’s.
Yet, far too often, when a new acquaintance outside of my writing or academic circles hears that I’m a children’s lit person, I’ll get, “Oh, I’ve always had this idea for a kid’s book …” Cut to some long-winded explanation of a picture book idea, a so-what-do-you-think look, and my awkward excuse of, “So I actually write for adolescents …”
I say “excuse” because I generally use that line to get out of saying what I really think, which is that nine times out of ten, these picture book ideas are very, very bad.
The number of people who have full on drafted a picture book without looking up, like, how many pages a picture book needs to be is genuinely astonishing. (Interestingly, usually they dramatically undershoot it, which makes me want to ask: have you ever held a picture book in your own physical hands? Have you ever read one to an actual human child.) (Also, no, just spreading out the words you have over the appropriate number of pages won’t fix things, because then you’re going to have a nightmare of pacing on your hands.) But, honestly, folks who want to describe your picture books to random children’s lit people you don’t know, please first ask yourself this: do you actually like and respect children at all, or do you just think you have something to teach them?
Listen, writers write because they think they have something worth saying. My own ethics and beliefs are all up in my fiction. I’m not saying you can’t have any kind of message in what you write. But if you’re just thinking about ~imparting your wisdom on young readers (and in this case, very young readers) without also considering what they might find genuinely entertaining, please immediately delete your Word document with the incorrect number of pages and leave the picture books to people who don’t see kids as empty vessels waiting to be filled up with morality tales. In fact, anyone who starts sentences with “kids don’t know …” or “kids don’t understand …” should step away from children’s media entirely.
With all of that said, I think pretty much anyone who gives me their boring pitch about, like, sharing or whatever is no longer in any danger of receiving the Worst Idea Award. That trophy has been (hopefully permanently) handed to a recent Unfortunate First Date. I have been on many Unfortunate First Dates (someone save me), but usually they’re unfortunate in just a tedious, no connection sort of way. This one, at least, was unfortunate in a way that entertained me at the UFD’s expense.
(It’s possible that I’m getting meaner now that I’m 30? Eh, hopefully that’ll appeal to someone along the way.)
The conversation went more or less as follows:
UFD: There’s actually a series of picture books that I’ve always wanted to write, but I’m not really much of a writer …
Me: (rictus grin) Oh?
UFD: Yeah, they would be “project management for kids.”
Me: (laughing, because surely this is a weird joke that I don’t yet get) What?
UFD: Like using the skills of project management to make playtime more effective. (NB: “make playtime more effective” is verbatim from this actual human man’s mouth. I couldn’t make that up.)
Me: (still laughing) What?
Me: (realizes that he is, in fact, not joking)
At this point, I made a few decisions very quickly. One: there wasn’t gonna be a second date. Two: there was no way out of the sitcom-level “laughed until I realized you were serious” mess that just happened, so I might as well just lean into the moment and continue laughing. Three: this fellow needed to know this was not a good idea. Not that something like this is in any danger of getting published — at least, I sure hope not — but just, like, on behalf of children everywhere, he needed to know.
Me: What age is your audience for this??
UFD: Like three- and four-year-olds. Before they can read on their own, so their parents would read this to them.
UFD: (warming to his explanation, lord love him) And it would teach them things like how they shouldn’t build sandcastles near the water at low tide, things like that. There would be different examples of how to plan, like … (At this point he launched into explanations that included words like “agile,” “waterfall,” and “scope.”)
Me: (hands on face in incredulous horror) And you would … include this vocabulary … in your book for toddlers?
UFD: Well, yeah, so then they can use those tools to (and I can’t emphasize enough that these were his exact, repeated words) make playtime more effective.
Me: Why does playtime need to be ~~~~effective? (I’m pretty sure my tone conveyed the tildes.) Can’t they just learn things through trial and error?
UFD: Well, with a little planning upfront (VERBATIM), they could have a better time.
Me: Could they?
UFD: Yeah, I actually tried writing one, but it came out kind of boring.
Me: (I swear I’m not a total jerk, but you try not laughing in someone’s face at that)
UFD: It had this whole character arc, where a kid was kidnapped by pirates, but they were all really bad at being pirates, so he teaches them how to be better …
Me: … with project management?
Okay, so I think the whole incompetent pirate angle actually has potential as a funny story (sans agile and scope and whatever), which I did tell him, so I’m not a complete asshole. But THEN:
UFD: Yeah, but I don’t really think kids that age are interested in characterization.
Me: (several seconds of wide-eyed horror that’s edging into delight at this point, because if I’ve gotta have a bad date, at least I get a can-you-believe-this-guy story) Buddy, I’m pretty sure most kids are more interested in CHARACTERS than PROJECT MANAGEMENT.
UFD: (with genuine, honest to god bemusement) Really?
SO YEAH. That all happened. Funnily enough, I am a TA for an intro to childhood studies course right now, and literally one day before this date, the topic of conversation had been about how children receive very early pressure to Prepare For The Workforce, so basically every professional opinion I have hated this idea. But honestly, is there a more egregious example of just having no respect for your audience? Deeply embedded in this idea is the assumption that children are dumb, that they have to be led to solutions, that they can’t solve problems on their own, that learning has to be explicit and forced and direct. Who on earth would want to read a book by an author who thinks that way about you? I sure wouldn’t!
So please. Spread the word to anyone who’s never written a picture book but thinks they should. First off, google some industry standards before declaring you’ve got something publishable. Maybe read a few picture books before diving into your own. But much more importantly, stop thinking about what kids don’t know or understand, and start talking to them and realizing what they do. Ask them what they like and what they care about. Actually listen. Because there is no such thing as good art that doesn’t respect its audience. And if you think that a phrase like “good art” is misplaced or too pretentious in a discussion about books for toddlers … for the love of god, don’t write one.
At the very least, please don’t tell me about it.