Picture Book Art Notes Decoded

Picturecreative commons

We all want to be the conductor of our manuscripts. We want them to reflect our creativity, our voice, our idea.

However, picture books are not solo pieces. Text plays with illustrations. Illustrations play with text. So, what happens when, as writers, we feel we need to offer something that is not text but sets the stage, provides an orientation, and/or shares our vision? 

We learn writers have an option to do this through short notes included in the manuscript. Called ‘art notes’ or ‘illustrator notes,’ they are meant for initial readers (critiquers, agents and/or editors) but won’t stay in the manuscript after it is illustrated.

HOWEVER, after we’ve begun to receive critiques and listen to agents and editors speak about what they want to see in manuscripts, we quickly realize these readers’ opinions about art notes can be as unique as they are. Some, like vice president and publisher Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books (imprint of Simon & Schuster), clearly feel it is “not the writers’ job to control what happens with illustrations.” Read author Barb Rosenstock‘s interview with Ms. Johnston at Picture Book Builders blog. Bottom line: art notes could be a kiss of death for a manuscript submitted to Ms. Johnston. The text must stand alone.

Similarly, ​Sarah Rockett, editor at Sleeping Bear Press says in this interview with Only Picture Books blog, “In general, I strongly advise against them. A submitting author’s goal is to have the acquiring editor feel personally and passionately about their story. It’s hard to feel an attachment to a story if every other line the author is telling you what you’re seeing. The beauty of publishing a picture book is that everyone involved brings something to the project (author, editor, illustrator, and designer) that makes it stronger. Let editors have that moment to really be engaged in the story.” 

However, Brett Duquette, senior editor at Little Bee Books, has a slightly different viewpoint. (Sterling publishes about 40 books a year and most are picture books.) Mr. Duquette encourages writers to submit manuscripts showing page turns and art notes where they are deemed crucial. He wants writers to show their vision of the story, but also trust the editor to “get it.” Bottom line: judicious imperative-only art notes are acceptable and page turn indications are encouraged. 

And, although she admits she might be unique in this viewpoint, Carol Hinz, editorial director of Lerner imprints Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books, likes pagination in her manuscripts. Read her recent blog post to learn why.

Going one step deeper with art notes, what do we do when our text: 
* doesn’t reflect the full story we’ve envisioned?
* is in cognitive dissonance with illustrations?
* is limited or non-existent?

Remember that submitting a cover note including a well-crafted logline/blurb can provide enough information to replace art notes. While we don’t have access to authors’ cover notes, we can research blurbs as mentor texts… 

If your text doesn’t reflect the full story? Try this blurb for SNAPPSY DID NOT INTEND TO BE IN THIS BOOK (Falakato/Miller published by Viking Children’s). This is a book-length sparring match between exasperated alligator Snappsy and an offstage storyteller-foil who criticizes Snappsy and ignores his pleas to scram.

Text is in cognitive dissonance with illustrations? Try this blurb for QUIT CALLING ME A MONSTER! (Jory/Shea Random House BFYR) A pear-shaped, purple-fur-covered creature speaks directly to listeners. “I’m no monster!” This not-a-monster’s appearance and behavior belie his message.

Limited or non-existent text? How about this blurb for FISH (Liam Francis published by Roaring Brook/Porter) In this nearly wordless book, a boy and his dog go fishing and pull in not a fish but a large letter F. I soon follows, then S. The boy, after reeling in a disappointing letter Q, is then pulled underwater for a mini-adventure. 

Michigan author Shutta Crum says this about art notes for her adorable nearly wordless book, MINE (illustrated by Patrice Barton published by Alfred A. Knopf) in the SCBWI Bulletin: 

Picture— Shutta Crum, SCBWI Bulletin March April 2013

​If you are an SCBWI member, you can log in and read the full article here.   

After reading this post and others on the topic, IF art notes are still imperative for understanding an aspect of the text and IF your intended reader is amenable, this seems to be an accepted format: [brief art note]. Art Notes 101 includes: don’t make a note for specific characteristics (colors for clothing, hair, etc.), don’t demand (use terms like “consider” “possible” or use a question mark after a suggestion), learn a few illustrative terms like “vignettes” or “spot art” to describe your idea if necessary.

In the end, let’s recognize that readers are people with subjective tastes and opinions. This applies to art notes, too. Learning those tastes and opinions helps us submit material that honors the reader. Keep going to conferences, listening to webinars, reading interviews, etc., and know what the agent or editor prefers before submitting. 

Understanding our readers — and letting go of our grip on the baton — can make the difference between a pass or an accepted submission. 

How do you use art notes? Or not? Opinions? Experience? Share it out! 

What’s Your Target for 2017?

Do you want to make 2017 the year you:

  • secure your first book contract? or your 21st?
  • find your ideal agent?
  • land a spot in a critique group that will push you to create your best work yet?
  • explore a new genre or POV?
  • attend your first big conference? or an event that has seemed out of reach until now?
  • ink your first school visit? or finalize a full tour?
  • make room — or more room — for writing in your life?

​The real question is…

What’s your target?

We must know our target before we can hit it. So, let’s start by being clear about what the target is. (See above list and add your own!)

Then, let’s visualize that target as a smallish red circle in the middle of the board. Maybe when we start throwing the dart, we will skewer the wall (yes, it, um, happens), but we will keep aiming and throwing. Soon, we will hit an outside ring, then an inside ring, then after lots of aims and throws, BOOM! we will hit the bullseye!

And it will be sweet. 

To help you stay creative and motivated, here are several writing challenges starting in January.

Jan. 1-31 STORYSTORM with Tara Lazar. Formerly known as PiBoIdMo — create one new story idea each day of the month. Read daily inspiring posts by authors, join a private FB group, and win prizes like books, swag, and agent critiques!  Sign up is open now.

Mar. 1- 31 CHAPTER BOOK CHALLENGE (ChaBooCha) with Becky Fyfe — write the first draft of your early reader, chapter book, MG, or YA novel in a month. Read daily inspiring posts by authors and win prizes. 

Mar. 1-31 READING FOR RESEARCH MONTH (REFOREMO) with Carrie Charley Brown — read and research mentor picture books. Read daily posts about mentor texts, join a private FB group, win prizes. Sign up begins Feb. 15.

May 1 -7 NATIONAL PICTURE BOOK WRITING WEEK (NAPIBOWRIWEE) with Paula Yoo — write 7 picture book manuscript drafts in one week. Get inspired by authors and win prizes.

2017 PICTURE BOOK READING CHALLENGE – challenge yourself to read over 50 books and keep track with a handy list or a pre-made Bingo board. 

My target for 2017 is at least one contract in fiction and one in nonfiction. To maintain my inspiration and prime the creativity pump, I’ll jump into Storystorm and REFOREMO and will track my reads on the Bingo board! 

What’s your target for 2017? 

Where’s Abe Going with that Axe?


meme credit: Tim Fargo @alphabetsuccess

I recently found Tim Fargo on Twitter and appreciate that almost all the quotes he shares resonate with me. This one by Abe spoke to an issue that is rumbling around in the picture book creating community right now: how to move your manuscript from “it’s good” to “I’m taking this to acquisition.
​Even though (or maybe because) we are living in what some industry experts call a golden age of picture books, competition for space on publishers’ lists is fierce. We’ve seen a rise in sales, a corresponding rise in publisher interest, and deeper conversations about picture books as an important form of literature. All of these factors have contributed to more submissions in the pipeline. 
​So how do we make our manuscripts stand out? 

Moving a manuscript from good to sold takes a lot of axe sharpening.

First, we have to start with an effective manuscript (carefully considered, fresh in concept, revised with a critique group as far as you think is possible).

Then, the real work begins.

Sharpen: if you don’t have an agent or even if you do, consider paying for a critique from an industry expert who sells or publishes what you write. Find one through your SCBWI chapter, Kidlit College, Writer’s Digest, Twitter kidlit contests, Kidlit411, Rate Your Story, Children’s Book Insider/Write For Kids, etc. They are out there. 

Sharpen further: try the suggested revision even if you don’t think it will work and/or improve the manuscript. Copy the manuscript into a new file called, “It will never work” and just try it. Do NOT dig in your heels at this stage thinking you’ve already done enough work on this manuscript. The revision that moves the work to acquisition might be next! Transparency alert: this stage is my cryptonite. I certainly recognize the value and I do it, but I start out looking like Grumpy Cat’s identical twin. 

Sharpen even futher: read the manuscript to a new crop of target audience members. I’m not talking about your writer friends, your family, or your trusted beta readers. (What?! You aren’t reading the manuscript to your target audience? Gong!) Notice where their sweet little eyes wander (ooops, need a revision there!) and where their happy little faces engage (huzzah!) 

Sharpen even furtherest: compare your latest version to the published book(s) closest in feel, theme, style, etc. to what you want your published book to be. (What?!? You haven’t looked for comp titles? Gong!) Really dissect that comp title. Type it out in pages, study it, tape yourself reading it aloud and listen to it. Where do you engage? Lose interest? Revise accordingly. 

Is your axe as sharp as it can possibly be? 

If so, your manuscript might be ready to submit. I wish you the best of success. Let me know when you get to acquisition. 

Feel free to share other sharpening techniques, too.

Want Some Frelpful (Fresh + Helpful, Duh!) Curated Content with that Coffee? #2


1. New book launching in 2017? Are you thinking about a book trailer? Do you worry that you don’t have the knowledge or expertise to do a great job? Check out this post by Therese Walsh, editor of Writer Unboxed (a stellar blog to follow, BTW)  http://writerunboxed.com/2016/12/06/how-to-use-fiverr-to-create-a-book-trailer/
She shares about Fiverr, an amazing resource for all kinds of creative talent that you can contract inexpensively to do what you need done (critiques, logos, book trailers, etc.). Put Fiverr in your quivver of How To Get Stuff Done Without Doing It All Yourself. 
2. Manuscript Wish List: if you are a cool kid, you already know about #MSWL and derivitives of it like #MSWL MG and #MSWL PB, but do you know about the Manuscript Wishlist website? What a treasure trove for querying and subbing. Book contracts are all about making the right match at the right time so check this site often.

Want Some Coffee with that Curated Content #3: Finding Your Agent

I chose this image because this post is really about what comes BEFORE a steamy cup o’ coffee. This curated content is related to the work we need to accomplish BEFORE submitting to agents. 

Start with this fresh post Do I Need an Agent…by Giuseppe Castellano [from his website: Giuseppe Castellano is an award-winning Designer, Illustrator, and Executive Art Director at Penguin Random House; with over seventeen years of book publishing experience]. Even though the post leans slightly toward illustrators, it is a very thorough look at the agent search experience.

Then, investigate In The Inbox which offers online query advice from a smart literary intern. Although she hasn’t posted since August (presumably because she is overwhelmed with queries!), there is a wealth of information here including a chart to ensure a query is ready to be sent: https://intheinbox.wordpress.com/

Another valuable resource is Literary Rambles that provides interviews and information on many children’s literature agents. 
Hope you find these beans helpful!

Want Some Curated Content with that Coffee? #1

Content Curation is the act of discovering, gathering, and presenting digital content that surrounds specific subject matter.                                                                                                  – econtent.com

​Okay. Since this is #givingTuesday, how ’bout I give you some fresh, interesting children’s book industry info? And how ’bout I do this each week? ​Let’s try it!

1. Ripple Grove Press Founder and President, Rob Broder, offers some thoughts about what he’s found, and not found, in his inbox since their origin in 2013.  (P.S. it appears rhyming is NOT a sweet spot). This is interesting info about RGP, but also a cautionary tale for subbing in general. UPDATE: Mr. Broder reached out to assure me that RGP does not NOT like rhyming. Good rhyming works just fine.   

2. Chuck Sambuchino at Writers Digest has nicely curated (see what I did there?) agents looking for manuscripts about diverse topics or by diverse voices via Twitter. Thank you, Chuck! 

3. Dan Blank, an industry expert, posts on Writer Unboxed about what editors and agents really want. The headings alone are worth emblazoning on a sticky note. 

Hope there’s something here that resonates! If so, let me know. 

Revision Tip: Wanna Get Fresh? Try Forward Momentum

Editors do not want same old, same old. Believe me; I’ve heard that message loudly and clearly at every conference and retreat. To catch an editor (or agent) eye, we must stretch into new territory which means trying different approaches, twists, mash-ups, and/or upends. It’s the only way to produce work that has that “fresh” quality.

Look at your current WIP with only this thought in mind and create at least three new approaches for your ms. BTW, just changing POV doesn’t count for this exercise!

Even if the approach doesn’t sing, you’ll never regret trying because you will learn something in the process. I pinky promise. 

S   T   R   E   T   C   H! 

Need a New Time Management Tool? Go Low Tech. Really!


Today, I’m offering you a time management tool that a cave dwelling, amygdala-focused person could have created. First, let me be clear, I have no judgement against dwelling in caves or being amygdala-focused. In fact, many days that sounds like the perfect way to live.

​However, my world, like yours, is full of Must Do’s, Should Do’s, Want to Do’s, and Should Have Done’s. About a month ago, I had to get real with myself and realize my time management tool/s weren’t working. Being a bit of a techjunkie, I’ve used multiple high functioning tools such as colored-coded Excel spreadsheets, I, J, and Kcalendars, and I even resorted to adrenaline-producing phone alarms.

Still, I puttered when I should have been plotting, I worked around projects when I needed to dive in and accomplish. And, finally, the Get Real Moment came when I crashed into a deadline full speed and narrowly met it. That’s not me. 

Remember that old adage that probably Oprah said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten”  or something like that? Well, I decided to shake things up and go old school. And it’s working so well, I want to share. Ready to have your socks knocked?

Ta Da! Feel free to download and print out your very own Carrie’s Work Grid. (That’s my fancy name for it). Now here’s the tricky part…be careful to follow directions here…write a header in each box. I know, right? Choose a bigger box for categories that require more to do’s.

Mine are: NI (my freelance job), SCBWI, Books, YAC (a volunteer position I hold), Home, and Apt. (What’s an apt, you ask? I own and manage a mixed use building so am busy getting an apartment or an “apt” rented right now.) Now, add bullet points for things that need doing. Add your own notes and hieroglyphics, and then Cross Items Off When Done!  (ahhh, doesn’t that feel good?!)

 Low tech, high reward. ​You’re welcome.

“Good?” “Bad?” No…”Better.”

It is my observation that we get stuck in revision when we limit our thinking to good or bad. Those adjectives are judgmental, flat, and as oppositional as a tired two year old.

Why not try shades of BETTER?

Start where you  are and strive to make the work BETTER using whatever criteria needs applying (e.g., better for my audience readability, better for the current market need, better for rhythm/cadence/lyricism, etc.). Of course, this means we must first identify the end goal, but that’s very doable.

I challenge you to ditch the limitations of “good” or “bad” as they apply to your work.

Good? Bad? Blech. Better is…BETTER.​ 

Want to Sell Your WIP? Study Publisher Catalogs. 


As part of a continuing effort to match my WsIP with publishers’ interests, I scour new online catalogs for publishers that seem like a fit. Usually catalogs release in the fall and spring, so I’m actively looking at them now.

​This catalog by Sterling Publishing is particularly informative because they provide info on the author, illustrator, and the hook of each book. When you read this section, you can almost hear the editors at acquisition discussing the marketing potential and sale-ability of the manuscript. Here is an example: 

Notice in the author’s and illustrator’s bios that Sterling is not only listing achievements but is showing booksellers why these creators are a good bet. The creative team’s individual and collective platforms — which is an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach (Jane Friedman) — are spelled out convincingly.  These qualities are what made this author and illustrator attractive to Sterling and gave them evidence that these creators will contribute to sales. Of course, many of us won’t have such a large list of accomplishments or as deep a platform. But even a tiny bit of backstory as to why this author chose this topic is interesting and gives reason to believe the book will hit the mark. (This tiny bit of backstory might have been written into a cover letter or query as well…) 
** What is your platform? Can you write it out using Linda Ashman’s model? **

The Key Selling Points may be the most important piece for study.  Sterling is delivering on a digital platter the many ways this book and this author will appeal to buyers. They are giving bookstores reasons to say yes to buying this book for their shelves and talking points they can use to handsell the book to customers. 

As writers, we can study the Key Selling Points and extrapolate to our own WIP. Picture editors and the marketing team debating the merits of your manuscript at acquisition. Does it have the potential for a large audience (notice how Sterling gives numbers of soccer players to illustrate the potential? — again, good material for a cover or query letter)? Does it have opportunities for diversity in illustration or in storyline? Not every book must, but it is an important aspect of our book culture and most publishers are invested in creating more diversity in children’s books. Does it offer a new take on a universal theme (in this case, the importance of teamwork and persistence)? 

To land the deal, we want these hooks — and/or others that correspond to your topic and theme — to be sharp.  
** What are the Key Selling Points for your WIP? Try listing them. If you can’t, maybe the project needs a slightly better focus. **

Continuing the Hey, Coach! page tour, take a look at the marketing and publicity section:
■ National print and online publicity campaign
■ Blog tour
■ Goodreads giveaway
■ Local events in author’s hometown of Chapel Hill, NC
Which of these items above do you think the author will have a hand in? If you said, “All” you are correct. There will be support from Sterling, but the author (and illustrator) will be on the front line and behind the scenes making this campaign successful.

Just for comparison, here is the marketing and publicity campaign section for Tammi Sauer and Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s fall release with Sterling called Mary Had a Little Glam. Both creators have a deep platform and Sterling is going big on this one: 
■ Author appearance at ALA
■ National print and online publicity campaign
■ Included in Sterling’s Children’s White Box mailing (an American Booksellers Association program to mail promotional material to independent bookstores)
■Review copy mailing to organizations and websites supporting diversity in children’s books
■ National book tour
■ Trade advertising campaign
■ Digital focus on children’s book review and mommy blogs
■ Author to promote on her social media platforms and website
Again, lots of support from the publisher, but also lots of time investment by the creative duo as well. 

Call me a catalog geek, but there is so much to learn from these pages. Grab your mug, your mouse, and see what you find. I’d love to hear your observations.