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Critiquing a Picture Book

I just read an excellent post by children’s book writer, Laura Sassi: Here’s What I “Tinkle”: Thoughts on Critiquing Stories.

And it got me “tinkling” too.

Now and then I am asked to critique a picture book manuscript. The one I worked on last week was surprisingly good. This aspiring author had done his homework. The story had lovely imagery, remarkably good meter and  flowing rhymes. And it was told with heart and humor.

I was enthralled by the imagery and the mood in the story, but in the end, I didn’t know what the story was about. It was beautiful but not coherent. The writer had used multiple points of view and the plot was unclear. I was baffled.

In my comments I suggested that he stick with one point of view, that he eliminate a couplet or two because they did not move the story forward, that he build the story a bit more and that he clarify it.

I also told him his story was beautiful and that, once polished, was worthy of submitting and that I would put in a good word for him to my agency, should he decide to go that route.

Needless, to say, he was very pleased.

When he returned the manuscript with his revisions, it was not what I had expected. Yes, he eliminated the verses that were superfluous and corrected the few uneven rhymes, but  the story still had multiple points of view and remained confusing.

“But I can just see the pictures in my head,” he told me.

But I couldn’t. And I am usually good at that 🙂 Well, I could see pictures for, as I said, the imagery was beautiful, but the pictures were vague- a scene here, a scene there, but what the heck was really going on?

Words and pictures do work together in children’s books- but a story must still be strong enough to stand on its own. Pictures serve to enhance and clarify parts of the text, but stories still have to make sense. And they are meant to be read aloud and sometimes without seeing the pictures.

He was very discouraged by my last set of comments. Perhaps I’d been too exuberant with my praise early on. Perhaps he was unprepared for the hard work of revising. He said he would take a break from it for a while.

It is never my intent to shatter dreams- and especially not the dreams of someone who has talent and has done the homework. Writing for children is hard- so many constraints: word count, vocabulary, subject matter…Rhyming texts are especially restrictive. With only 27-29 pages in which to tell a story, picture book writers must move the plot forward efficiently and  keep it concise and precise, with, of course, a bit of conflict and drama and a nicely rounded ending. Oh, just that? 🙂

I have every hope that this writer will come back to his story with a fresh eye, bright spirits and dogged determination. And it may be hard to revamp parts to make the story cohesive. I never said it would be easy. But he has the makings of a wonderful story, and I, for one, would love to see it in print.



About the author

Iza Trapani I am a children's book author and illustrator, fan of Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss, lover of big dogs, aspiring yodeler. When not in my studio, I spend time outdoors and have climbed over many a mountain to see what I could see.

10 Responses to Critiquing a Picture Book

  1. Joanna says:

    Great post. We need honest critique to move our stories forward!

  2. Laura S. says:

    Hi Iza, I just love to hear what you are “tinkling”. The marriage between picture book text and illustration is hard to explain sometimes when offering critiques because a lot of finesse is involved. The story, absolutely, needs to be concise, yet engaging and it needs to stand on it’s own, yet provide room for the illustrations to enhance it. Writers who’ve been working in the craft for a while also know that revision is hard work because it often means letting go of parts that you’re partial to, but that just aren’t working. It requires willingness to think outside the perameters of your existing draft. Thanks for continuing the conversation!

    • Iza Trapani says:

      So true, Laura. I remember how attached I would get to my words. The thought of parting with favorite lines was torture. But now, if the lines aren’t working- good by! There’s always another way of saying something, and the same goes for structuring a story. Thanks so much for starting this great conversation!

  3. Pingback: Here’s What I “Tinkle”: Thoughts on Critiquing Stories | Laura Sassi Tales

  4. Cathy Mealey says:

    I think that understanding the ‘diagnostic critique’ that Laura defined is one of the toughest skills necessary for writing good picture books. I am so grateful that I have had the opportunity to work with a very skilled, very patient editor who often poses her feedback in carefully worded questions that make me think and re-consider storylines without feeling defensive. “What if XYZ happened? How would the character change and feel? What part of ABC will appeal most to readers and how can that be expanded?”

    I’m still learning, learning, learning – that uncomfortable stage where you know what you don’t know and wade through the murk trying to find answers. But I identify with your discouraged writer and I know that putting that draft in the drawer for a bit will truly make a world of difference.

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Yes, Cathy, a good editor will do just that- offer suggestions without offending the writer. By the same token, writers, and especially new writers, need to keep open minds and not get so attached to their stories. I recently looked through some of my early, unpublished manuscripts which I thought were really good at the time. Looking at them 20 years later, I see all kinds of problems. Definitely a learning curve. Keep at it, Cathy! My discouraged writer is encouraged again. He was so involved in his story and it made perfect sense to him, but I made a telling comment that made him realize his story was confusing. He has since re-read it and sees what he needs to do!

  5. BBF, I am positive you did not shatter any dreams he may have for a writing career. He will come back to it, I promise. I think we’ve all been where he is. It isn’t a nice place to be. But he will be the stronger for it. You were honest with the praise and with the critique. He’ll thank you for that someday.

    Hugs and squeezes, BBF. I hope spring finds you dancing in the daises. 🙂

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Hugs and squeezes to you too, BBF, but we’ll have to wait a bit for the daisies 🙂 Thanks for the encouraging words. He is back at it already! xoxo

  6. I’m sure you didn’t shatter any dreams, Iza – you’re WAY too nice for that 🙂 But critiquing is hard – to give and to get 🙂 – a very fine line between being honest and the dream-shattering thing. We know that constructive criticism is necessary to help our writing grow, but new writers don’t always feel that way – they focus much more on the “criticism” part than the “constructive” part… which I totally get because however kindly and helpfully it’s intended, criticism is still not “I LOVE this – submit it immediately – you’re the most talented writer I’ve ever met!” 🙂

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