Various editors, agents, and writers have shared their thoughts on trends in their blogs, articles, and internet sites, and these thoughts can be very useful to picture book writers. There are quite a few sites out there that have relevance to this topic, and I’ll give links to those sites and commentary as appropriate when I find things that may interest you. Always keep in mind that some of the commentary on trends you find on the internet is now out of date, while others articles are undated and may not be applicable to the industry at the current time.
What I thought I would do here and now is to bring together various comments and information on current trends for your information. I’m focusing on picture books here, but if you are writing other types of children’s books (or adult fiction), there are other sites out there with relevant information. Take a look, for example, at Agent Kristin’s blog, Pub Rants, “The Latest Trends in Query Letters and Sample Pages,” which has some intriguing insights into some overdone topics.
I’ll be writing a post in the future about whether you should write to meet trends, try to predict trends when you write, or simply write what you love and hope that it gets picked up. But somewhere during the writing process, you really need to take note of whether or not the story you are writing is acceptable to the industry and thus is likely to get published. Unless you’re an absolute genius writer with publishers and agents queuing at your door – definitely not me! – there’s simply no point in, say, sending a story about talking animals to an agent who refuses to accept them and makes this clear on their website.
Common themes in July 2010
So, what is the industry wanting in July 2010? The common themes seem to be these (although often it depends on the personal preference of an agent or editor):
- Comedy and humor sells books. Silly, wacky and/or edgy stories seem to be what most editors (and agents) are after these days (but take note of Editorial Anonymous’s comments on avoiding the frivolous);
- Talking animals have been done to death (but note that these types of picture books are still being published). Some suggest that you can still do this in a picture book as long as the animal acts like an animal – ie, stay clear of animals acting like humans. Others suggest that the difference lies in how well-realized the animal character is: Novice writers often don't realize that fuzzy and cute is not an excuse for flat and clichéd. For readers (and editors) to empathize with animal characters, they must be as fully-realized as human ones, incorporating quirks, foibles, and genuine motivations. (Eugie Foster, “Ten Myths About Writing For Kids”, undated);
- Don’t write about objects coming to life or inanimate objects (check out Editorial Anonymous for some great (pointed) comments about this issue);
- Rhyming text should not be attempted unless you’re already published or are really, really good at it;
- Consider realistic topics rather than “happily ever after”. Children these days are being exposed to more issues and problems in today’s society than ever before, and they need to be given the opportunity to understand these issues through the books they are reading.
- Non-fiction combined with fiction may be marketable. Editors have expressed a need for more creative nonfiction for all ages. Board books and young picture books favor subjects from children’s everyday life (pets, backyard nature, how their bodies work). For all ages, instead of covering a broad subject, focus on an interesting or unexplored aspect of the topic. (Laura Backes, "A Look at Current Children's Book Trends", undated);
- Stories should be told from a child’s point of view. Picture books with an adult as the main character are very rare. Children want to be able to relate to the main character.
- Parents shouldn't step in to save the day. Let the main character (the child) come to their own resolution of the problem; and
- Don’t write the sort of picture book you read when you were a child. Times have changed, and children these days don’t look for the same things we did. Marie Garcarz, “Trends in the Children’s Marketplace”, undated, says it well: Writing for children in the 21st century is wide open. The writer is not limited to talking ducks or Jane and Dick watching Spot run. In fact, using those formats are probably ways to assure that you will not get published. This generation is exposed to much more than we were. While we may have been reading The Diary of Anne Frank in tenth grade, they are now reading it in seventh! Classics, such as Little Women, intrigue the third grader instead of a sixth grader. Times, they are a-changin’. And publishing houses want to be ahead of the times.
For my next post, I’m intending to publish a list of the specific requirements of some literary agents, and what they are after in manuscripts at this point in time.
Changes in trends
I should note that trends are changing all the time, and what is selling today may not interest agents and editors tomorrow. In this respect, it is often suggested that you visit your local bookstore and research what is currently on the shelves. The idea is that this will guide you on what is selling in the industry and what publishers will be interested in.
The difficulty here is the lag time between when you write a picture book and when it is actually published (or even taken up by an agent or editor). If you try to write a story that fits with the type of books now on the shelves, by the time an editor looks at your manuscript (and considers the story for sale in, say, a further year or more), you may now be off-trend. Again, keep an eye out for my coming post about predicting trends.
Other useful tips on writing children's books
Some other useful tips on writing picture books (and children’s books generally):
- Follow the rules for the genre you’re writing. Every so often, someone comes along who can break those rules, but most of us won’t be given that opportunity. In particular, keep picture book text under 1,000 words. Under 500 words is preferable;
- Putting a fresh spin on a topic may make it more marketable;
- Main characters should be a few years older than your target audience;
- Write about conflict and problems rather than incidents. The main character has to have something happen to him or her, and be able to resolve the conflict during the course of the story;
- Don’t moralize unless you do it indirectly. Children want to be entertained, not preached to; and
- Characters must be believable.
Some websites I have referred to in writing this post, which you may find interesting, are:
- Marie Garcarz, “Trends in the Children’s Marketplace”, undated;
- Eugie Foster, “Ten Myths About Writing For Kids”, undated;
- Laura Backes, “A Look at Current Children's Book Trends”, undated;
- Harold Underdown’s The Purple Crayon, “Resources: Trends in Children's Book Publishing”;
- Mem Fox, “So You Want To Write a Picture Book,” undated;
- Marisa Montes, “Notes on Writing a Picture Book”, 2003; and
- Susie Yakowicz, Marketable Topics for Children's Writers: Ideas for Writing That Win Over Editors of Kids Magazines.
While some of these sites are undated (or older), the comments do still seem to apply in today’s picture book industry.
Mandatory requirements or guidelines only???
One last thought to consider. It’s all very well to have regard to other people’s views when writing your picture books. But unless you are submitting to agents or editors with specific submission requirements (which should of course be followed to the letter), those views should be treated as guidelines only. Generally speaking, there seem to be no fixed rules in the industry (or if there are, they seem to change from week to week).
To put it another way, all rules are made to be broken. Above all, stay true to yourself and your own writing.
Keep writing (and enjoying what you write)!