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What is fantasy to a 5-year-old? Almost everything. At the picture book level, fantasy must necessarily be based on the child’s experience. The most common type of fantasy for this age is, of course, the fairy or folk tale. This genre limits the writer to a storyteller’s format, from 32 to 48 pages, with a set collection of characters.
The children’s book illustrator in the 1970s was able to recreate well-known fairy tales through original artwork, but once that ran its course, storytellers started telling something called "fractured fairy tales." Because fairy and folk tales are so much a part of children’s literature, it is difficult to create a new way of telling them. One way is to recognize people of diverse ethnic origins – for example, African, Asian, Native American – through culturally reflective folk tales.
Verna Aardema wrote Why Mosquitoes Buzz In People’s Ears, and Leo and Diane Dillon were awarded the 1976 Caldecott Medal for the book's illustrations. Arlene Mosel was awarded the Caldecott in 1973 for The Funny Little Woman, a folk tale from Japan, and Miska Miles featured the Navajo people in Annie And The Old One. One area of the world, however, was not addressed until the 1990s – South America. Also, too few Latin American folk tales have been published for children in picture book format, which opens this field for writers. Juan Bobo Goes To Work: A Puerto Rican Folk Tale, by Marisa Montes is a Latin American folk tale in picture-book format. It’s the equivalent of the Foolish Jack tales in America’s Appalachian region.
Fantasy in an area other than fairy or folk tale must be based on the child’s experience. Robin Pulver’s Punctuation Takes A Vacation might be considered the picture-book version of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, where the focus is on language.
Crowell, now part of HarperCollins, initiated a series of Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out books, such as Where Does The Garbage Go?, that made facts a lot of fun. Aliki Brandenburg’s Digging Up Dinosaurs introduced a popular subject to children, and Vicki Cobb’s Science Experiments You Can Eat gave children a chance to create their own recipes and learn at the same time. Informational books that capture a child’s imagination will always be popular, and writers who prefer facts to fiction might want to look into this field and research what hasn’t been done yet.
When planning an informational picture book, it is acceptable to send a complete manuscript, but it is important to offer information at the child’s level of experience. One example is Changes, by Marjorie N. Allen and Shelley Rotner, a photographic poetic essay on changes in nature, with photos familiar to young children – for example, an emerging butterfly – and simple text.
As is the case with all picture-book manuscripts, age and experience determine content. For children in the 5 to 8-year range, scientific knowledge is just beginning. Finding a subject that can be transformed into science fiction is therefore difficult. The concept of time travel gives Time Train, by Paul Fleischman its science fiction label. This is an example of what makes a book suitable for early elementary but not for preschoolers. Children study history and geography in school and can therefore appreciate this book that takes science a step beyond reality.
Fiction in a picture-book format with a contemporary setting calls for strong characterization. Real people in real-life settings are the basis of successful children’s picture books in this genre. Ellen Raskin gives us Iris Fogel in Spectacles who lives in a fantasy world of Indians, horses, kangaroos, and caterpillars until she gets a pair of glasses and suddenly recognizes people she knows. Realistic fiction is all about "what if," and without it and the conflict it brings about, the story would be a yawner.
The basis of a story might be real, but in order to make it fiction, it is necessary to add details that colour reality. How does the child in the story see the action? Viewpoint at the child's age level is imperative. In addition, the setting must be what a child can experience day by day.
The overview of the early elementary picture book market offered here indicates the challenge – with so many classic picture books in this field – to write an innovative picture book using a new approach. Two popular authors who have done this are Lane Smith and David Wiesner with their most recent titles, respectively, John, Paul, George and Ben (2006) and Flotsam (2006). Books no longer go out of print. They are available on the Internet, new or used, which makes it even more difficult to market a picture book unless it is truly original.
Final word: Dare to be different.
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