How to Become a Picture Book Writer

By Candy Gourlay

Today I became the author of my first picture book.

Image by Francesca Chessa from Is it a Mermaid?

This is a journey that began when I was still embedded in the high energy world of small children (their high energy, not mine). I was skilled in the art of The Deal (‘I raise you five more minutes of TV for brocolli AND carrots’). I had eyes in the back of my head. I was the Mistress of Distraction (‘Don’t cry, sweetie ... oops, look! There’s a rabbit in my bag!’). I was unfazed by wee, poo and vomit. And, at bedtime, I transformed into, not just a reader, but a performer of picture books (which did not have a soporific effect on the audience, but I didn’t care).

Whatever Next, Peace at Last and Five Minutes Peace by Jill Murphy were firm favourites, as were Avocado Baby by John Burningham, The Cat in the Hat by Doctor Seuss, Gorilla by Anthony Browne, and the Mog books by Judith Kerr. In those days, some picture books had more complex narrative styles than what we see in the UK today – one son’s favourite was the story of a boy who is embarrassed that the trainers his mum buys for him lacks the right logo.

This Jill Murphy trio were definitely family favourites.

It is easy for an adult to open a picture book, notice the simplicity and brevity of words, and declare, ‘I can do better than that!’ Which is exactly what I rashly did, as my children and I worked our way through our growing library of best-beloved books.

I thought: I’m a journalist. I can write. I also used to be a cartoonist. I can draw.

Suddenly it was obvious to me that I was meant to write picture books. Fame and fortune were waiting just beyond the diaper pail.

I did my homework. Attended a few talks. Read up about picture books. Learned that you had to design it for 32 pages. Learned about making dummies (read this and this and this). Learned about page turns. Then made my first attempt.

The Baby Who Could Read was based on my baby daughter who used to sit up in bed reading aloud to herself. Except she couldn’t talk yet. My story riffed on a hyper intelligent baby trapped in her own baby talk. Money and glory, here I come!

Well. Publishers far and wide rejected my pithily composed query letter (following all the advice I had gathered on how to ‘hook’ a commissioning editor).

These being my very, very first rejections from the publishing world, the reason for this unexpected turn of events was clear: the world was not ready for my genius.

So I wrote another picture book.

And another. And another. And another.

But nobody wanted my stories. I soon gave up trying to draw them and focused on the words. To no avail.

As I failed, I continued to read about the picture book business. Apparently, all kinds of barriers lay in the way to publication. It could be that my humour was too foreign. It could be that my stories were too long. It could be that I was writing for an audience much older than the publishers wanted to market to. It could be that the publishers considered my stories unsellable to the rest of the world.

After a few years of trying, I put picture books aside and began writing novels for children. It was another long, hard road of rejection. All the knock-backs made me wiser to my own reasons for writing. I learned that writing was about story, not about getting published. I learned that it was me and not the world that was unready. I learned that for a story to live I had to live inside it. And I learned to keep at the job ... I learned how to finish a story.

It took a while, but I did get published. I did become an author ... but not of picture books. And despite the successes of my novels Tall Story and Shine, I continued to write my little picture book stories, yearning for the day that my unfulfilled dream could come true.

The Little Golden Book edition of Little Red Riding Hood, a discard from an American military family. Possibly my first experience of a picture book.

My own childhood in the Philippines of the sixties and seventies did not feature as many picture books as consumed so voraciously by my children. My siblings and I did have some Ladybird Books and those Readers Digest and Colliers Junior compilations that were offered as discounted side deals by the door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen who my parents invited into our living room. We also had a Little Golden Book edition of Little Red Riding Hood that Mom bought at a PX Goods stall (PX Goods were second-hand American goods – chocolate, toys, what have you – sold outside American military bases in the Philippines).

Mom and Dad with my siblings come lately whose surprise arrival introduced me to nappy-changing ... and picture books.

In the mid seventies, when my parents surprised their teen children with two latecomer siblings, I discovered a profound delight in small children. Suddenly, my baby brothers became the centre of my universe and I found myself eagerly reading aloud to them from Doctor Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, and Noddy – all now available in local bookstores.

As the years have passed, my baby brothers and then my own children passed the age of picture book readerhood. But I didn’t. For me, the picture book continued to hold out that promise of enchantment. Despite my advancing age, I continue to pore over the picture book departments of bookshops, looking for that next hit of delight.

I wrote Is it a Mermaid? at a picture book retreat run by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It was fascinating, having written the story – about a dugong (Asian sea cow) who is convinced she is a mermaid – to realise that I was exploring the same themes of identity and culture clash that run through my novels.

I think I may have known, when I finished writing it, that Is it a Mermaid? had a chance ... that it was going to be a contender. But having been down the path of rejection before, I hesitated for many long weeks, months, before I sent it to my agent, Hilary Delamere, to represent to publishers. We submitted to Janetta Otter-Barry, who had just left Frances Lincoln to run her own independent publishing company, Otter Barry Books.

It was a yes from Janetta, but a contract was not forthcoming until she had identified the perfect illustrator for my book. Long months passed before Janetta introduced me to Francesca Chessa, a veteran illustrator based in Italy well known in the UK for illustrating Elliot’s Arctic Surprise, written by Catherine Barr. More months crawled by as Francesca worked on the illustrations. For me, the book’s word-maker, it was an anxious time – would my vision, Francesca’s vision and Janetta’s vision gel into a coherent whole?

Gel they did. And today, I am proud to hold my debut picture book up to the world and say, ‘I did it! I’ve written a picture book at last!’ But of course it turns out that a picture book is not just about me. Picture books are a fusion of imaginations – the writer’s, the illustrator’s and the editor’s.
Perhaps being published as a novelist opened the door to me being published as a picture book author. Perhaps I needed that time writing in longer forms to learn about story structure. Perhaps the time I had spent learning about the kind of writer I am, about who I am as a writer, led me to the picture book story that would get me published.

I suppose the title of this essay is a bit misleading. Aspiring picture book writers looking for hardcore tips and lists of to-do’s may be disappointed (though there are plenty of tips if you look hard enough).

But please cut me some slack ... today is, after all, my first day as a picture book author.
This is the dream come true. And do you know what? It feels great.

Is it a Mermaid is out in the UK from today and will publish in the United States in May 2018.

This article was first published on my Facebook page.

Like what you see? Click here to subscribe to email updates