Recent Posts

Saturday, May 2, 2009

National Picture Book Writing Week

Yesterday marked the launch of National Picture Book Writing Week (or NaPiBoWriWee as it is affectionately called). As a lover of picture books, and one of the most ardent advocates for their use in the classroom, I should be on board with this, right?

I'm not.

In fact, at first, I hated the idea. But slowly I'm warming up to it.

Some of my initial thoughts:
  • I thought it denigrates picture books and belittles the process which creates them.
  • I thoughts it works in direct opposition to what I'm trying to do, which is to elevate the status of picture books.
  • I thought that those writers who truly have "stories within them" will find a way to let them out, without a contrived reason to do so.
  • I felt badly for writers who take the process more seriously, in that their submissions may now be lost in a tidal wave of "one day wonders," as thousands, if not tens of thousands, more manuscripts may find their way to publishers because of this project. Imagine you're a picture book author, riding in an elevator at a national conference. The person next to you asks, "What do you do for a living?" After you reply, "I create picture books," this person retorts, "Oh yeah, picture books. I wrote seven of those last week."
See my point of view? Fortunately, I was level-headed enough to reach out to some professional authors for their point of view. Mark Noble, author of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, pointed out that Goodnight Moon was allegedly written in one morning. I guess that counts as an "in-favor-of" vote. A couple other authors I queried weren't ready to commit either way (bawk, bawk!).

But the response from Daniel Kirk, author of Library Mouse, finally convinced me that perhaps I was really off-base with my criticisms (a rare occurrence, as my long time readers will attest). In his response to my tirade, Daniel made some good points:
Never heard of National Picture Book Writing Week. At first glance it seems a
bit contrived, but sometimes it takes contrivances to get people motivated.
Writing, or doing anything creative, requires monumental expenditures of energy,
hope, courage and perseverance. Few have what it takes. It's easy to get
frustrated in the process, and beyond writing, getting published is another
formidable hurdle.

What is successful in the marketplace is often something that panders to the
lowest common denominator, and financial rewards often have little to do with
the intrinsic value of a story. As you know, if you go into a Barnes and Noble
and look at the picture book shelf, it is pretty hard to find a good
book--ordinary people see what's out there and think, "Hey, I could do that!" I
get requests all the time from people who want to get their stories published,
and from my own experience it is VERY hard to get work published, though I've
done over thirty books. For every one that finds a home at a publishing house,
there are at least five or ten manuscripts I write that won't find an interested
So I find that I am motivated more by my own inner need to create than anything else...the striving for perfection, clarity, elegance and to bring
heart to what I conceive intellectually. I encourage kids to write, but not
necessarily with the goal of getting published. It's more about learning how to
think, plan, empathize, clarify and express feelings, etc.

There are times when I brainstorm ideas and come up with many projects in a
week, and I suppose that this is the kind of thing the sponsors of this
"National Picture Book Writing Week" are thinking of. When my "Library Mouse"
editor asked me to come up with five new Library Mouse stories, so he could pick
the one he liked best for us to work on, I carved a week out of my schedule to
do just that. And I guess it's good to prod the imagination into working at full
speed for a while, like sprinting on the track. If folks come up with seven
ideas, they can then go into editor mode and see which of their ideas have
promise. The hard part is the follow-through! Some people need a kick in the
pants to get started, and that's okay, but it's important to recognize all the
hurdles still to come.

I think that most people who give a shot to coming up with seven stories and
bringing them to completion are going to find it more difficult than they
imagined, and maybe that will teach them something about the process. Might be a
hard lesson, but certainly a worthwhile one. One can't look at Tiger Woods on
the golf course and say "it looks so easy, I can do that, too", then go out and
be a pro after an afternoon. It's part of the job of a professional to make
something very difficult look completely effortless. There are lots of
analogies--you can't run a marathon without building up speed and endurance for
months, you can't be Yo You Ma and play the cello without a lifetime of grueling
practice. But for some reason people look at picture books and don't get it.
Maybe it's good for some of them to give it a try, and see what happens!
Thanks, Daniel, for taking the time to respond with such insight.

While I still have some reservations, I can certainly see now how this project can be a good thing for fledgling and veteran writers alike. For those of you who take part in NaPiBoWriWee, I sincerely wish you the best, and I hope to be discussing your book in a couple of years.


Paula Yoo said...

Hi Keith! Thank you for this very thoughtful and insightful blog re: "Natl PIcture Book Writing Week," aka "NaPiBoWriWee." The idea was actually a silly brainstorm I had because I was frustrated that I hadn't had much writing time and thought, "What if I just forced myself to come up with 7 picture book drafts in 7 days" as inspired by National Novel Writing Month? I impulsively blogged about it and BOOM! I had no idea the response would be so huge - hundreds of people from all over the country and 28 countries have participated! It's been a fun event and many novice writers who were too scared to write finally found the courage to just go for it and finally write those first drafts!

I would like, however, to clarify one point in your blog. I NEVER said picture book writing was "easy." I would NEVER disrespect this genre, and in fact made it very clear in my original announcement on my website. As a published picture book author myself (my debut picture book is an IRA Notable and has received starred reviews), I happen to respect the genre and I am always angry myself when people stereotype picture book writing as "easy" because they mistakenly assume the shorter text and younger age group makes it "easier." I am also a published YA novelist with HarperCollins, and I frankly feel that picture book writing is equally difficult - if not more so - because of the poetic and visceral nature of the genre.

In my original announcement, I had included these two paragraphs to make sure everyone know the intention behind my fun "book writing challenge" and to make sure everyone knew that I do not think a GOOD picture book can really be written in one day. I had written this:

"A caveat: This is NOT to say writing a picture book is easy.
On the contrary, it's EXTREMELY difficult and challenging to write a
complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, an original plot
line, and a unique character with a compelling voice for the picture
book genre. Every word has to count. Every image and every action has
to speak volumes in terms of theme and deeper meaning... while still
being kid friendly, fun, and appropriate for the tone of the book (be
it a quiet literary picture book or a hilarious, laugh out of loud
funny picture book). Having said that... I want everyone to
have fun with this! I'm not expecting Shakespeare or "Goodnight Moon."
This is an attempt to encourage people to finally write that picture
book they've been dreaming of... please think of this as a fun
opportunity to brainstorm and finally write that first rough draft that
you can go back to later and revise and improve upon. So often we
procrastinate or convince ourselves that our idea for a picture book is
not "good enough." So NaPiBoWriWee is a fun way to have everyone GO FOR BROKE and write 7 picture books in 7 days and see what happens!"

I just wanted to clarify this because I do not want people to assume wrongly that I am disrespecting a genre that I deeply love and have the utmost respect for. In fact, several acclaimed published veteran picture book authors are also participating in my "contest" because they felt they too had not had enough time to work on new books themselves. These authors including the award winning Ann Whitford Paul and Barbara Seuling who are also actually participating in my "contest."

Thank you again for your great blog and I am happy to report that a lovely community of supportive writers - both veteran published authors and novices - has blossomed because of NaPiBoWriWee and I'm thrilled about that. It's been a fantastic journey this week, and boy, am I exhausted!

Paula Yoo

Keith Schoch said...

Thanks for checking in, Paula. Since my posting a few other writers have emailed me, and while now wanting to comment "on the record," they wanted me to understand the intentions behind the project, which is to motivate writers. One young lady (already published several times over)pointed out that the process is solitary, so it's nice to know that others in it with you. So Paula, consider this an apology and a kudos for a successful launch of NaPiBoWriWee.