Monday, March 4, 2013

Picture Book Workshop #6: Message

A few years ago I pitched an idea to my editor about a picture book called Adventures of a Gluten-Free Kid.  It was a modern fairytale about one of the kids who lived in the shoe. (You know the Old lady who lived in a shoe, she had so many children she didn't know what to do.  That one.) Since the kid was gluten-free, his mother made his breakfast last.  He had some time to kill so he went outside and met the Gingerbread Man who was on the run.  The Gingerbread Man was scared that the kid was going to eat him, but the kid assured him that he wouldn't because he was on a gluten-free diet.  So the kid and the Gingerbread Man did something fun instead.   I had more story to pitch, but my editor stopped me.

"It's a message book," she said.  "It's hard to sell a message book."

At first I didn't really get it.  I know a TON of people who have kids with some sort of dietary issue.  It seemed perfect.  But, when you stop and crunch the numbers, in a class of twenty kids - how many are gluten-free?  One.  Maybe two. 

Publishers are businesses.  They want to sell books that appeal to more than a small percentage.  They want wide appeal.

OK.  BUT - teachers and parents love when a book has something teachable in it. 

I've taken Wink the Ninja Who Wanted to Be Noticed to a lot of school over the years and I hear again and again how much the teachers love the message of being true to yourself. 

So then I started thinking  
Publishers don't like a message.  Teachers and parents do like a message.  What do I write?

The answer is this (as much as there can be a singular answer to any creative question):  You write a solid story with a good plot that has some surprises, great characters, and maybe a bit of a message underneath.  But the message shouldn't hit anyone over the head or condescend to the reader (see Keeping Your Audience in Mind.)  The message should be like an aftertaste, something that can be brought out of the book, but isn't necessarily what the book is about.

THIS IS NOT MY HAT by Jon Klassen is a story about a small fish that steals a big fish's hat.  The text is all from the point of view of the small fish who is explaining why he did it and why he's going to get away with it.  Unbeknownst to him, the big fish is hot on his trail.

One might say, "I don't want to share a story about stealing."

But, in the end of THIS IS NOT MY HAT, the big fish retrieves his hat and the small fish suffers some consequence that is unknown to the reader because it happens behind dense underwater plants.
The message - if one must have a message - is that if you steal, you will suffer a consequence.

But really, it's just hilarious story.

I don't want to suggest that there aren't places for message books.  Sometimes you want a book that addresses a specific topic like being friends with a kid with a disability or how to talk to your child about death.   There are books like that and there need to be books like that, but you're probably going to find that they've been published by a smaller press. 

So if that's the kind of book you want to write - go for it.  But you'll need to look for other books in that vein and find out where they were published.  Try to sell your book there.

And I also don't want to suggest that big publishers don't want any message at all.  It just can't be the main thing in your story.  I sold Wink because it was about a peppy ninja.  There weren't a lot of ninja books and there certainly weren't many where the ninja was kind of a spaz.  (Wink came a little before Kung Fu Panda.)  And when I wrote Wink, I certainly wasn't thinking, I want to write a book about being true to yourself.  I was thinking, It would be hilarious if this ninja was loud and showed off all the time.

The message grew organically from crafting the best story I could.

Happy writing!


Lucia Sasaki said...

Hi Julie!!
Thanks for your posting!
Although I am a librarian and not a writer I appreciate a lot your installments of "Picture book workshop".It would be so better if writers here were less vain and more colaborative. But alas...
Once I heard an angolan writer called Mia Couto in a lecture and he said that when he released his books, his readers have the freedom to read and interpretate the meaning as they liked (or needed). He said he got responses to his novels that he never imagined when he wrote them.
I guess that it could be the same when you say that you only wrote about a ninja who wanted to be noticed and your readers read it as being free to be himself.
Thanks a lot for posting!!


Julie_c said...

Hi Lucia -

Yes! I think when you write a solid story, people can take from it what they will. Because their life is different from my life and your life, the story speaks to them in a different way.

Thanks so much for checking in!