08 May 2007

What Not to Write

Author Darcy Pattison went to an Arkansas SCBWI meeting and took helpful notes on Dial editor Liz Waniewski's most-often-received picture book topics. They should look familiar to anyone who's handled the slush pile at other children's publishers, or newcomers' submissions at an SCBWI conference. To whit:

  • First Day at School
  • Cleaning up your room
  • Tooth fairy
  • Christmas/Halloween
  • Wanting a pet
  • Dealing with a disability
  • "Hi! My name is. . . and I am seven years old!"
  • Visiting Grandma and Grandpa
  • New baby
  • Barnyard stories
  • Bedtime stories
  • Personal hygiene
Darcy responded cheekily by naming classic picture books on each of those topics. But the fact that there are classics out there just raises the question of whether we need more. If every American family already owns a copy of Goodnight Moon and every Canadian family a copy of Love You Forever, don't we have a lifetime supply?

What I find most striking about this list is how boring most of the topics seem, not simply from the perspective of a junior editor shoveling away the slush, but also from the likely perspective of a preschooler. "Daddy, why can't I read about personal hygiene? All we have are princess and pirate books." "Trucks are boring, Mama! I want a story about cleaning my room!" "I don't care about talking to Grandma on the phone. I want you to read to me about visiting someone else's Grandma!"

Of course, there are still plenty of good, entertaining stories that would fall under Waniewski's topics. Darcy's own Nineteen Girls and Me happens to be about starting kindergarten--but it's an exaggerated, imaginative tale, and the hero has an unusual reason to be anxious that stands for more common kindergarten anxieties. It's not "what exactly will happen and how much fun you'll have when you start school next week."

Even such dramatic topics as wanting a pet or not wanting a new baby (never seems to be the other way around, does it?), which hold great interest for kids at particular times, seem to stem from the lessons that adults want to impart. And the appearance of barnyard stories on a list created by a largely urban society hints that people are submitting stories based on what they think children's books should be about.

Honestly, grown-ups, when was the last time you enjoyed a book on dental care, the first day at a new job, or turning thirty-five? How often do you browse the Animal Husbandry section at Borders?


Lee said...

'How often do you browse the Animal Husbandry section at Borders?'

OK, just what do have against animal husbandry? It's my trusted bedtime reading material - perfectly soporific.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, but you're Old World, aren't you?

Seriously, I have nothing for or against Animal Husbandry. It's just not part of my life—nor the lives of most American children today. Which should, I think, make us hopeful authors wonder whether that's a good milieu for appealing to those children.

Lee said...

Very OW, and tottering...