In CBAY’s new submission guidelines which go up to the general public on January 1, we made the following statement:

Please limit your picture book to 1500 words or less. We truly want to see manuscripts that were written as picture books. We are not interested in looking at short stories. Yes, there is a difference.

I had a couple of people ask me what that difference is — an excellent question indeed.

Now, obviously there are some good short stories that have been made into picture books, and there are some picture book texts that would make good short stories. However, not every tale can go either way. The main difference between the two is, as you may have guessed, in the illustration possibilities.

A picture book is 32 pages long (including the frontspiece and the copyright page) which means there can be as few as 15 images (15 full page spreads over 30 pages) during the tale or as many as 120 (although that would be an extreme 4 images per page which I don’t think I’ve ever seen). Most picture books fall somewhere in between with some full page spreads and some half page or spot illustrations. Some older or classically styled picture books will contain 3/4 spreads with the text off on one side separate from the picture. The actual layout and style of the illustrations is not important from a manuscript perspective. What is important is that there are a minimum of 15 different visual images in the text. In other words, there are at least 15 different scenes for the illustrator to draw.

Let’s use fairy tales as an example. There were literally hundreds of fairy tales collected by Grimm Brothers, but only a handful are constantly being reworked into picture books. The ones that are have lots of action and changes in scenery. Take “Little Red Riding Hood.” Scenery wise, you have:

  1. Little Red’s House
  2. The woods
  3. Grandma’s house — both inside and out.

Action wise, you have:

  1. Little Red being given the basket
  2. Meeting the Wolf
  3. Picking flowers
  4. The wolf sneaking to Grandma’s by the quicker path
  5. The wolf eating grandma (or stuffing her in the closet)
  6. The wolf in bed
  7. Little Red arriving
  8. The wolf showing big hands
  9. The wolf showing big ears
  10. The wolf showing big teeth
  11. The wolf eating Little Red (or chasing her)
  12. The huntsman hearing commotion
  13. The huntsman chasing wolf
  14. The huntsman killing wolf (or chasing him away)
  15. Roasting the wolf (or celebration)

As you can see, there is plenty of action and change of location for an illustrator to choose from. This is why this tale makes a good picture book and other fairy tales do not.

So, my advice to you, is to take your picture book manuscript’s plot and break it up much like I did Little Red Riding Hood above. If you you’ve got lots of illustratable action, you are good to go. However, if the entire action takes place around the dinner table and is just great dialog, then you’ve definitely got a short story on your hands. This is not a bad thing. There are markets for good short stories for younger readers. It just means that you should not submit that manuscript to me as a picture book.

© Copyright 2006-2011 Madeline Smoot. All rights reserved.
May be excerpted and duplicated for educational purposes.
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