Mining for Heart: “Tips for Writing a Picture Book with a Mission” by Sarah Jane Abbott

A big THANK YOU to Sarah Jane Abbott, associate editor at Simon and Schuster, for sharing her thoughts today on Mining for Heart. I love opportunities to get a peek into the editorial process and learn how editors see and evaluate manuscripts. 

Tips for Writing a Picture Book with a MissionHeadshot 2019

I’m a firm believer that a picture book can change a child’s life—and by extension, change the world.  That’s why it’s such an amazing priviledge and responsibility to be involved with making books for kids.  Heart is one of the most important factors to me when I’m evaluating a picture book—what is this book putting out into the world?  What will it leave kids mulling over after they read it?  What will it inspire them to do?  With so many troubling things happening in our world today, I see lots of picture book manuscripts written with a clear intention of teaching the next generation to be better than we are today—to be more accepting and open-minded and empathetic.  But sometimes, books written with this kind of motivation feel clunky or overdone.  How can we write picture books with a mission that avoid this pitfall?

First, I encourage writers not to lose track of the fact that this should be an entertaining story for a kid, not a lesson. Will a child enjoy reading it? Will they want to come back to it time and again?  Also, know that you don’t need to overstate your point—or usually, even state it directly at all.  Kids are perceptive and will be able to figure it out!  Often if a manuscript has a “summing up the moral of the story” line near the end, I suggest cutting it.  If the story is strong enough, it’ll still be clear.  I also love a book that is open-ended enough to spark discussion and that can be interpreted on different levels, depending on the reader. Some great examples of that are RED: A CRAYON’S STORY by Michael Hall and LITTLE BROWN by Marla Frazee.

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Some of Sarah Jane’s favorite picture books with “heart.”

Another important thing I think about when I read the (many) manuscripts I receive that center on characters who are different in some way is: is this book about toleratingdifferences, or celebratingthem?  Jessica Love, the author of JULIAN IS A MERMAID (a gorgeous book about a young boy who loves dressing as a mermaid), said in an interview, “A lot of the books that fall under this topic heading tend to feel like they’re instructing people how to behave, or how to explain the situation as if it’s a problem. I wanted to throw a little party.”  I think that is so wise.  Another wonderful book that feels like a celebration is WHAT RILEY WORE by Elana K. Arnold, illustrated by Linda Davick (watch for it when it comes out in August!). Riley’s story is a tribute to dressing as a form of self-expression and a powerful encouragement to be true to oneself—whether or not your appearance lines up with others’ expectations.  When another kid asks whether Riley is a boy or a girl, the answer is confident and joyful—today, Riley is “a firefighter and a dancer and a monster hunter and a pilot and a dinosaur.”  Instead of having Riley deliver a lesson, the answer is as exhuberant and creative and fun as Riley is.  But the heart shines through bright and clear.

Let’s all keep making books that will encourage kids to be curious, be kind, be true to themselves and yes, be changemakers!

Sarah Jane Abbott is an associate editor for Paula Wiseman Books and Beach Lane Books at Simon & Schuster. She started her career at S&S as a publicity assistant before joining Paula Wiseman Books and Beach Lane Books as editorial assistant in 2014. She is also on the editorial board of Simon & Schuster’s OfftheShelf.com.  She has had the pleasure of working on books such as The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast by Samantha M. Clark and Blue & Bertie by Kristyna Litten.  She loves quirky, character driven picture books with a lot of heart; non-fiction picture books, especially about little-known, strong women; and unique, literary middle grade novels.


6 thoughts on “Mining for Heart: “Tips for Writing a Picture Book with a Mission” by Sarah Jane Abbott

  1. Yes, I’m pretty quick to close the cover when a book feels didactic, and I think kids are, too. And sometimes an author can’t tell when they’re doing this because they’re so close the MS. Enter the critique group who can strip the MS of its moralizing—if they’re not afraid of hurting the author’s feelings. Guess you just have to “throw a party” and don’t invite the moralizers, LOL. Thanks for inviting Sarah to share her thoughts!

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