Wordless, adjective: without using words. without speaking.
Working in the children’s picture book industry, we often hear, “oh, wordless? I don’t get wordless picture books because I don’t know how to read them to my child. I don’t know what to say.”
“It’s wordless,” we reply. “You don’t have to say anything.”
A wordless picture book is an opportunity to engage your child in a story without having to read the given text. You can describe each page as you see it or you can have the child explain what they see. You can make up a story based on the illustrations or have the child make up a story. Even better, do it together! But most importantly, you can sit and share a book.
Reading with your child is a time to share a moment with them. Both of you are going to learn from the book and from each other. With a wordless book, you can have a different experience every time you turn the page. Read the book in silence and each will see something different.
We are proud that Ripple Grove Press is releasing its first wordless picture book in spring of 2017: Graduation Day by Piotr Parda.
While there are many discussions and articles out there about wordless picture books, Piotr Parda and RGP thought it would be best to present the idea in another way: wordless!
Rob Broder and Piotr Parda, 2016.
We have received over 2000 submissions at Ripple Grove Press (RGP) since we opened our doors in 2013, and we have read them all. Only a few make it into our “revisit” folder for another look. Many do not make it there for a simple reason: they do not follow our submission guidelines.
Follow the Submission Guidelines
Our website clearly states that we do not accept stories with a holiday or religious theme, yet my inbox receives submissions with a holiday theme or a religious mention, or submissions about God or the stars in the heavens. Not only do those stories get passed over, they make it difficult to want to move forward on any project with that writer. By not following our guidelines, that person wasted their own time as well as ours—not a good sign.
The same concern comes up with people who email RGP about “what type of format to submit” their story. It feels like these emails are only a way to get our attention. If you want to know about format, there are industry standards, go look them up. Don’t try to get my attention with email questions, your story will get my attention. Just submit.
Please do not tell me in your query letter that your story is wonderful and that it will delight me. Every story is wonderful to the person who wrote it. When I see that sentence I get nervous, and it makes me want to move onto the next submission.
Please do not tell me that I “will like your whimsical story” because right there you are telling me that it rhymes and that I probably will not like it. Let your story talk for you.
Do not send a hand-written letter on a hotel notepad, telling me an idea for a story you have. (Yes, I have received that.)
Please do not include where you think the page breaks should be. It’s very distracting and takes away from the story. If we’re interested in your story, then we can work it out together.
Please do not submit a story with a dedication page and five more pages of your biography and an index with a table of contents. Keep it simple, less is more. If we like your story and we need more, we will ask.
Often, I like the query letter more than the story. Sometimes the query letter is longer than the story or more time has been put into writing the query than the story. I get so excited about the query, ready to dive into the story, only to find it was not as well written. That leaves me disappointed. Keep the query and book description short and sweet. Make me want to read the story; that’s what I want to do. I want to be wow’d. I want to say, “Yes, this is it! This is what RGP is looking for.”
Leave Room for the Illustrator’s Input
Please don’t insert “illustration notes.” A picture book is a group project: writer, illustrator, editor, and publisher. The illustrator helps to tell the story as well as the writer. If you wish to enter into this project with a publisher, you have to be able to let part of the story go and share the work of envisioning it. We are all working together to make the most beautiful picture book possible.
Unless you have experience or training as an illustrator or photographer, please do not send rough sketches or photos of what you think the story should look like. It is distracting and doesn’t help your submission.
Please remember not to make your story too descriptive. Telling me that “Tommy wears a green shirt in his blue messy room and has a brownish dog and goes to school four blocks away from his home and it was sunny this particular day and the tree in the yard is a little crooked,” makes it difficult for the illustrator to tell part of the story with pictures. We understand you have a clear perspective on the way your story should be, (after all, you wrote it) but if you want to grab my attention, it will happen with your words, not with your pencil sketches or photos or overly descriptive text.
Judging a Book by Its Title
So, what’s in a title? A title can say a lot. It can provide me with what the story is about, introduce a character or tell how the story will end. But some titles go too far (I’m making these up but they are similar to what we’ve received):
The Grumpy Town – this says to me, everyone in the town is grumpy, except one small child who turns the town around and they are all happy in the end with merriment in the streets. Hopefully it won’t rhyme.
Or Mr. Pajama-Wama the Cat Thinks There’s a Monster Under His Bed. I never thought there was a monster under my bed and I don’t know why I would want to put that idea into a child’s mind. Plus the title gives it all away, and I don’t want to read the words Mr. Pajama-Wama on every single page. And hopefully it won’t rhyme.
There are titles that describe too much and spill the entire story, like, Little Red Hen and the Missing Mitten on a Rainy Tuesday. I know everything before I even get to the first sentence. And… hopefully it won’t rhyme.
If your title mentions your pet’s name or your grandchild’s name, it usually doesn’t pan out. When titles have names that don’t match the characters you created, like Aidan the Kangaroo or McKenzie the Raccoon or Addison the Hippo, it’s obvious the child is sitting right next to you as you write your story. I understand that something special or sweet has happened to your loved one, but that doesn’t mean it has universal appeal. Before submitting your story, share your ideas with friends or a critique group. Ask for their honest opinions. Read your story out loud to yourself.
The titles that make us want to move on to the story are the simple titles that pique my interest and keep me intrigued, like (and yes, these are our books) The Peddler’s Bed… ok, now what? Or Too Many Tables… ok, where could this go? Or Lizbeth Lou Got a Rock in Her Shoe… ok, a little long and I bet it rhymes but you got my attention.
You can judge a book by its title… if words like Hope or Grace or Pray or Johnny Scuttle Butt are there. And although bodily-function writing might be humorous to some, it’s not something I want to read over and over again to a 4-year-old. So please, no poop or pee or burp or fart… not timeless, not cozy. Might fit with another publisher, but it’s not for RGP.
Please Wow Us!
With all this said, I still get excited to read every submission and every story. I want to find the gem, I want to be wow’d. I want to put your story in my revisit folder and I want to like it more and more each time I read it. So please, do your research. And please, oh please, read children’s picture books. Read award-winners, what’s popular, what librarians recommend. Read stories you may not be a fan of; they will guide you to your own voice. Study them: why do they work, what made the publisher choose this story? Match your story with the right publisher. Start by reading their submission guidelines. Hopefully all this work will shine through your story and one day you’ll get that phone call from a publisher who would like to talk with you about your submission.
- Rob Broder, 2015
“I have a great idea for a picture book story.”
Here at Ripple Grove Press, I hear this all the time. I may hear an idea about a girl who travels the world, meets dragons, and learns how to shape clouds. I may hear an idea about a walrus peeling potatoes, or one about a polar bear who wishes he lived in a warmer climate. We’ve even received submissions where people send multiple ideas and ask if any of them sound interesting to us, as if to say, “pick one.”
Okay, but now what? I need to see the story. I want to turn the page and see what happens. The girl who travels the world and meets dragons sounds exciting, but the cute and cuddly walrus peeling potatoes can be interesting, too. It’s all in how it’s written. I want to read your writing style, to know how you tell this story. If your polar bear wishes he was in a warmer climate, and when he reaches the warmer climate he misses his ice floes, there may be a lot of interesting and unique experiences in his journey there and back again (I sure hope so!). But you need to write the story to show me that; I can’t see it if you only send me your idea.
Your idea has been sitting with you for days or years, you’ve shared your idea with others, and they love your idea. Your idea is good and clever and unique, and yet—your idea isn’t a story. You haven’t reached for a pen to starting writing. Why is that? Maybe it’s because writing a good children’s picture book is difficult!
An idea for a story is like an idea for a trip. If you want to visit the Grand Canyon, it takes a lot of thought and action to make that happen. When will I be going? How am I going to get there? How much will it cost? Where will I stay? What clothes should I pack? What will the weather be like? Should I hike to the bottom of the canyon? Planning all of this takes time, but you have to do it if you want to turn your idea into a trip. It’s the same with writing a children’s picture book. You have this amazing, so funny, so sweet, so creative idea—now you need to turn the idea into a story.
How do you do that?
Let’s start with the question, “I have five ideas, which one do you like?” Well, which idea do youlike? Write for yourself. I want to read the story from the idea you like the best. Coming up with a good idea and writing a story are two separate creative writing ventures, but one can feed into the other. Try writing each idea and see what happens. Go with the idea that you like best once you start writing. Your story needs a strong beginning, an interesting middle, and a solid ending. On average a children’s picture book is 32 pages with a few words or a few sentences on each page. Every single word has to contribute to the story in some way.
How do you make sure the amazing idea you choose turns into a good story? I can’t say this enough—read picture books! Reading good mentor texts will help hone your idea. It will guide you to where you want your idea to go.
A couple of side notes:
If your picture book rhymes, make sure you know what you’re doing. It’s challenging to write in rhyme, and do it well. I feel like some adults think children want to hear words that rhyme, when all children really want to hear is a good story—rhyming or not.
Don’t get caught up in word count. If your idea becomes a story using one word and it’s unique and fun and has universal appeal, then that’s great. If it has a thousand words, then I want to read that too. We are not publishing ideas, we are publishing stories.
Good writing takes practice. Be open to getting advice from others. Join a good, honest critique group and rework your story before sharing it with Ripple Grove Press or any children’s publisher.
I had an idea for this article, so I wrote it. You have an idea for a children’s picture book. Now write me the story!
-Rob Broder, 2015