Originally published in the IBPA Independent
We started Ripple Grove Press because we wanted to publish books that children and parents could read over and over. We loved the timeless feel of a good picture book. We wanted to find stories that capture a moment, so a child and their parents can create their own.
It was a very exciting feeling receiving those first rounds of submissions when we opened the doors to our press. We read each one, discussed it, edited it, and analyzed if it was a fit for Ripple Grove Press. Was it the story we had been visualizing?
While marinating over the stories, we began to realize there is so much more to a great book than finding a great story. And, suddenly, I went from acquisitions to art directing.
We rejoiced at finding an amazing illustrator, but who decides what the book should look like? Is the illustrator the art director? Why shouldn’t I give the direction to where things should go, how things should look? After all, it is our press and, in the end, we are the ones paying the money and taking the risk on bringing this book to market.
We created a system that works for us, allowing for greater control for the illustrator and more collaboration for us. We have found illustrators in many places, from word of mouth, postcards sent to us, and from perusing the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) website. We always talk about the style and art medium and search from there. I usually ask the illustrator to sketch out a few ideas of character or setting to see if our ideas are anywhere close together. Sometimes we ask for adjustments; sometimes it’s perfect.
Then it’s time to let the illustrator do what they do. We try to go with what each individual needs to get the work done to the best of their ability. Some illustrators want to talk every week, sending sketches and discussing every step of the way. Some illustrators do their work and ask for feedback only at the end of rough sketches and (almost) final art. It is all a give-and-take, and we encourage discussions about the flow and feel of the story.
Authors are usually not part of the art process. We realize the author has a strong visual for the story; after all, they wrote it. But they need to let go and trust the publisher and illustrator. They both like the story, too, and will put their love and passion into making the book as much as the author did writing it. We usually have creative discussions with our writers at the beginning of the project and then send only minimal peeks. Someone needs to be the art director. It hinders the creative process if the author is looking at every spread. Too many cooks in the kitchen.
I was an outsider in the publishing world with no previous background. And when you start from the ground up, you create your own processes. We had a lot of trial and error, but we pride ourselves on our processes now. When someone works with Ripple Grove Press, we let them know we are all in this together. Nothing goes to print unless we are all in agreement that this is the best picture book we could possibly make.
When the illustrator is done, the book is still not done. We need to check for consistencies. Does the window on page four have the same number of panes on page 16? The house has a chimney, but now it doesn’t. There’s a unicorn stuffed animal on the night stand, but then at the end of the book, it’s missing. Everything needs to be triple checked. And, even then, you may not notice something is not consistent. We’re a small team; we don’t have a dozen people working on one book, which is why we hire an outside editor to look over everything when the book is almost done.
The illustrator brings your wonderful story to life, but the art director fine-tunes it. Don’t be afraid to speak out and tell the illustrator what you’re seeing or what you’d like to see. Pay close attention to the rough sketches, too. After the years it takes to make a book—editing it, designing it, meticulously thinking about every corner of every page—we want a child to say, “please read this book again.”
-Rob Broder, 2018
You sit in your chair
with all its glory
grab paper and pen
for your wonderful story.
The idea is there
the characters are fun
who wouldn’t like this
when you’re all done?
It’s funny, it’s sweet,
it’s current and fresh.
You read it to your kids
and they scream YES!
While you sit
in your favorite nook
you smile over
this best new book.
It has its charm
like Mother Goose
and the charisma of
You see sir,
there is no crime.
You just want
your story rhyme.
It’s about a Pig,
whose name is Fig.
and coincidentally likes to dig.
His friend is Duck
who drives a truck
that’s stuck in the muck.
And Fig saves the day
with time left to play
and then heads back in his sty,
leaving me to wonder why--
Why did it rhyme?
Some words felt forced.
Some lines didn't match.
I’m sighing inside,
will I be able to catch . . . on?
I was liking the plot,
the characters too.
But Rhyme is still a rhyme
and there’s nothing I can do.
-Rob Broder, 2018
I scratch my head
to try and edit.
But I must move on.
I’ll just forget it.
There are too many syllables
to read in each line.
So your words seem absurd
when it’s trying to rhyme.
It’s not you,
I’m looking for something
I do like rhyming
I really do….
when everything matches
and lines flow on cue.
Where nothing feels off
the rhymes rhyme well
Your words glide naturally
not leaving me in a . . .well.
I enjoy rhymes on a boat
and with a goat
and in the rain
and on a train
But I must be honest,
It’s driving me insane.
So if you wish to write
and it must be in rhyme
take a step back
and give it some time.
Make sure it’s balanced
and ripe like a plum.
Not leaving me twirling
in a rhyming conundrum.
1. Don’t Start Your Query with, “Hello, My Name Is So-and-So.”
I’ll know your name at the end of the letter. And you’re wasting valuable time and space in your letter by introducing who you are. If I like your story, I’ll be sure to find your name.
2. Don’t Tell Me I Will Love Your Story.
Or that this story is for me. Let me read your story and see if I’ll enjoy it. Telling me I’ll like it before reading it, Is like telling me I’d like a specific ice cream flavor before tasting it. Let me be the judge.
3. Don’t Tell Me Your Child Loves This Story.
Of course your child loves your story. They’re your child. They love everything you do or say. It doesn’t mean it reads well when written down or that it should be published.
4. Don’t Tell Me Your Story Is Whimsical.
This tells me your story will rhyme or have some type of toe-tapping tempo. And chances are, and please no offense, the beat will be off.
5. Do Not Send Pictures of Your Child or Pet Or Who Inspired the Story.
Please read picture books. I don’t see many published books that have photographs of your real dog dressed up as an accountant or firefighter. It does not add to the value of the submission and often distracts from the story. It makes it too personal and you want the story to be able to connect with everyone.
6. Do Not Tell Me This Story Is Similar to Dr. Seuss Meets Alice In Wonderland.
That immediately tells me your story is not original. Dr. Seuss is Dr. Seuss; you should be you. I am looking for something original. Or maybe your story was inspired by There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. Changing the old lady to a Gargoyle isn’t making your thoughtful submission unique. Or if your title is If You Give An Ostrich a Scone, then it certainly is not in your unique voice. Books like these books get published, but not by us. So please do your research.
7. Don’t Tell Me You Have a Series For This Character.
Being a small press, we make one book at a time. Sparky Goes to the Zoo might be the next awesome book, but when you also send me Sparky Goes to the Hamptons and Sparky Goes Kayaking, the first Sparky loses the sense of something fun and unique. If the book hits a home run in sales, that’s the time to talk about a second Sparky book.
8. Don’t Tell Me You Have the Best ABC or Counting Book.
Its not that your ABC or counting book isn’t really funny and different. It’s just that Ripple Grove Press is looking for a story. A simple, well-written, fun, uniquely-told story. Submit your amazing ABC book to another publisher.
9. Don’t Send Your Query or Submission with Page Breaks and Illustration Notes.
This is very distracting. Let the Creative Director and the illustrator decide where the text should go and on what page. I understand you have a vision of how the story should be laid out, but it takes a huge creative structure away from the illustrator if you tell us what words should go on what page.
10. Please Don’t Ramble On in Your Query.
I just want to get to your story. Short and sweet is best.
-Rob Broder, 2017
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