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Character growth in picture books

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I just received a nice email from a publisher who passed on my rhyming picture book because she felt that the main character did not change or grow throughout the course of the story.  The manuscript did contain an external conflict, but she is right in saying that there was no internal conflict present. 

My purpose here is NOT to argue with her opinion; rather, I'd like to hear some other opinions so I know how to proceed with my manuscript (overhaul vs. submitting elsewhere).  What do some of you think?  Does the main character always need to evolve in picture books (ages 4 - 8)?  She also said that although the story is energetic and fun, it's also a little "one-note."  Can someone explain what she may have meant by this?   

She is normally closed to unsolicited material (I was able to submit because of a referral), but she did offer to look at "future projects."  I have one other PB manuscript ready to go and wonder if I should turn right around and send it, or if I should send her a brief email now thanking her for the offer, then wait a bit to submit the second story - ?

TIA for your input!

#1 - July 23, 2008, 02:50 PM


Hard to answer without reading the manuscript, but I agree that the MC has to grow/evolve somehow.  By "one-note," she may have meant that the story is too narrow and doesn't have that lasting impact.  Does it linger with the reader enough or convey the "universal from the local," as David Almond once said at a NYC conference?  It might be great for a magazine, but if you want it as a picture book that people will buy and reread, it might need more tweaking.  Sounds like you're definitely close with it, though, so it might not even need a full overhaul. 

I think you could go ahead and send her the other submission ready piece along with a brief thank you.  But because she is normally closed, you want to maximize your chances.  Before you send that puppy out, have a critique partner review it and make sure it's the best it can be.  Good luck!   
#2 - July 23, 2008, 04:03 PM


Congratulations on getting such positive, personal feedback!

I agree that a character should grow and evolve over the course of a story. That is what constitutes a story, in my opinion. Your character begins the tale one way, then emerges at the end in a transformed state. Perhaps your character starts off shy, but the situation in which you immerse her teaches her to be outgoing. That's just one example from "Lissy's Friends" by Grace Lin. Lissy is the new girl at school and she doesn't easily make friends with the students, so she makes origami friends. The origami animals attract the attention of a classmate, and the girl's interest in Lissy's talent gives Lissy confidence. She ends the tale with many friends.

The editor may mean it's "one-note" because the character is not affected by the situation in your story.

I would definitely try revising. It couldn't hurt. Just think, you can always keep a copy of the original version if you're not satisfied with the rewrite.  It's not often you can get such valuable feedback so I would take it and run with it.

Good luck. And congratulations again. You've obviously got a winning idea!
#3 - July 23, 2008, 09:59 PM


Thank you both for the very helpful suggestions, explanations, & encouragement.
#4 - July 24, 2008, 05:41 AM

Don't give up on this story.  Brainstorm ways to deepen it or, as you say, "overhaul it", to
keep the fun and the external conflict but let your character grow in some way so the
story has a fully developed arc.
Especially in today's tight market, the editor wouldn't have taken time to comment if
she didn't see the potential.
Good luck!
#5 - July 24, 2008, 07:26 AM

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Hi Leanne -

Congrats on the personal, positive feedback.  The editor wouldn't have bothered if she didn't feel it was close.  So that's great!

Now, onto your question.  In The Story of Ferdinand, Ferdinand the bull does not change or grow.  He just wants to chill out under his tree and ends up in a dramatic situation.  In the book, How to Write a Children's Picture Book, Vol. II by Eve Heidi Bine-Stock - she calls this a "character validation" story.  And if it's done well, it can work - but it's not the norm.  Most stories have some sort of "character transformation" in them.

I can't really comment on the "one note" line without knowing your text.  She probably felt it needed a little more depth.  ???  (I certainly know many stories I feel are one-note, but still entertaining and enjoyable.  Maybe it's a heck of a note!)

My advice to you would be to see if you can do a rewrite based on her notes.  You may come up with something even more wonderful than what you already have.  But also remember that not every editor will have the same opinion.  Just because Editor A thinks it's one note, doesn't mean Editor B will.  Keep your old draft at hand - take a good look at it and make sure you keep the things that you love the most about it.  Then do a rewrite.  If it's better - send that to her.  She'll probably be pleased to see that you took her notes seriously. 

And I think a thank-you note with another submission would be fine.  I don't think you need to send them separately.


#6 - July 24, 2008, 07:52 AM

I've been thinking about this very issue. It occurred to me recently that when writing a novel, I give great thought to the emotional journey the MC will take and craft the plot around what the character needs to do/experience in order to make that journey. But for PBs I've worked more with a paradigm of a character wants something, why that's a problem, what he does to solve it. The character does change in the process, usually, but the story certainly isn't directed by that change. I've been serious about writing and submitting PBs for at least 6 years now, even getting an MFA from Vermont College, but all my mss. come back, so maybe it's time to change the paradigm.

For you, personally, Leanne, I would suggest that before you send the editor your other ms., you look at it with a critical eye. Does your character grow? If not, could he/she? How would that change the story? Anytime an editor takes the time to point out a flaw in one of my stories, I look at my other stories to see if they contain the same flaw. That's how THIS character grows... :garden2

pj lyons

#7 - July 24, 2008, 08:06 AM
The Art of Story


Thank you ALL for your valuable comments.  I will put them to good use!  Rejection is difficult, but I know that this is a growing opportunity for me, too - not just my character! 

Oh my goodness, I am so surprised to see Jessica Swain respond to this post!  I'm new to all this, obviously, and didn't realize such prestigious authors hung out on these boards!  :)  Can I just say I'm a BIG fan of the book, Hound from the Pound! 


A very sweet, well-known author whom I believe you also know recommended that I read your book to study refrains in rhyming PBs.  I absolutely loved it.  This is so cool!  Congrats on your success!

#8 - July 24, 2008, 11:26 AM


So sorry - I mispelled Jessica's last name...Swaim. 
#9 - July 24, 2008, 11:30 AM

"Prestigious author," hahahaha!  But thanks for the compliment, Leanne.
I've been away from Verla's place for awhile, but I used to spend lots of evenings in the Kidlit chatroom, where I made
some great friends and got much needed encouragement and insightful critiques.  Without which I doubt that I've have a single published book to my credit. 
Folks are probably soooo sick of hearing me say this, but it took about five years for me to get the Hound's rhyme right and to discover what that very simple story line needed to be.  I'd work, put the ms back in the drawer, and repeat that cycle ad nauseam, till finally Candlewick bought it.  Then it took another four years for it to be published.  That's why I believe that persistence and discipline are just as important as talent. 
End of lecture.
Now you'd best get to revising that story, hadn't you?  :goodluck
#10 - July 24, 2008, 12:42 PM



It appears that I don't have PM privileges yet, so I can only contact you through this board (I received your PM, just can't reply).   Any suggestions on how I can get the ms to you?  Thanks!

#11 - July 24, 2008, 09:18 PM

I love beagles


I just had to add to this thread by saying that I love, love, love Hound from the Pound.  The artwork and rhyming text are a perfect fit.  I keep my copy of it on a bookshelf at my office because it makes me smile (I don't work in writing or publishing or at a school...I work for a United States Congressman, so people often notice Hound from the Pound as a stand-out among the history and political books!)

Thanks for adding your insight to this discussion.  I wish you much continued success!  :sun

#12 - July 25, 2008, 07:25 AM

You just made my day, Christy!
And I love your taste in dogs.
Thank you for the honor you do me and the Hounds by displaying my book.
#13 - July 29, 2008, 03:52 PM

I love beagles

I'm happy to count your book among my favorites, Jessica!

#14 - July 30, 2008, 04:45 PM


It's always worth trying to deepen your story.  The two picture books I sold via slush both occured after I finally bit the bullet and decided to revise manuscripts I thought were completely finished.  Deeper stories tend to have "wow" endings, which tend to make manuscripts rather irresistible. 

I'm currently revising a pb manuscript I wrote 5 years ago (!)  It's gotten great responses from editors for years, but never a "yes."  So, yeah, I'd say revise now rather than wait 5 years to figure it out, like I just did...  Good luck!
#15 - July 31, 2008, 09:02 AM


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