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a dark picture book?

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Stricken by sudden inspiration, this afternoon I wrote a picture book text. It follows the general pattern of a well-known traditional tale/poem and runs about 550 or so words. Although I was thinking of it for the usual picture-book audience age range of 4-7,  the story turned out to be considerably darker than I'd intended. The "darkness," which involves death, is only obliquely implied by the text but would be revealed by the illustrations. (It does not have a happy ending!)

Is there such a thing as a "horror picture book"? It might work for an older audience, except for its length! What might the market be? Or should I try to scrap this plot (but it's so nice!) and try again?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
#1 - May 10, 2012, 12:31 PM
« Last Edit: May 10, 2012, 12:41 PM by KMT »

The PBs that come to mind right away are ones like Kelly DiPucchio's Zombie in Love, where the the darkness is very funny. Another example is the subtle darkness in the ending of I Want My Hat Back, where the bear devours the rabbit.  Traditional folktales are often pretty dark, as well. My hunch, though, is that an unhappy ending involving death could be pretty unsettling for a young reader, and therefore risky. I'll be interested to hear other takes, though.
#2 - May 10, 2012, 01:34 PM

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I'd suggest having crit partners familiar with the market give it a read and see what the consensus is.
#3 - May 10, 2012, 01:52 PM
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It's been a while, but I remember Jon Sciezcka's (sp?) picture books as having a slightly dark feel to them. Funny-dark, not horror-dark, but a little darker than most PB's. Try THE STINKY CHEESE MAN AND OTHER FAIRLY STUPID TALES.
#4 - May 10, 2012, 01:54 PM

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It isn't a picture book, but Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book came to my mind after reading your post.  It was darker and it did quite well.  Again, not a pb, though. 
#5 - May 10, 2012, 01:58 PM

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I WANT MY HAT BACK, by Jon Klassen, came immediately to mind when I saw "dark" picture book (implied death of sorts occurs in the end.) even though it's a very cute book. I think the unexpected darkness of this book is what makes it so exceptional. It's definitely possible to have a dark pb. I say GO FOR IT!  How many happy ending pb's do we need, anyway?  ;)

ETA: I see that Leslie mentioned this book! Sorry I missed it. And while I agree that endings involving death "could" be unsettling, it could be very satisfying if handled appropriately.
#6 - May 10, 2012, 02:16 PM
« Last Edit: May 10, 2012, 02:20 PM by SYoon »

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How many happy ending pb's do we need, anyway?  ;)

I like the way you think, SYoon!

Thank you for the thoughts and suggestions, everyone. I Want My Hat Back popped into my mind, too, but this is an entirely different kind of story. It's more than just "a little dark" and isn't really humorous, though the illustrations could add an element of that. It begins at a tomb, and pulls back to relate the story of a girl, a prince, and an evil magician, one of whom winds up in the tomb at the end and is possibly dead by the middle of the book. I know who/when I intend that to be but leave the depiction to the illustrator--and perhaps the editor might think it should be somebody else at another point in the book. The text never mentions anyone dying, but as the story comes 'round to the tomb again, the reader can figure it out. (I hope!)

I might indeed decide to offer it for critique. I am curious as to what others think of the thing. It's so new--it came so suddenly!--that I'm not entirely sure what I think of it, either!
#7 - May 10, 2012, 02:48 PM
« Last Edit: May 10, 2012, 02:55 PM by KMT »

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Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman came to mind when I saw the title of this thread.

I Want My Hat Back doesn't actually say that the bunny dies or that the bear eats him. It just implies it. I love that book! But there has been some flack about the ending.

There are picture books that are not really for kids, but are for adults. Some novelty books and books like Go The F*** To Sleep would fit in that category.

Not sure where your book would fit w/o reading it, but if it's not a happy ending and it's about death, it might not be a PB, or it might be a PB about grief.

<edited to add> We posted at the same time. From your description, it's not a book about grief, so it would all depend ton the text/story and how well it works as a PB, or not.
#8 - May 10, 2012, 02:48 PM
« Last Edit: May 10, 2012, 02:50 PM by Ani Louise »
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Thanks, Ani Louise! I am thinking that this is indeed going to take a critiques from the knowledgeable to figure out. Those who know my short fiction for older readers--I've published for MG through adult--would think that this story is so "me."! My other picture book mss aren't like this at all. :)

If anyone here who really knows the PB market is interested in taking a look at this thing, PM me and I'll be happy to share the ms with you. (I'll post a request in the right topic later, too.)
#9 - May 10, 2012, 03:00 PM

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I think you can get away with it if there's some humor--or something that breaks the tension.  Personally I think there should be more dark picture books.  Charlesbridge published a book about the way animals actually hunt--by tearing each other apart.  And there were some critical reviews, although I thought it was well-done.

Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Junior-Library-Selection-Charlesbridge-Hardcover/dp/1570917434/ref=sr_1_20?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1336688258&sr=1-20
#10 - May 10, 2012, 03:01 PM
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Well... if it's the "evil magician" that ends up dead (and NOT the girl), I think that's kind of a happy ending, don't you, albeit dark? It sounds very mysterious! In Three Little Pigs, I don't think kids mind seeing the wolf dying in a pot of boiling soup at the end. I know it's been argued that a story like that today may not be published. But kids aren't running scared from them, either. (esp implied death without gruesome details) Write it and see where it goes!  I love it when people push the boundaries a little (or a lot)!
#11 - May 10, 2012, 03:13 PM

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It might be worth also taking a look at Shaun Tan's picture books. They are often rather dark, with few words. The Lost Thing springs to mind. His work has been critically acclaimed.
#12 - May 10, 2012, 03:13 PM
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I'd love to see more dark PBs too.  :skull

Yuyi Morales's JUST A MINUTE has Death (a skeleton) visiting Grandma on her birthday, saying "it's time to come with me", but she delays him by doing housework and he ends up a guest at the birthday party. At the end he leaves saying he'll come back for her next birthday.


#13 - May 10, 2012, 03:37 PM
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Another one that came to mind is Mo Willems's City Dog, Country Frog. Sad, but so beautiful!
#14 - May 10, 2012, 03:47 PM

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This thread calls to mind Maurice Sendak. Not that he was dark, per se, but that he never seemed to shy away from the darker nature of childhood. I always sensed that he had no fear of showing that kids do think of that dark side of life -- kids have fears, and questions, and sadness, and loss. He is perhaps partially famous for allowing those "darker" emotions into kids' books.

Not saying anyone else can be Maurice Sendak. But, truth is, I think he's right. Some of the titles listed here might also suggest that some publishers will agree, with the right story.

I say, write the book you want/need to write, then figure out who the audience is.
#15 - May 10, 2012, 05:00 PM

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Well...publishers are VERY careful about this because anything remotely upsetting to little ones is looked unfavorably by the public. The darkest you can get away with is light monster horror (that's funny and kid friendly--I Want My Monster comes to mind--his monster was very creepy!) I've had to change things in my ms's to suit the tastes of editors worried about the public. Heck, Princess Peepers gets creamed by people because there's a little negativity. You just really need to be thinking about the child here. Pb's are for the 4 to 7 set. Sorry about that--it's how it is. I remember Stephen King did a creepy pb that was really for the 8-12 set and it didn't sell. He stopped writing them.

Recently I had to change a very dark word for a lighter word in a "horror" type pb.

Is your pb funny? You may get away with it so I don't want to totally discourage you. 

You may want to turn it into a chapter book which really may be your intended audience anyway. I did that and hopefully, it'll turn out well for me!
#16 - May 10, 2012, 06:39 PM
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eab
#17 - May 10, 2012, 07:02 PM

Oddly enough I have a humorous horror/ghost-y PB ms going to acquisitions at a cannot-be-named publishing house right now. (oh how I'd love to tell)  Nobody dies, but the creepy seems to be acceptable to this particular editor as long as it has a bit of humor to offset it. Provided the news is good, I'll be very interested to see what illustrator they pick... that will have a huge impact on how creepy/dark the end product is.
#18 - May 11, 2012, 01:17 AM
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Neil Gaiman's WOLVES IN THE WALLS has scared many children.
#19 - May 11, 2012, 04:42 AM
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CarrieLee, I will keep my fingers crossed for you!

I have to thank everyone. Reviewing your suggestions and the books you mention, and generally mulling things over with input from another writer friend of mine who looked at the ms, I devised the solution. All is now well for everyone... um, well, almost everyone. ;-)

If it sells, I will report the good news here!
#20 - May 11, 2012, 08:04 AM

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The one I thought of was Patricia Polacco's Pink and Say, which always has me sobbing so hard by the end that I can't read it aloud anymore. But that is a historical fiction PB about the Civil War, so it's probably given more leeway because people know what they are getting into when they buy it. I also think about Lemony Snickett and Roald Dahl -- not PB writers, I know, but good examples of peculiar sort of tone dark things can be written in that seems to work with readers. Things are at once so matter of fact and over the top in their books (i.e. parents killed by rhino), and that seems to give the reader a bit of emotional distance.
#21 - May 11, 2012, 10:21 AM
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Ecoburn has just reminded me of "Queenie- one elephant's story" by Corinne Fenton. This PB is coming out soon through Candlewick. It is the true story of a much-loved elephant at Melbourne Zoo who was put to sleep decades ago after a tragic accident in which its keeper was killed. This book was so well received in Australia that it is now coming to the US!
#22 - May 11, 2012, 03:21 PM
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The one I thought of was Patricia Polacco's Pink and Say, which always has me sobbing so hard by the end that I can't read it aloud anymore. But that is a historical fiction PB about the Civil War, so it's probably given more leeway because people know what they are getting into when they buy it. I also think about Lemony Snickett and Roald Dahl -- not PB writers, I know, but good examples of peculiar sort of tone dark things can be written in that seems to work with readers. Things are at once so matter of fact and over the top in their books (i.e. parents killed by rhino), and that seems to give the reader a bit of emotional distance.
The one I thought of was Patricia Polacco's Pink and Say, which always has me sobbing so hard by the end that I can't read it aloud anymore. But that is a historical fiction PB about the Civil War, so it's probably given more leeway because people know what they are getting into when they buy it. I also think about Lemony Snickett and Roald Dahl -- not PB writers, I know, but good examples of peculiar sort of tone dark things can be written in that seems to work with readers. Things are at once so matter of fact and over the top in their books (i.e. parents killed by rhino), and that seems to give the reader a bit of emotional distance.

Pink and Say is one of my favorites -- but it was published twenty years ago. The same thing wouldn't sell today.

:( eab
#23 - May 11, 2012, 05:54 PM

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ONCE UPON A TWICE is pretty dark, and my kids and I really like it.  Though grim, it uses lots of clever wordplay and received several starred reviews.

Quote
Neil Gaiman's WOLVES IN THE WALLS has scared many children.

LOL!  I read that as, "Neil Gaiman's WOLVES IN THE WALLS has scarred many children." ;)
#24 - May 11, 2012, 09:29 PM
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      I'm writing one. It's realistically dark. I'm pushing those boundaries, Syoon.

      Carole
#25 - June 13, 2012, 01:12 PM

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Pink and Say is one of my favorites -- but it was published twenty years ago. The same thing wouldn't sell today.

:( eab

And I read Mathilda by Roald Dahl again recently and realized that it too probably wouldn't be published today. It's quite brutal. In fact, I actually found it hard to find it funny because, well, some kids are abused like that. Now, the same topic (bullying/abuse) would be covered in a realistic contemporary novel. I wonder whether kids would find Dahl's version easier to stomach, though, precisely because it's not real.

Sorry, kind of going off topic here... away from PBs and into MG.

I did post some very dark examples of French PBs elsewhere in the boards. Darker than anything I've seen in English language PBs!
#26 - June 13, 2012, 01:20 PM

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I saw the link to those French pbs and thought, "I'd have no dilemma at all if I were writing for the French market!" 

I did devise a completely satisfactory happy ending for the American readership, however, and the ms is now sitting in several slush piles. Maybe, if it's successful, I could someday team up with the artist to publish the "original" version, with appropriate illustrations....  :rip  :rip  :rip  :ha
#27 - June 13, 2012, 02:14 PM

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