Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Bonus Read: Digesting Picture Books


We all know that studying picture books is important, but are you fortifying yourself with each read? Here are ideas to consider: 



Check the title. Say it aloud. What clues does it give the reader about the book? Who does it target? Is it a name or a line from the book? How long is it? Is it memorable? How does it illuminate what’s inside?

Check copyright information. Publication date? Publisher? Make a guess before you peek!

Read aloud. Garner your first impressions. What made you laugh? cry? think? slow down? keep reading? Which words were fun to say? Why?  

Read silently and carefully. Chew on words and ideas. How does each page move to the next? How does it build to a climax? Has the second reading held your interest or deepened your understanding? How? Would you read it again?

Consider mood. How is it created? Through pacing? character development? word choice? sentence length? repetition?

What elevates the book from mediocre to first-rate? Word choice? Plot? Hook? Rhyme? Rhythm? Humor? Pathos/ethos/logos? Mystery? Pacing? Repetition? Character development? Structure? Innovative strategies?

Deconstruct the first and last sentences. How does the first sentence set up the story? What information does it divulge? How does it intrigue you to keep reading? How does the last sentence wrap things up? Is there a hook or a surprise? Does it come full circle? Make you laugh? Cry? How? Why?

Read the book flap blurb. How many sentences are used? How does it hook you without revealing everything?



Study the cover. What elements make it stand out? What clues does it give about the story? Who is it targeting? How does it illuminate what’s inside?

Check copyright. Publication date? Publisher? Mediums used?

Study the illustrative narrative. How do they add to the text?

Pinpoint style. What aspects make the illustrations unique? Look at line work (stylized or traditional), lighting, mediums used, contemporary/ traditional techniques (or a combination), dimension choices, brush strokes, use of perspective, composition, expressions, movement, and patterns. How do the illustrations compare to other illustration styles?

Study color choices. Are the illustrations created with a limited, monochromatic, analogous, triadic, or complementary palate – or has the illustrator opted for something completely different? Is the same color palate used throughout, or does it change from page to page?

Observe pacing. Count the number of full-bleeds vs. vignettes. How does the illustrator use negative space? How do the illustrations work with the text to create a climax and lead to the conclusion?

Pick your favorites. Which illustrations would you add to a portfolio? How do they stand out from the rest?

 Although not every book packs the same levels of illumination, a thorough study can help you digest informative morsels to improve your own creative efforts.


Angela Hawkins has written for Gryphon House, as well as Spider, Clubhouse, Clubhouse Jr., Listen, and BYU Today magazines. She has also illustrated for Brown Books, Wee Ones, Fandangle, and Stories for Children magazines. She is a member of SCBWI.


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4 Questions for…Heather Alexander, Pippin Properties


Heather Alexander joined Pippin Properties as an agent after six years in editorial at Penguin. She loves books about those moments that change a person forever, and she is always looking for thoughtfully drawn characters. She tends to prefer literary projects over commercial, and wants to make books that will live on forever. Some of her favorite projects have been Firefly Hollow by Alison McGhee and The Thing About Yetis by author/illustrator Vin Vogel, whom she met through SCBWI.


Do you represent both artists and authors?  How is the process different?

Yes, I represent both authors and artists. It’s wonderful to be able to share in all aspects of children’s book publishing that way. The process of working to sell an illustrator’s work can be quite different. For instance, we keep portfolios of all our illustrators’ work in the office, and have editors and art directors in to browse them. The publisher may have projects in mind that they need an artist for, or they may take samples to remind them of the work they liked so they can approach that artist for something down the road. With illustrators, the work almost always comes from outside. But with authors and author/illustrators, we work on manuscripts and dummies and send them out to editors the traditional way.


Pippin Properties is known for working to increase the “footprint” of a work by licensing ancillary rights and maximizing the audience.  Can you tell us how this process works?  Does it apply to everyone?

We are very proud of this, so I’m glad you brought it up! We consider the book contract as the first step in a project’s life. We team with co-agents to sell our foreign, TV, and film licenses, and we have great relationships with audio publishers and stage production companies. We meet with new people regularly to keep abreast of who’s looking for what, and to become familiar with companies or people who are looking for content. This is something we do for all of our titles, not just the latest and greatest. In fact, some of our older titles have recently been picked up for tv!


Are you interested in expanding your client list?  If so, what kind of client or project would intrigue you most?

I would love to find some future superstars to add to my list. I’m looking for very literary writers, people whose stories burst forth from them because they can’t keep them in. Lately I’m really intrigued by graphic novelists. The way they think and lay out narratives is fascinating, and I’d love to add a few to my list. My favorite books are smart and funny and make me cry. I am considering work from illustrators as well, and always look for a style I’ve never seen that grabs me fast and doesn’t let go. I want projects that make my heart flutter, that make me feel like I’ve found something truly special. Basically, I want to fall in love.


How would you characterize the current sales climate in the children’s book field?

Well, from my side of things, the industry is looking quite healthy. There seems to be a renaissance in picture books, which is wonderful to see. Of course, publishers always need to be choosy, and so we strive to send out only the books we think will stand the test of time. But it seems to me to be a time when publishers are a bit more willing to take a risk on something really unique.




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On the Shelves The Red Balloon Bookshop


Joan Trygg of The Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota, tells us what's on the shelves.  


What trends do you notice in children’s book sales? What are the current hot reads?

Our trends are probably store-specific—we do a lot of handselling.  Currently, we’re selling many princess books, where the princess is a strong non-traditional girl.  (It’s not always girl readers who are requesting these.)  We also get requests for spy/secret agent books, again by readers of both genders. A non-store specific trend has been the demand for more diverse books, with people looking for books with characters of diverse races; families with two mothers or two fathers; bi-racial families, gay, lesbian or transgender characters; and characters from  a range of religious traditions.  Authors and others in the book world are making their voices heard on the need for diversity through the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, as well, which makes me hopeful for change in the future. Hot reads:  Princess in Black.  Bone Gap, Cinder, and Steelheart. Also, The Book With No Pictures.


How do you choose what books to order? Do you use a publishing rep?

Three of us on staff meet with various publisher reps, who send us ARCs and F&Gs to preview.  The whole staff can read the ARCs & F&Gs, and recommend things to the buyers.  We also have a number of teen readers who give us input. Buyers take this into consideration, along with previous sales, rep recommendations, and personal judgment on what we think will sell in our store to create orders.


What would you like to see more of from authors/illustrators in terms of community involvement?

We have a great author/illustrator community in the Twin Cities!  Not only do they help us promote their events in our store, but many of them turn out for each other’s events.  When they visit schools, they recommend us as the store to go to for book orders, and a number have agreements with us to come in and sign books for customers. I don’t think there is anything more we’d ask. We want them to be writing and illustrating new books!


How do you handle author/illustrator visits? Can authors/illustrators contact you directly?

We usually set up author/illustrator visits through the publishers.


What is your favorite part of being a bookseller/manager/librarian?

I love being a part of the whole book world!  We get to work with everyone from the writer to the reader, see parts of the whole process from the creation of a book through the joy of the readers when they love it.  We meet sales reps and hear what they’re loving.  We meet and chat with other booksellers, or read about their stores, events, or current book passions through newsletters and social media.  We have great customers who often share their favorite books with us. 


Personal book recommendation? 

I love Ambassador by William Alexander.  Not only is it a great adventure (aliens trying to destroy Earth, and taking pot-shots at Gabe, who is trying to figure out who and why), it is also about how the protagonist's family must deal with his dad’s impending deportation as an undocumented worker.  And instead of a shoot-‘em-up approach to a solution, being an ambassador is about finding peaceful ways to resolve conflict.  Gabe makes mistakes and has a lot to learn, but he’s big-hearted and often wise, making him a character you want to spend time with.  A fun read with lots to think about as well!


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SCBWI Exclusive with . . . Jenny Bent, The Bent Agency


In 2009 Jenny Bent founded The Bent Agency after twenty years in the publishing industry, most recently as vice president at Trident Media Group. Since then, TBA has grown to include eight other agents. As a group, they pride themselves on close working relationships with their clients focusing their attention on every detail, from the terms of a first contract, editorial work and cover design, to the publisher's marketing and publicity plan, and finally royalties and sales figures.


Was there something you gravitated to in high school or as college student that made the children’s book world and the agenting aspect of it the perfect fit for you?

Well, I represent both adult and children’s and I think that reflects my tastes as an entirely democratic reader. Starting as a child, I read anything and everything I could get my hands on, starting with the cereal box every morning. I was (and still am) an obsessive reader. So, publishing was always the perfect fit, and in fact, in many ways the only option for me. I’m not sure what else I would be doing otherwise!  Agenting is good for me because I’m bossy and dislike being told what to do, so working in a publishing house never seemed like a wise choice for me. 🙂


What’s your best advice to someone who’s stuck writing a query letter?

I am obsessed with this post and think it is the best thing ever written on query letters:

It’s a must read for anyone writing a query letter to agents or editors.

This post is a VERY close second:


Once a query reels you in and you request a manuscript, what does it take for you to offer representation?

I have to love the book!  If I’m reading it and mentally composing my pitch letter or thinking of the right editors to send it to, or if I start actually editing it (that happens sometimes), then I know I will most likely offer rep.  


If you read something that isn’t quite right for you but think it’s a match for one of your other agents, do you pass it along? How does that work? 

Yes, we are really collaborative that way. I just email the query or sub to the specific agent here I think I will like it, or sometimes if something is promising but it’s not right for me, I will share with the whole group. We all do that here, so everyone is constantly emailing/sharing things at the agency.


What trends is your agency seeing?

As a group, we are seeing a lot of fantasy and magical realism for Middle Grade as well as kid superhero projects. For Young Adult, we have seen a significant number of dark contemporary, paranormal, supernatural and romance manuscripts.


Three tips when submitting a requested manuscript?

Don’t rush it.  If you realize before you send it out that it’s not ready and you still have some work to do, just let the agent know and take the time to do the work.  You only have one shot often to make a good impression and you don’t want to “waste” a submission by sending out something that isn’t your best.


Streamline your manuscript before you submit it. Often, you can cut a ton of words just on a line by line level—make sure the novel is as clean and tight as you can make it before you send it out.  Read this great article in the New Yorker for more information and pay special attention to the material on “greening:”


It’s great to include the pitch from your query letter as the first page of the requested manuscript. 


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Hot Topic: Children’s Books, Brain Development, and Imagination: The Scientific Correlation

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy saying that literacy promotion, beginning at birth, should be part of all pediatric primary care.  That makes sense.  Mountains of scientific evidence exist to show that regular reading aloud with children leads to improved language development and long-term school success.

Yet despite this evidence, only some American families include reading as part of their daily routine.  Sixty percent of children from families with incomes above $90,000 are read to daily from birth to age five.  In contrast, that number is less than thirty-three percent for families living at or below the poverty line of $24,000.

In August of this year, the journal Pediatrics published a study that used MRI’s to study brain activity in young children as they listened to stories.  There were two significant findings.  First, listening to stories caused an area of the left brain cortex, specifically the hub that supports semantic language processing, to activate.  But of even greater significance to me was that researchers found that in children who had been read to at home, the activity in this hub was significantly greater than in those who hadn’t been read to. It’s like being physically fit—when that part of the brain had been exercised, it worked better.

Now about this “hub,” scientifically known as left-sided parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex.  It is the part of the brain that allows children to imagine in their mind’s eye what they are seeing when they hear the story.  Their brains are practicing creating images and associating them with words.  It’s what we non-scientific folk refer to as IMAGINATION, the ability to see, feel, and create stories out of images and words.

Think of it.  Our stories actually exercise that part of the brain that allows children to imagine, which is, of course, the foundation for all literacy that is to follow.  It’s a thrilling and humbling responsibility.  It should inspire us to use full and rich language, to enrich our story-telling craft in every way possible, to read to every small child we can, and of course, to do our best to try to make books available to communities where there are none.




Lin Oliver is Executive Director of the SCBWI, author of over thirty books for children, including Little Poems for Tiny Ears (illustrated by Tomie de Paola), poetry intended for infants and toddlers.


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