When I asked my Gran for advice about becoming a good writer, her answer was simple (and it’s no secret, either). She said, “read.” Read everything you can … especially in the genre you want to write.
You know what? She was right.
It’s no coincidence that I got more involved in the craft of picture book writing when my children were of picture book reading age. I was reading a ton of picture books to them. We were enjoying them. I was learning what interested my children and brought them joy. I was learning what interested me and brought me joy, too. I’m a creator at heart. And so (naturally), after a couple of years of soaking my brain in a rich mixture of delicious stories, my own stories started to simmer and bubble out.
And it’s also no surprise that my writing has improved immensely in proportion to the number of recent picture books I’ve read.
Listening to others’ voices helps you find your own voice. You learn what you like and don’t like. You learn what works.
Reading lots of recent picture books helps you understand where your story fits in todays picture book market so you can find appropriate comp titles and target your queries to the right agents and editors.
Reading lots of picture books also makes you a better critique partner. Just last month, I shared a toddler weaning book I’ve been working on with my critique group. My critique partner shared some lovely mentor texts that are perfectly geared towards 1-3 year olds, and it helped me improve that story. A couple of months ago I ran across a beautiful picture book that was similar in tone and theme to one of my other critique partner’s stories, and I emailed her immediately. Today another critique partner shared her concern that her humorous story is written all in dialogue. I was able to rattle off SEVEN recent funny picture books/series for her to check out – all written in dialogue.
The best part – this is not a chore. It’s SO much fun! (HINT: If you’re writing in a genre you don’t like to read, you may not have found your niche just yet.) And even though it sounds a bit overwhelming to find and read hundreds of recent picture books – it’s really not that hard.
I’ve heard people talk about how they pick their favorite picture books and analyze them line by line, tabbing, plot-mapping, outlining, and typing the text of a story to see how it looks in manuscript form. Lots of people also participate in ReFoReMo (Reading for Research Month) – with daily posts in March exploring specific kinds of picture books. These are great tools!
I WISH I had time to do all of that. Maybe some day I will (when my kids are older, or I’m not working, or I get to write full time, or I win the lottery).
But you know what? It’s okay that I don’t have time to do all of that right now. Because there’s a special kind of magic in just reading. The secret sauce seeps into your brain and your bones, and when you sit down to write again, it seeps back out into your writing.
So how do I find recent picture books to read, and the time to read them?
- I take my kids to the library and browse the recent releases for covers that interest me. Then I read them to my kids at bedtime. (HINT: I’m hanging out with my kids anyway.**)
- I also let my kids pick out the books that interest them, and we read those together, too. (HINT: We’d read bed time stories anyway.**)
- I volunteer to read to my daughter’s kindergarten class, and I try to find recent books on whatever topic they are studying. (HINT: I have to volunteer in my child’s class anyway.**)
- I attend book signings and buy or check out* my writer friends’ books. (HINT: I want to support my writer friends anyway.**)
- I buy or check out* books that are recommended by other writers, such as on the 12×12 forum, then I read them to my children at bedtime. (HINT: We’d read bed time stories anyway.**)
- I research agents and editors I want to query, or plan to meet at a conference, and then I buy or check out* the books they’ve represented or published, and the books they say they like and recommend. (HINT: I need to do this research anyway – plus I read them to my children at bedtime, which we would do anyway.**)
- I pick a topic I’m working on and I look for recent titles with similar topics – either on Amazon, Goodreads, or ARBookFinder. Then I buy or check out* those books and read them to my children at bedtime. (HINT: Okay, you get the idea!**)
- I buy or check out* books that I’ve heard about at conferences and workshops, or through 12×12 webinars. (I also buy books at conferences when I can.) Then – you guessed it – I read them to my children at bedtime. (HINT: Yep, you got it.**)
- I take my kids to the story times at the library. (HINT: We’d be hanging out together anyway.**)
- I also read and review books by debut authors on this website (a win-win for both of us).
*The majority of these books I check out at the library. The library’s online search and hold system is a major friend to this busy working mom. When I can’t find a book at the library, I often check to see if there’s a read-a-loud of it on YouTube.
**Notice that most of these activities are things I’d be doing anyway – so it’s not a huge added time commitment. And BONUS – I get to do it while spending quality time with my kiddos!!
What about you? What are your favorite ways to find new books? Do you simply read and absorb the magic like I do, or do you have tricks and tips for analyzing picture books? You can share in the comments.