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Meet the Teaching Artist: Writing Picture Books that Sell with Mary Boone

by Writing Workshops Staff

8 months ago

Meet the Teaching Artist: Writing Picture Books that Sell with Mary Boone

by Writing Workshops Staff

8 months ago

We're excited to introduce a new seminar, Writing Picture Books that Sell, led by prolific author Mary Boone. Known for BUGS FOR BREAKFAST and her upcoming picture books like PEDAL PUSHER and SCHOOL OF FISH, and with over 65 nonfiction titles for young readers, Mary brings a wealth of knowledge to this seminar. Her seminar is designed for both newcomers and seasoned writers in the field of children's literature, offering a comprehensive view of the current picture book market.

The course will cover key elements of successful picture book writing, including understanding market trends, the preferences of agents and editors, and the unique challenges of the genre, such as effective use of rhyme, rhythm, and page turns. Participants will gain practical insights into making their work stand out, with a focus on crafting readable, engaging stories that appeal to both publishers and young readers. The seminar will conclude with a Q&A session, providing attendees with personalized advice and strategies for navigating the children's book publishing landscape.

Hi, Mary. Please introduce yourself to our audience.

I'm a newspaper reporter/editor-turned-KidLit author. I got my feet wet in the publishing world by writing pop star biographies (Yes, that was me in the front row at Justin Bieber's first world tour!) These days, I'm happiest when I find a new or unusual story idea and then figure out how to telll that story in a way that resonates with young readers.

What made you want to teach this specific class? Is it something you are focusing on in your own writing practice? Have you noticed a need to focus on this element of craft? Or is this just your jam and you love it?

It's a fact: Fewer than 1% of all aspiring children’s book authors secure traditional publishing deals. But it's also a fact that not all the manuscripts landing on editors' desks have an equal chance at getting published.

I edit and critique A LOT of picture book manuscripts. Many of them are OK, but very few truly shine. Often it's that rhyme is off or jokes fall flat. Pacing may be wrong. And sometimes it's that the manuscript simply isn't being presented according to industry standards. Not every editor will connect with every story but, with such fierce competition, why give an editor another reason to say NO to your work?

I want picture book writers to have the tools they need to give their picture book manuscripts the very best odds!

Give us a breakdown of how the course is going to go. What can the students expect? What is your favorite part about this class you've dreamed up?

I always start off with a reality check: Getting a picture book traditionally published isn't easy. But I have some tricks and tips to share that will help my students get closer to achieving their dreams.

I can't possibly pick a "favorite" part of this class, but I have a couple aspects I really like:

I've spoken editors and agents to ask what qualities they look for in picture book manuscripts. I'm excited to share their Top Ten responses!

I also really enjoy the question and answer portion of the class. I want students to get the information they need. Do I have all the answers? No. But I'm happy to offer opinions and to point them toward additional resources when necessary. 

What was your first literary crush?

Crush? My first -- and probably ongoing -- author crush was on Judy Blume. Not only could she tell a story, but it was so obvious that she truly cared about her readers. Plus, she continues to be so generous with and supportive of fellow writers.

What are you currently reading?

My current favorite picture books is long -- and it changes all the time. Here are a few:

A History of Underwear with Professor Chicken by Hannah Holt/illustrated by Korwin Briggs

The Very True Legend of the Mongolian Death Worms by author/illustrator Sandra Fay

Great Carrier Reef by Jessica Stremer/illustrated by Gordy Wright

These are just three of the picture books I've read recently and immediate thought: I wish I'd written that.

Of course, I read grown-up books two. I just finished Collision of Power by former Washington Post editor Martin Baron. Other recent books I've really appreciated: Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll and Happiness Falls by Angie Kim.

How do you choose what you're working on? When do you know it is the next thing you want to write all the way to THE END?

My projects are primarily nonfiction picture books and middle-grade. If I come up with an idea that I can't stop thinking about, that generally means it's time to start researching. I like to keep track of WOW facts on notecards and when I've collected a half-dozen or more of those and I've convinced myself there's a reason kids will care about this topic, I generally have a sense that this is going to make a great story. That's when I start writing and revising and writing and revising and on and on and on.

Where do you find inspiration?

Everywhere. The inspiration and ideas for my forthcoming picture books came from three very different places: 1) A women in history calendar page, 2) A documentary on aviation, and 3) A Squaxin Island tribal program about salmon migration.
Why do I write in general? Because I was a super curious kid and I know there are others out there like me. I want to write the kinds of books they'll enjoy and that will encourage them to ask even more questions!  

What is the best piece of writing wisdom you've received that you can pass along to our readers? How did it impact your work? Why has this advice stuck with you?

Rejections shouldn't be devastating. If a particular agent or editor doesn't love your story, that's OK -- they simply weren't the right one. You want someone who wholeheartedly cares about your project. If you've done the work, that person is probably out there.

What is your favorite book to recommend on the craft of writing? Why this book?

I love Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I specifically love the essay within that book called "Shitty First Drafts." I am a perfectionist (a lot of us are). I used to fiddle with the first few paragraphs of a story until they were absolutely perfect -- and then I'd be paralyzed ... I couldn't move on. I wasn't finishing projects because there was no way the end of the story could live up to the beginning.

"Shitty First Drafts" helped me shift my mindset. You can't clean up a story until it's all down on paper -- even if it's absolute trash in the beginning. That thinking was a game-changer for me. I still read the essay a couple times a year. 

Bonus question: What’s your teaching vibe?

I am congenial and fun. I speak from the heart and I work really hard to share the information I wish someone had shared with me when I was starting out.

Learn more about working with Mary:

You can learn more about Mary's upcoming Writing Picture Books that Sell Zoom Seminar, and sign up now.

Instructor Mary Boone has ridden an elephant, jumped out of an airplane, and baked dozens of cricket cookies – all in the interest of research for her books and magazine articles. She’s written 65+ nonfiction books for young readers. Her middle-grade book BUGS FOR BREAKFAST: How Eating Insects Could Help Save the World (Chicago Review Press, 2021) was long-listed for the Green Earth Nature Award. Her forthcoming picture books include: PEDAL PUSHER (Henry Holt, 2024), SCHOOL OF FISH (Albert Whitman, 2024), and FLYING FEMINIST (Andersen Press, 2025).

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