I never thought I could write picture books. I never thought I wanted to write picture books. But last year I felt stuck. The pandemic was dragging on, and most parts of the publishing industry seemed to have slowed to a crawl too. I wasn’t getting many assignments for the educational market. Agents and editors seemed less inclined to say yes to anything, as well as less likely to include feedback with a rejection than they had been only a few years before.
Writing had lost its fun. I tried to work on my young adult books, but they felt like a habit I’d acquired, not something that fed my soul. I needed a change. So I began to dip my toe in the picture book world. Slowly, I tried on various nonfiction topics and engaged in super short fiction challenges. When I saw Rob Sanders’ and Lesléa Newman’s workshop Writing the Rainbow: LGBTQIA+ Themes in Picture Books, I thought, why not?
Queer joy, not queer problems
I soon realized I’d made the right decision. The enthusiasm of Rob, Lesléa, and everyone else in the class was so inspiring. As were the books. The vast possibilities for queer picture books spread before me. Weddings, fairytales, gender romps playing with clothes and pronouns, and much more. Stories told by buildings, stories told by cake toppers. Kyle Lukoff’s presentation got me thinking about books that are not so much about being queer as they are about queer people and their lives. Queer joy, not queer problems.
Picture books had always been a joy for me and my daughter, especially the ones that reflected our family as it looked at the time. Whenever we read Lesléa’s book Mommy, Mama, and Me, I always edited “Mommy” to “Ama,” the parental term I’d chosen for myself. Other edits turned straight books queer. One memorable fairytale prince looked so feminine I just verbally made him into a princess. The story worked just as well, and the kid couldn’t read yet anyway.
Picture books are short, but so much life lives between their covers.
I remembered too all the times we read together when she was very small, before she even understood the words. I remembered playing around with sounds, with facial expressions and gestures. Sometimes, when I’d read a beloved classic one too many times, I decided to add my own twist. It turns out Goodnight, Moon is just as pleasant to read backwards as it is forwards (I can’t help but smile saying out loud lines like: “Bears on sitting chairs/little three were there”). Picture books are short, but so much life lives between their covers.
After the workshop was over, I discovered I had picture book stories of my own that needed to be imagined into being. I started bringing shiny new manuscripts to share with my critique group. At the same time, I joined a group with some of the other workshop attendants over Zoom, providing even more companionship and encouragement on this new journey. I began to take the craft of PBs seriously—and playfully.
Publishing is a business, but writing is an act of creation.
With everything going on in the world, I wanted to create stories that would delight, that would empower, and that would be the bit of joy some other family needed in their life. I’ve now amassed a small handful of picture book manuscripts, plus I have some exciting news I can’t wait to share.
So if you’re feeling bored or stuck, I recommend rediscovering the joy of creation, whatever that looks like. Try something new that’s calling to you. Take a class that intrigues you, even if you don’t know why yet. Maybe it’s not picture books. Maybe it’s verse novels, or memoir. I have one children’s book author friend who’s recently found a new passion for writing adult fiction. Rediscover the reasons you wanted to write in the first place. Who knows where it will take you?
C. Rowen MacCarald