By Barb Rosenstock
Want to know the secret to creating a picture book biography that will be published?
So do I. After a decade writing picture book biographies, I’m not sure there’s any such thing. Instead, there are trends and tips you may consider; actions you may take to increase your chances of publication. Here are three current trends I’ve noticed for PB bios, followed by a tip and an action for each. Let’s get the scariest trend out of the way.
Trend #1: Publishers are not buying picture book biographies.
I’d love to tell you that this is totally false. Unfortunately, I can’t. The past decade has been a “golden age” of picture book biographies. Writers found this genre in need of an update, publishers snapped them up, and phenomenal illustrators brought them to life. Some of these PB bios won awards and sold well to the public. However, most are targeted to a school and library market which is unstable right now. Many publishers consider PB bios “overbought.” In practical terms, that means that even when an editor loves your manuscript, they’re still going to have a hard time getting it through acquisitions just because it’s a PB bio.
Tip: Don’t despair, take the “hard sell” as a challenge. Ask yourself—
Can kids relate to your topic and does it tie in to school curriculum? Did you carry out in-depth primary research or can you provide unique knowledge? Is your manuscript written in scenes that focus on action? Is it fun? Is it detailed? Is it meaningful? Are you willing to revise until all these answers are a yes?
Action: It’s time to experiment with other genres. Publishing is cyclical, PB bios will come back around; but we work in the business of children’s publishing. Riding the waves of that business works to your benefit. PB bios are my first love, and I’m lucky to have upcoming titles under contract. But I’ve also contracted other nonfiction and am writing a middle grade proposal. Are there ways you could change your bio manuscript or refocus your research toward another genre?
Also, as someone who’s interested in PB bios, you may want to help promote their reach in the classroom. Visit the new CLA-sponsored website thebiographyclearinghouse.org, sign up if you’re interested, and spread the word about this helpful resource to the classroom teachers you know.
Trend #2: Publishers are seeking stories of under-represented individuals.
Thank goodness. Publishing is finally (like many of us) realizing the impoverished perspective of focusing on mostly white, male, heterosexual people from western cultures. A current, worthy goal is to expand children’s literature, PB bios included, to be more representative of real children and their families.
Tip: Seek subjects whose stories have been ignored. We need more PB bios of women, people of color, and lives that are non-U.S. centered, among others. Please be certain you’re able to tell your subject’s story from a place of authenticity. If you haven’t experienced many (or any) of the same life challenges, if you are not of the same background or do not have express permission from the subject’s family or cultural institutions to tell that story; I urge you to reconsider. Sharing someone’s life in a book is a great responsibility; make sure you’re worthy of it.
Action: Keep a notebook of your family stories and memories. Learn as much as you can about your own cultural history and heritage. Which people, places or stories have been overlooked? Make a list of your expertise. Are you a potter? A flight instructor? A hockey fan? The spark for a PB bio does not always come from the outside in; it can come from the inside out through personal experiences or interests.
Trend #3: PB Bios of Contemporary Lives and Contemporary Topics
Those of us who write biography tend to have a thing for the past. But historical subjects, OK, dead people, are not the only ones deserving of a PB bio. Plenty of living people (including children) have accomplished amazing things. Current news stories, as well as science, technology and other STEM topics are overlooked in the PB bio realm.
Tip: Stay informed on current news. Look forward instead of backward. Who is making history now? What are today’s kids interested in? What traits do they desire? What inventions do they use? Who created the games or activities they love?
Should you choose (like me!) to still at times write about old, dead people, make room in your manuscript for young, living readers. “This person was important” is not a theme. So what? Every person is important! In particular, the child reading your book is important. So what benefit is that book providing them? Why should they care? How are you connecting past events to their current reality? A great PB bio runs on actions and feelings. Kids run on actions and feelings. When we pair the right bio with the right kid, magic happens.
Action: Start a practice to spend consistent time listening to children. Ask questions about what they’re watching, reading, and doing. What do they worry about? What excites them? Try to get a sense for what it’s like to grow up in 2021. We can’t expect kids to be curious about our work, if we’re not as curious about their lives as the lives of our biography subjects.
So, maybe there is a secret to writing a successful picture book biography after all. It’s allowing your life story, your memories, skills, interests, faults, failures and feelings, and those of children you know, to inform your writing. Know the trends, but write for children from your own curious heart.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ABOUT THE PRIZE
Barb Rosenstock will provide one written critique of a randomly selected PB biography manuscript, no longer than 1,000 words or 5 pages, 12 pt. type, double spaced, 1-inch margins.(Deadline for submission is Jan. 1, 2022). If you could benefit from a PB biography critique, simply comment below. Winner for this prize will be randomly selected from comments.