Award-winning Judith Rossell on Picture Books

Judith Rossell has been involved in children’s books for more than 12 years – having written a dozen of her own books and illustrated more than 80. She teaches the course Writing Picture Books for the Australian Writers’ Centre in Melbourne.

Her latest book, a beautifully illustrated junior novel called Withering-by-Sea recently took out the Children’s and Young Adult top prize at the 2015 Indie Book Awards – an amazing achievement, as voted by nearly 200 independent booksellers across Australia.

In a recent interview with Allison Tait on our So You Want to be a Writer podcast, she shared her thoughts on various aspects of writing picture books…

On the surprising scope…
“Some people think that writing for kids is restrictive, but I actually find it the opposite. It seems to me that you have a wider range of things that you can write about than for adults, because if you want to write the story about the harrowing reality of terrible life you can certainly do that for a kids’ book, but you can also write the story about the dinosaur who wanted do ballet. You can have a dragon appear, if you want. You have an enormous range of things you can write about. I enjoy that. You can create a world and send off your little characters to have their adventure…”

On simplifying
“I think you have to be quite tough on yourself when it comes to the editing and I think that’s where a lot of people fall down. You fall in love with your complicated ideas and you need sometimes to step back and look at it with a hard head and say, ‘No, the story is about this…So all of the things that are not ‘this’ probably don’t live in the story.'”

On keeping everyone happy…
“In the case of a picture book, you have to be child-centred. Write about something that kids are interested in, but you also have to keep a little eye on the adults, because picture books are read by adults to children on the whole.”

On the misguided concept there is a ‘quick turnaround’ when writing a picture book…
“It’s a long process. Generally the writer would write the text and send it off to the publisher and, say they accepted it straight away, that’s still is a few months. Then they start looking for an illustrator. Say you’re a first time writer, they might want a really good famous illustrator to illustrate your books, because one of the names often needs to sell the book. But that person might be busy for the next 18 months. So they book them up, and the months pass, they do the illustrations, and then they might take three or four months to do the illustrations, or more. Then the book has to go off to be printed and bound and distributed. So, I would say two years would be not unusual.”

Tip #1 for picture book writers
“You have to be quite determined. You have to want it. I have a lot of students who say they don’t have time to write. That’s fine, everyone has many things in their life. I think it’s a choice. You can choose to make time. It doesn’t matter how busy your life is, and it might be incredibly busy, like unbelievably busy, but if you can’t squeeze ten minutes into the day then you just don’t want it enough. You’re making choices, you’re choosing to — I don’t know — feed your children or write your novel. Okay, maybe in that case you probably should feed your children…

“I had a student who would text her novel to herself while she was working as a waitress in her little breaks. At the end of the day she collected those texts together and wrote another paragraph. You have to want it and you have to be determined.”

Tip #2 for picture book writers
“Try and write and every day.”

Tip #3 for picture book writers
“Don’t give up. People get very dejected by rejections from publishers. We’ve all had lots. Even really well-known writers get rejected, it’s really important to see that as what it is, which is that your book doesn’t fit them right at the moment, or it’s not something they can see a way of selling right at the moment. It doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible person, it doesn’t mean that you’re not a good writer. Try not to get discouraged by that stuff. Just keep trying to improve.

“Actually picture books are one of the toughest genres, because very few first-time writers get published each year. But, each year some do. I’ve heard editors who read through the slush pile saying they would love to find treasure in there. They’re genuinely looking.”

On becoming a top ten-percenter…
“Editors receive literally hundreds of picture book manuscripts. Hundreds. Because they’re so short, people think they’re easy to write, so they just whip them out and send them off.

“But, out of those hundreds, even just doing a little course would put you, I reckon, in the top ten percent, because already you’re producing something that could be a picture book text. It’s the right number of words, it’s presented in the right way. You’ve given some thought to it. And already you’ve given yourself a much better chance than some random person who has just scribbled on the back of an envelope with a crayon and posted it.”

You can read the entire interview transcript or listen to the whole interview on episode 51 of our popular So You Want to Be a Writer podcast.

And if you’re interested in our Writing Picture Books course, we have online and classroom courses available regularly through the year.

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