Monday, 9 February 2015

Wannabe a Picture Book Editor for a Day? by Malachy Doyle

Right. Rather than me trying to tell anyone how to do it, this week it's over to you. Tell me what's wrong with this story. Whatever you say is helpful. 

I like the story. Agent likes the story. But fears it's too 'quiet' for the current market.

I'm somewhat perplexed. What does 'quiet' mean? Too domestic? Too small in scale? Not enough pirates, dinosaurs, underpants...?

Or maybe part of the trouble is it rhymes (shock horror)?


The  Littlest  One

One day all the others – Pip, Stevie and Sam – 

rushed off to the playground. The front door went slam!

‘Wait!’ yelled the Little One. ‘Rats!’ was her cry –

for the handle was up near the top – far too high.

She tried all the doors but she couldn’t get out.

‘I’m fed up! So fed up! she started to shout. 
‘I’m fed up with being the Littlest One!
I want to be out there! I want to have fun! 
I’m fed up with THEM telling me what to do!

And I’m fed up with THEM always getting things new

while I get their hand-me-downs – old stuff from others –


She stomped up and down till she came to a door.

                    (of an old neglected wendy house, in the playroom)

‘We all used to play here, we don’t any more.

It’s too small for Pip or for Stevie or Sam,

but it’s just right for Little Ones – that’s what I am!’


She gathered up toys – they were Little Ones, too.

‘Let’s have some fun!’ she said. ‘Just me and you!

We won’t ask those others – they’ve all grown so tall.

They don’t fit in here but it’s good, being small!’

She reached out for Badger, she grabbed hold of Pig,

and soon they were whirling and dancing a jig.

Ragdoll and Teddy Bear – they joined in, too,

and the wendy house shook with the hullabaloo.

‘For the Littlest One, oh the Littlest One,

yes the Littlest One has the VERY BEST FUN!’

‘Can we join in too?’ cried her brothers and sister.

Now they were home, they were sorry they’d missed her –

sorry they’d missed the best game of the day. 
‘No, you’re all too grown-up!  You can just GO AWAY!’

‘But I can see TEDDY!’ cried Sam, at the door.

‘And my DOLL!’ shouted Pip. ‘There she is, on the floor!’ 
‘They’re not yours any more and he’s not Stevie’s Pig!

You gave them to me when you all got too big!

Too big for the wendy house, too big to play,

too big for “baby games” – you went away!

But the Littlest One, oh the Littlest One,

yes the Littlest One has the VERY BEST FUN!’


‘Oh please!’ cried the rest. ‘Can’t we just have a go?’

‘Well, you can if you fit…’ said the Little One so

Sam squeezed in the window, Pip squashed through the door

and while Stevie played fiddle, they whirled round some more.

‘We’re sorry we left you!’ said Pip, Steve and Sam.

And they sang and they danced. Even Dad did, and Mam!

Yes they laughed and they giggled until Granma said,

‘All playing together – what fun! Time for bed!’

So they danced up the stairs, all still doing a jig –

for you’re never too big for a whirly-ma-gig.

No you’re never too old to have oodles of fun,

for remember – you once were the Littlest One.

Yes, everyone once was the Littlest One. (Even Granma!)

‘For the Littlest One! Yes, the Littlest One! 
Oh the Littlest One has the VERY BEST FUN!’ (bouncing on the bed with Granma)                            



  1. I really like it and I think it would make a great picture book. But I think I know what they mean when they say that it's 'too quiet." I think it's just not the kind of PB text that's in fashion right now. A few of my author/illustrator friends and myself are getting this same kind of worrying feedback from editors at the moment. I think what's in vogue are texts with very few words and d├ęcalage happening between the words and pictures e.g. I Want My Hat Back.

  2. You're very kind, Sheena. But I fear you may be right about what's in fashion. Which makes it harder and harder for those of us who write but don't illustrate.

  3. I love it. Especially that it rhymes. And its a great idea - something that definitely happens in bigger families. Too quiet? I don't really get that, it seems quite noisy. Although I think the Little One might need a bit more persuasion to let the others into the Wendy House - I know my "little one" would not give in so easily. Could everyone in the family (granny, mum, dad etc) have a go to change his/her mind?(and in the illustrations all appearing at different doors/windows of the wendy house?) Or do you already have the right number of words/pages?

  4. Thank you, Lucy. Good thinking about additional persuasion - I might see if I can fit that in.

  5. I've had lots of feedback of this nature too, I don't know if it is heartening or discouraging that so many published authors are also finding this! (I'm unpublished as yet). I agree with Sheena. I'm being encouraged to write something more witty, more unexpected (e.g. combinations of things - like the dinosaurs in underpants!) and with a bigger impact/reveal at the end. It's harder to write something based on ordinary life (I had a "going to school" story which my agent liked but was similarly deemed too quiet.) I very much enjoyed your story, it reminded me of Dr Seuss in style and it was fun to read and easy to imagine the illustrations. But it is perhaps not "quirky" enough for some editors. I wonder if some of the vocabulary might also be deemed quiet or old-fashioned too e.g. hullabaloo/played fiddle/what fun/whirly-ma-gig/Mam? While I love the picture books being published today, I also think there is definitely a place for lovely stories set in ordinary family life like this one.

    1. Thanks Helen. Yeah, it's not just you. I so agree that there needs to be room for stories set in 'real life', alongside the flashier, noisier ones. Thanks for the nice things you say about my attempt, and good luck with all of yours. I try to write from the heart, rather than follow the market. Fashions change.

    2. Thanks Malachy. Good point about writing from the heart!

  6. It’s a great piece of writing, Malachy. It scans well and reads aloud beautifully (which is no mean feat) and has genuine charm.

    While some of my picture books might be described as ‘loud’, I know that they don’t appeal to every child and we also need to be publishing quieter, gentler stories like this. Picture books ought to be as diverse in their appeal as the tastes of the children that read them!

    Sheena’s comment about the current vogue for scanty texts, rings true with my own experience (and I wrote about it here While there’s a lot of debate about illustrators being undervalued at the moment, I think many publishers are failing to recognise the lasting appeal that a well-crafted text – particularly a well-crafted rhyming text – brings to a picture book.

    If I had one criticism it would be that, while the story is centred on the “Littlest One”, the end of the text seems to be addressing an older reader: “for remember – you once were the Littlest One.” This feels incongruous in a text that is presumably meant to appeal principally to children who are around the same age as the “Littlest One”.

    1. Thank you, Jonathan. I do agree about well-crafted texts. I was thinking that the 3/4/5 year old reader might well have a little brother or sister by now, and was trying to appeal to everyone, big and small (hence the granny, at the end). But you may be right. I'll think about it.

  7. Interesting experiment Malachy, and a courageous one too.
    For me (meaning that what I think will be unlikely to be the consensus, and likely a load of rubbish, me being me and all, so a large pinch of salt should be applied. . ), for me, the rhyme, though done very well, is a bit forced, and the echo of Dr Suess in the stantion (sp) or rhythm just brings comparisons which are never going to be flattering I don't think. it also then behoves an illustrator to get Dr Suess out of his/her head when working out drawings. I also think you are writing the pictures a bit, and I think the rhyme doesn't help in that regard. It would be fun to illustrate, but the pictures would struggle to carry any extra meaning or do any work for themselves imho.
    I wonder if the older siblings shouldn't have to work a bit harder to get included in the game. They seem to just get included because they asked. Where's the revenge? ;-) The heady power trip from the hitherto powerless?
    I love the concept, but i don't really know if this treatment works well enough. It doesn't knock people's socks off, more loosens the elastic a bit. . .
    Anyway, you'll get it published and sell a million. very best of luck with it.

    1. Hah - two Jonathans in four minutes, with widely diverging views!
      Writing in rhyme is asking for trouble, I know, but sometimes it's just the way the story falls, and you have to follow it. I tried this one without, but much prefer it this way.
      You're the second person to say the Littlest One caves in too easily - I'll re-look at that.
      Oh and thanks for not pulling your punches!

  8. I love this! Yes, I'd like a bit of cleverness needed before the big ones are allowed in. Do they have to promise to do something to please the littlest one, perhaps? Or admit something they've not conceded earlier? My only other thought for how to give it a bit more oomph would be to change those children to bears or some other animal. Human-bears, obviously, but that might make it funnier? I don't know.
    Good luck with it, anyway, Malachy.

    1. Thanks Pippa. Good thinking on letting the big ones in. I'll have to think about the bears idea. Hmmm...

  9. I applaud you for your bravery, opening your story up to the criticism of just anyone! As with all advice, take this or leave it. I have no idea what publishers are looking for on that side of the Atlantic, but here is what is going on here. Quiet stories are still being published, no need to get discouraged.
    1. Although I enjoyed the rhyme (well done!), Linda Ashman advises EVERY line contributes, either moving the plot forward or setting emotional tone. Are there stanzas where the sentiment is repeated, nothing new to say, just more clever rhymes? That would create lulls in the pacing, contributing to a "too quiet" reaction.
    2. This brings me to the illustrator's perspective: imagine the text with page turns. Is there something new to see on each page? A change of venue, change in the action, change in character, or a surprise? Does the reader feel compelled to turn the page? I think it's Paper Lantern Lit which says each step should seem logical, inevitable, but never predictable.
    3. The story seems to shift from the mc being too small, to resenting hand-me-downs, then to fun for all ages. What do you see as the theme of this book? How does that coincide/differ from the plot? I love that the mc has fun in ways the older characters don't, making them want to join in (eliciting the same response in the reader). That's an enticing an unique theme. Can you you best tell that story with one event (the Wendy house party) or multiple events (she can't do A, so she does B. She can't do C so she does D, etc. Or she receives castoff A, then B, then C, then realizes how she can use them in a fun new way)? Try writing a pitch for this book. That always helps me zero in on the story I want to tell.
    4. How can the title entice the editor? Does the current title reflect the joyous whiry-ma-gig in store for your reader? I would personally love to see the word "hulabaloo" included in the title.
    I hope there was some shred of help for you in my comments. I think you've got something special here. We look forward to hearing of its success in the future! Thanks for the opportunity to participate in your process!

    1. Whew, that's a good one, Joanne. Thanks for engaging with it so closely. There's lots to think about in your response. And not just for me - for everyone who's writing picture books. .

    2. I'm thinking of renaming it Hullabaloooooo! Thanks for the suggestion.

  10. I've often got so excited about a story or a book project idea that I've sent it off too quickly. I'll bet we've all done that, and I think that's what you've done here. Malachy. So no need for discouragement. When I read it I felt that the piece was well on the way and full of life - but it's not yet found its final form. I'd go more positive - in particular the second and third sections - 'Rat!' was her cry, and 'I'm fed up', could be cut (they don't carry the voice of the child, the rhyme is creaky and they're a bit slow), and the section that begins 'I can see Teddy' is problematic because it is somewhat negative. I'd rather you built up and built up to the 'whirly-ma-gig' joyously, echoing this lovely phrase in the pace of the story. I'm not going to say any more because you will find the form, I know! Go and dance to some fiddle music and get the feeling (I'd come with you if I could!).
    One other suggestion - put a 'branding hat' on - entice publishers by telling them you're planning a series on the 'The Littlest One' (mention Katy-Morag, a similar Celtic-inspired brand that's current at the moment, is in all the shops, and gives the lie to 'too quiet for the market'). Branding is the word sales teams all want to hear. Now go play with those words.

    1. Lots more to think about! Thanks Moira.

    2. But I wanted The Littlest One to be good and grumpy, having been told the story was 'too gentle'.

  11. Firstly I've had a story turned down because the voice was too quiet. It was a story some of the fab denners gave feedback on and not one mentioned the voice. I've put it in storage for a while in the hopes this fashion for few words, loud voices etc. begins to subside.

    It's a lovely story and I can see how families will relate to it. I'm not 100% sure on the rhyme, although well written and as mentioned trips off the tongue I think if you lose some of it a 'stronger' voice will come through. I'm also with Pippa et al who have suggested the older kids have to work harder to get into the wendy house. Also perhaps make more of them having to squeeze in and rediscovering old toys they'd forgotten and perhaps realising they are not too old for them.

    Hope that helps.

    1. Thanks Lynne. I've not tried out our internal PBD critique group, or any other for that matter, so this was rather a rash experiment for me. It's amazing how varied people's responses can be. It doesn't half make you stop and think about your story though.

  12. 'Too quiet' seems to be a favourite editors' comment, and applied across the age groups, not just to picture books (I once had it applied to a KS5-6 novel set in a tough part of North London and featuring a couple of nasty racist thugs! We - ie me and David - eventually published it as an ebook, and it's not doing too badly).
    I find myself agreeing with most of the crits already expressed. It's a lovely idea which all of us can relate to, but possibly too sophisticated for a picture book - maybe a really touching, but funny, Early Reader instead?? Think you either need a lot more words, Malachy, in which case it needs a different format, or a lot less. How old are the siblings? Might the play house turn into a small loft?

  13. First off, I think the rhyming was done well. I read it aloud, and it was fun, not forced. What I didn't feel was the "Ahh" satisfaction at the resolution.
    The set-up is that MC is feeling bad at being left behind because she's the smallest. The passage about her playing happily alone is nice, but since the ultimate ending is getting her siblings playing with her, I felt that passage could be condensed to one line. What I missed is how her smallness, her obstacle, became her asset that leads to the ending. It feels a bit as if this happened and then that happened, which although beautifully told didn't give me the same reaction as if the MC actually causes the ending. And for me, as I said, I'd like to see her smallness play more of a part. Just thoughts!
    I am in awe of your work. :)

    1. Very helpful, Wendy. And thank you for your kind comments.

  14. Hi Malachy
    Thanks for sharing a nascent manuscript, good to be part of your experiment!
    A few comments squeezed into a break from other work… I love the dancy rhythm of this, and I love the littlest one herself, although would like to see her cheeky character a little more. (I agree with those who feel she should give them more of a challenge to join back in…)
    I did stumble over some bits of the meter on first reading, and feel like the rhyme could do with some more polishing. I won’t go over all the places as it feels like you’re not at that stage yet, but for example
    1. Too big for the wendy house, too big to play,

    2. too big for “baby games” – you went away!”
    I tripped up because line 1 starts with emphasis on “too”, and it shifts to “big” on line 2 with no warning.

    Other comments – I agree that “rats!” isn’t something a little one would say, and also feel like that line is slightly forced with the rhyme.
    In answer to your query... “Quiet” isn’t a word I’d use to describe it (your pirates, dinosaurs and pants comments made me smile) as it dances along despite the domesticity. Maybe adding something more of a challenge for the bigger ones in the middle could “de-quietify” it.
    I like having gentle books on the shelf. But then I’m not an editor or publisher, just a consumer with a voracious 4 year old reader of a daughter…
    Good luck with it – will look forward to seeing it on the shelf of my local bookshop :)

    1. Thanks for spending time with it, Jenny. Right, I'm going back to the story now. (but keep 'em coming, folks...)

  15. Personally, I liked your story very much. I thought the rhyme and pacing were very good. No tongue tripping for me. An avenue you might consider is magazine publishing. I can see this story in a magazine.

    I've been told at least four times (all on different stories and along with some very positive feedback) that my story was too quiet. It seems that humorous and quirky are what's selling these days. But quiet still sells too, if you happen to impress the right editor. Writing quiet stories is my style, I guess, and it's not a bad thing if your story is well-written. In fact, I sold a story last year that is most definitely quiet, but the publisher loved it! I'm hoping more editors will consider quiet, sweet, gentle stories. Life's not all quirky after all.

    1. That's what I want to hear, Lauri. Here's to the quiet ones!

  16. I just want to add that I work in a library and read as many new picture books as I possibly can. So I can tell you with confidence that quiet books are still being published. My suggestion to everyone is to read a lot of new picture books and make note of which publishers publish quiet books versus quirky books.

  17. Here to chime in as well! Thank you for the opportunity, Malachy. I felt the beginning promise/hook of a feisty little character shouting "Fed up!" fall away too soon as she took to playing alone, and too easily allowed her sibs to join in later. I WAS a feisty little sister and have devised many a plan to make myself indispensable to their games. Food for thought!

    1. OK, Julie. You're first in line when I start auditioning for the film version!

  18. Hi, I liked the plot and loved all the big kids wanting their knackered old toys back just because someone else has them. Very true. The poem could be a wee bit shorter, for the sake of tired parents reading a bedtime story. Maybe Granma's voice could come in.

    As an illustrator I imagined all the baby pictures of the characters up on a wall showing the time when they were the littlest one. I also had a slightly mad image in my mind of the characters being fingers - with the different size fingers and thumbs being the children of different ages and the adults. This could be done using fingerprint character 'doodles' in cheerful colours. This page shows the kind of thing: The reader might then naturally want to use their hands in some way when telling the story such moving their fingers to show the bigger children rushing out of the door, or they might get the child to wiggle their little fingers at the right moment. I hope that doesn't sound too bonkers.

    1. Good to get an illustrator's input, Deborah. Nice idea!

  19. Lovely idea to encourage finger use in a story! Nice one, Deborah.