Monday, 20 August 2018

Tips for titles: What's in a name? by Lucy Rowland

This year, I was asked to produce 4 short pieces about writing picture books for the SCBWI-BI ‘Words and Pictures’ online magazine.  I chose to write about writing in rhyme, editing rhyme, picture book endings and also picture book titles.

I decided to share and expand some of my thoughts on picture book titles in this post.  This is partly because, at the moment, I’m really struggling to come up with the right title for a particular story!... but also because titles are so important.

Strong titles can hook us in and make us want to pick up a book. So how do you know when you’ve found the right one?  Here are some points I consider when looking for the perfect picture book title.  It’s certainly not easy though and I’d love to hear your pointers too!

Be short and snappy! Tara Lazar, Children’s Book Author, writes that ‘Picture books tend to sell on concept. That concept must be communicated succinctly in order to capture a young child’s (and a parent’s) imagination.  If your picture book manuscript has an overly long title, it may suggest your concept is either too vague or too complicated for the format. You want to nail down your concept and make it snappy!’
Lots of picture book titles are quite short and to the point. Just having a look through my bookcase today, I notice that many of them are just 2-3 words long. For example:
'Blown away' by Rob Biddulph

'Oi Frog!' by Kes Gray and Jim Field
'Daddy's Sandwich' by Pip Jones and Laura Hughes
'Grandad's Island' by Benji Davies
'Mr Wolf’s pancakes' by Jan Fearnley
'Lost and Found' by Oliver Jeffers
'Dinosaurs don’t draw!' by Elli Woollard and Steven Lenton.

Though, of course, as Tara Lazar mentions, sometimes long picture book titles stand out and can work really well, particularly if they're used to stress a key idea such as in
'Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day' by Judith Viorst and Roy Cruz. 

Be intriguing! I love a title that makes me want to know more.  ‘There is No Dragon in this Story’ (by Lou Carter and Deborah Allwright) is a title that does just that.  The cover clearly shows a dragon and yet we’re told there are no dragons in this story! So what exactly is going on here?!  
And what about the unusual titles, ‘Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs’? by Judi and Ron Barrett or 'Don't let the pigeon drive the bus?' by Mo Willems.  Those are titles that definitely make me want to read on.

Be aware of co-edition sales This is where I tend to fall down! I often come up with stories because I like experimenting with words.  Many of my picture book titles are rhyming- e.g. ‘Gecko’s Echo’(illustrated by Natasha Rimmington) and others are plays on words like ‘Little Red Reading Hood’ (illustrated by Ben Mantle).  But how do these titles work for co-editions where the words may not rhyme in the new language? It can be done (Little Red Reading Hood is now published in French as ‘Little Red Riding Hood who loves to read’) but it’s certainly something to consider.

I personally really enjoy rhyming titles. In fact, ‘Where Bear’ by Sophy Henn, ‘Lucie Goose’ by Danny Baker and Pippa Cunick and ‘Follow the Track all the Way Back’ by Timothy Knapman and Ben Mantle are just a few of the rhyming titles that I currently have on my shelf.

Be open to changing your title.
My original text ‘Ned said No’ is now called ‘The Knight who said No’ (illustrated by Kate Hindley).  ‘Stoppit Floppit’ is now titled ‘Catch that Egg’ (illustrated by Anna Chernyshova).  These changes were made after discussions with my publishers who consider things such as search engine optimisation.  Parents often buy books for a particular time of year- Christmas, Mother’s Day, Halloween etc or because their children are going through a particularly intense ‘dinosaur phase’.  If a parent is searching for a picture book about ‘knights’, ‘dinosaurs’ or ‘Easter’- you want them to be able to find yours.
Also worth considering is whether or not to use character’s names.
Sometimes the character’s names don’t give us a lot to go on. They don’t give us a really clear idea of what that book is about.  I’ve recently changed a title where I was using a character’s name ‘Wanda’ to one where I use ‘The Little Witch’.  Again, it can be useful to think about the words that someone might search for if they are looking for a book about a particular topic.  Parents often look for picture books in order to support children with fears/phobias or to help them to learn about and navigate new experiences.  
Is your book about worry/fear of the dark/first day of school/ a trip to the dentist? If so, is this communicated really clearly by your title?
Having said that, looking again at my lovely picture book shelf, using character names certainly didn’t harm Sophy Henn with her gorgeous book ‘Edie’ or Claire Freedman and Kate Hindley with their book ‘Oliver and Patch’! 
Oooh this is so tricky!!  

I’d love to hear some of your top tips for titles.  Do you have any particular picture book titles that stand out to you?


Jane Clarke said...

I agree, picture book titles are always tricky - and when I'm writing one, the title is often the last thing in place. When I'm reading them, I like the intriguing ones like Click, Clack, Moo- Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin.

Lucy Rowland said...

Oh yes I love that Click Clack Moo one too!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Oh, I think that 'Stoppit Floppit' is a wonderful title! What a shame it had to be changed. I find titles so hard, and you've given some points to consider in for my present picture book title dilemma, thank you.

Lucy Rowland said...

Hi Pippa, thank you! I liked Stop it Floppit as well...but nevermind, it wasn't to be. Good luck with your current title dilemma!

Paeony Lewis said...

When I have trouble with a title, sometimes it's because the focus of the story isn't clear and I have to go back and revise. Nowadays I try to write the title first!