If you watch conference sessions or read interviews with editors, you are going to hear two takes on the picture book biography. Either the market is saturated and they don’t want any more or the editor/agent loves them so bring them on! As always, you are going to have to look for someone who is interested in what you have written. It helps if your biography has these three things.
When you write a biography, picture book or otherwise, you need to hook the interest of the reader. Sometimes the hook is that this a well-known person. This may not help with editors, who have all seen 4 dozen manuscripts on George Washington, but it does help with the adult buyer. ‘I know who that is!”
This week I read two picture book biographies that had the same marketing hook. Both were about STEM. Beatrix Potter, Scientist by Lindsay H. Metcalf told about Potter’s research and pioneering efforts. She did things the male scientists at the time failed to do. Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer by Traci Sorell is about a Cherokee woman who helped send Americans into space. STEM is a great hook.
Whether your biography is a birth to death story or a slice of life, it needs to focus on a story. Classified tells the story of how the Cherokee values Ross grew up with led to her career in math and science. Beatrix Potter, Scientist tells about the mushrooms Potter studied and how the rejection of her science led to turning her eye, and her paintbrush, to imaginary characters in a detailed realistic world.
The spreads in these books are not episodic. One leads to the next because of the story they tell.
Last but not least, your biography needs a bridge. There has to be a way for young readers to access the world of your story.
Beatrix Potter, Scientist opens with Potter as a young girl. Metcalf shows her fascination with the natural world, a fascination that many children share.
Classified shows Ross in the classroom as a student. Since the audience skews towards the older end of the picture book range, they will themselves be students. Sorell aslo shows Ross recruiting girls to study math and science. Female readers will think, “This could be me.”
When you are contemplating writing a picture book biography, look for these three elements. Does this person’s life have a hook? Can you create a story? And will you be able to build a bridge between the life of your subject and that of your young reader? All of these things will help your manuscript find a home.