An Interview with Wisconsin Picture Book Writer Pat Zietlow Miller.
By Eva Apelqvist
A picture book, says Wisconsin picture book author Pat Zietlow Miller, “tells a universal story about the human condition and distills it down to a small package.”
One human condition (or emotion) might be, for example, loneliness, as in “Two Speckled Eggs” by Jennifer Mann. That book is about the universal human emotion of feeling left out. Even if it hasn’t happened to you in that exact way, you can relate to the emotion, said Zietlow Miller.
Or the book might be about love. Or humor. Or nostalgia.
Another sign of a good picture book, Zietlow Miller said, is that it is sparse with words. Sometimes there may be just two or three words in a sentence. One sentence might even make a paragraph.
"And good picture books don’t drag,” she said. “Everything in them serves a purpose. Nothing is extra. If you can possibly take a sentence out, do it. It’s not needed.”
Zietlow Miller believes that in a picture book everything is essential. She reads her books out loud to make sure that every sentence is needed.
Zietlow Miller has also thought a great deal about what a picture book isn’t. In addition to doing her own writing, she teaches picture book writing and does a lot of critiquing of picture books, and she knows when what she’s looking at is something different altogether. A picture book is not a chapter from a middle-grade book, she said. Even if the chapter is very well written, it does not make a picture book.
Similarly, an anecdote, even a well-written one, is not a picture book. It’s an interlude, perhaps even an interesting piece of writing, but not a picture book, Zietlow Miller said.
While Zietlow Miller feels that picture books sometimes do convey messages - her own recent book “Be Kind” certainly does - this should not be their main purpose. There has to be something else underlying it, some story, some emotion.
According to Zietlow Miller, you know a good picture book when you see it. “If you want to hug it, you know it’s good,” she said.
One of the most common questions from people starting out as picture book writers is, according to Zietlow Miller: How do I find an illustrator?
You don’t, is her short answer.
The long answer is that if your manuscript is accepted by a publisher, the publisher will find an illustrator that matches your style. Zietlow Miller often finds that this answer agitates people. How does the illustrator know how I imagine my character? they ask.
The illustrator doesn’t know, of course. They add their own imagination and story. Zietlow Miller loves this part. “It’s one of my favorite things,” she said. “For every new book, I get to meet somebody new and we do this wonderful joint thing.”
But it’s hard for some people to give up control in order to do this “wonderful joint thing.”
“People have to let go,” Zietlow Miller said. “Trust me, the illustrator is going to do things you could never have imagined and you will be so happy.”
In her book “Wherever You Go,” Zietlow Miller had assumed that the main character would be human, and when she saw the art for the first time, it took her a good fifteen minutes of sitting around thinking, um, a rabbit? a rabbit! a rabbit… before she could wrap her mind around this new idea. But now she loves the art and says that even after three years, she still notices new details in the art work of the book.
The artist who did the illustrations for Zietlow Miller’s book, “Sophie’s Squash,” Anne Wilsdorf, added a cat to that book. The cat watches everything that goes on and when the reader sees what the cat sees, it adds another layer to the book.
“I didn’t know there was going to be a cat,” Zietlow Miller said. Now, when she writes, she might even take out some things in her book, like descriptions, to “make more room for the illustrator.”
Zietlow Miller has always loved pictures books. She has written longer pieces too, but her favorite format was always the picture book. Even as a young adult and later an adult, she kept going back to reading picture books at the library. “There is something about telling a fully-fledged story in such a small space,” she said. “Picture books are like verbal Sudoku.”
But she also sees another important aspect of picture books – the responsibility of portraying the world of all children, not just a chosen few. Doing school visits and talking to kids from very different backgrounds, makes you a more inclusive and compassionate writer, Zietlow Miller said. Kids growing up today have a lot of challenges. Poverty, violence, inequity… Some kids might only be able to go to school for part of the year, if they are in a homeless shelter, for example, or live in a family of migrant workers. This, according to Zietlow Miller, means that we need to consider the environment in the pictures books we write. “Not every kid in a picture book should live in a nice big house,” she said.
Zietlow Miller spent four years writing picture books before she got published. She read a million books, tried to figure out what worked and what didn’t work, looked at the structure, read out loud. “Picture books are harder to write than people realize,” she said. “And they’re not just for kids. Picture books are for everybody. Whether you’re a kid or ninety-three.”
Some of Zietlow Miller’s favorite picture books:
“Zombie and Love” by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Scott Campbell. According to Zietlow Miller this book has the perfect picture book structure and she often uses it to teach about writing picture books.
‘There Might Be Lobsters’ by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by Laurel Molk, because, Zietlow Miller said, it perfectly portrays the universal human emotion of fear.
“The Rabbit Listened” by author-illustrator Cori Doerrfeld is, Zietlow Miller said, funny, soothing and beautiful.
“Yunkyard Wonders” by author-illustrator Patricial Polacco deals with the wonderful notion of how a teacher can make a difference in a child’s life.
“Each Kindness” by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis is, according to Zietlow Miller a good example of a true-to-life picture book. She loves it because the author has allowed sadness to permeate the story.