Monday, January 24, 2011

Magazine Stories versus Picture Books

Over at Verla Kay’s boards (an essential resource for all aspiring children’s and YA writers, btw – if you don’t have an free account over there, you should get one today!) there’s a discussion going on about magazine stories versus picture books. There are already several articles available on the subject, but people wanted more concrete examples.

I’ve had a magazine story that almost made the transition to a picture book, so I thought I’d post both here to help illustrate the difference.

This post is going to be enormous, so if you're interested, keep reading after the jump!



The original story, How Zebra Learned to Hide,appeared in Clubhouse, Jr. Magazine. (They bought non-exclusive rights, so I can republish it here.)  I submitted it as a picture book to the Sylvan Dell contest a few years ago. First, I submitted the magazine story as it was. The editors asked me to rewrite it so that it would be better suited to a picture book. My rewrite was mostly successful, since I made it into the finals and eventually lost because of my complete lack of marketing ability. Not a bad way to lose, in my opinion.  After all, I know I am a far cry from a marketing genius!

Anyway, I’m no longer an aspiring picture book writer since I’d rather spend my time on middle grade science fiction. So, rather than letting “Zebra” molder on my hard drive, I’m putting it out here.

A disclaimer – This work is about 5 years old. (Wow! It’s been a long time!) Even though this was SUCCESSFUL work, reading it now makes me want to cry with embarrassment. But hey, what are blogs for if not embarrassment, right?

Also, Sylvan Dell allowed much higher word counts for picture books that your run-of the-Mill publisher. Frankly, I have no idea how I could manage to tell this story in 500 words or less while still keeping the requisite number of spreads. (Which is probably one of the reasons I gave up on the picture book game and moved on to novels. Well, that and the fact that, really, I like space battles and laser guns and big explosions. It’s difficult to write a picture book with all of those. Well, the Captain Raptor guys managed it delightfully, but that’s because they are beyond awesome.)

How Zebra Learned to Hide – The Clubhouse, Jr. Edition:

Zebra feared Lion.

“Lion is always hungry,” said Zebra. “If he finds me, he will eat me. I must hide.”

Zebra did not know how to hide. He asked Monkey for help.

“Hide in a tree,” said Monkey. “Lion will not find you there.”

Zebra tried to climb a tree. His hooves could not grab the branches. His tail could not help him balance. He fell with a “Thump!” and a “Bump!”

“I can not hide in a tree,” said Zebra. “What will I do?”

“Ask Hippo,” said Monkey. “She hides well.”

Zebra walked to the river. He was afraid. What if Lion saw him?

He found Hippo. Hippo was sunning herself on the riverbank.

“Hello, Zebra,” Hippo called. “What are you doing here?”

“I am looking for you, Hippo,” Zebra answered. “Will you teach me how to hide from Lion?”

“When I want to hide from Lion, I go for a swim,” said Hippo. “I sink under the water. Only my nose shows. Lion never sees me.”

Zebra walked into the river. The water was around his ankles. He walked further and further into the river.

The water grew deeper and deeper. Zebra began to worry.

“Go a little bit further,” called Hippo. “Then you will be ready to hide.”

Zebra didn’t want to go further. Water got in his nose. The mud clung to his feet. Weeds wrapped around his legs. He panicked.

“Hippo, help me!” Zebra called.

Hippo swam out into the river. She brought Zebra back to shore.

“I can’t hide in the river,” Zebra moaned. “What will I do? I don’t want Lion to catch me!”

“Why don’t you ask Elephant for advice?” Hippo replied. “He is very old and very wise.”

Zebra walked across the grassland. He had to find Elephant. He had to learn how to hide from Lion.

Zebra heard a noise in the tall grass. Lion was nearby!

Zebra was very frightened. He was too frightened to think. He had to get away. He ran as fast as he could.

Lion followed. Zebra ran and ran. He zigged. He zagged. He ran over hard, rocky soil.

Zebra couldn’t run any longer. He stopped beneath a tree. He took deep, ragged breaths. His legs shook.

The branches rustled. Had Lion caught him?

“Hello, Zebra,” a friendly voice called.

The voice came from the tree. Zebra looked up. He saw Monkey.

“Why are you shaking?” Monkey asked. “Why are you so tired?”

“It’s Lion!” Zebra gasped. “He’s chasing me. I can’t hide. He will catch me and eat me.”

Monkey climbed to the top of the tree. He looked around. “Lion is very far away,” he called.

“He’s lying down. He looks exhausted. Are you sure that he is chasing you?”

“I outran him,” Zebra sighed. “What luck!”

“Are you sure that it was luck?” Monkey asked.

Zebra thought for a moment. Monkey could hide in a tree. Zebra could not. Hippo could hide in the water. Zebra could not.

“I can’t hide,” Zebra whispered, “but I can run! I have long, running legs.

“I’m faster than Hippo. I’m faster than Monkey. I’m even faster than Lion!”

“You don’t need to hide at all,” Monkey replied. “That’s incredible!”

Zebra didn’t feel tired anymore. He had a wonderful gift. He ran off to tell his other friends the good news.



Zebra Learns to Hide – The Sylvan Dell Edition

Zebra feared Lion.

“Lion is always hungry,” said Zebra. “If he finds me, he’ll eat me. I must hide.”

Zebra didn’t know how to hide. He asked Monkey for help.

“I hide in trees,” said Monkey. “Lion never finds me.”

Zebra tried to climb a tree. His hooves couldn’t grab the branches. His tail couldn’t help him balance. He fell with a “Thump!” and a “Bump!”

“I can’t hide in a tree,” said Zebra. “What will I do?”

“Ask Hippo,” said Monkey. “She hides well.”

Zebra crept to the river. What if Lion saw him?

Hippo was sunning herself on the riverbank.

“Hello, Zebra,” Hippo called. “What can I do for you?”

“Can you teach me how to hide from Lion?” Zebra asked.

“When I want to hide,” said Hippo, “I sink under the water. Only my nose shows. Lion never sees me.”

Zebra walked into the river. The water chilled his ankles. He walked further.

The water grew deeper. Zebra shivered.

“Just a bit more,” called Hippo. “Then you’ll be ready to hide.”

Zebra didn’t want to go further. Water got in his nose and mud clung to his feet. Weeds wrapped around his legs. Zebra panicked.

“Hippo, help me!” He called.

Hippo swam out and brought Zebra back to shore.

“I can’t hide in the river,” Zebra moaned. “What will I do? I don’t want Lion to catch me!”

“Why don’t you ask Hyrax for advice?” Hippo replied. “Lion never catches him.”

Hyrax lived on a big, gray rock. Zebra found him asleep in the sun.

“Hyrax, wake up!” Zebra shouted. “I need your help.”

Hyrax stretched and yawned. “How can I help you, Zebra?” he asked.

“Can you help me learn to hide from Lion?” Zebra replied.

“Hiding is easy,” Hyrax replied. He ran up the side of the rock. Then he squeezed into a tiny crack.

“Hyrax, where are you?” Zebra called.

Hyrax poked his head out of another crack. “Here I am,” Hyrax said. “It’s fun to hide among the rocks. Why don’t you try it?”

Zebra tried. His hooves slipped on the smooth rock. He fell and scraped his knee.

Now Zebra ran as fast as he could towards the rock. He climbed a little higher this time.

Zebra stopped running. He slid to the ground.

“Maybe you should hide near the ground,” Hyrax suggested.

Zebra squeezed into a nearby crack. Rocks scraped the sides of his face. One leg twisted under him.

“Am I hiding?” Zebra asked hopefully.

Hyrax sighed. “Only your head is hiding. You’re not very good at this.”

Zebra backed out of the crack. “I’m doomed,” he sobbed. “I can’t hide in a tree, in the water, or in the rocks.”

“Why don’t you talk to Meerkat?” Hyrax suggested. “He never leaves the ground.”

Zebra galloped towards Meerkat’s warren.

Meerkat popped out of his hole. “Hello Zebra,” he said. “What’s wrong?”

“I need to hide from Lion,” Zebra replied. “I’ve tried all day. Hyrax said that you could help me.”

“I hide under the ground,” Meerkat said. Meerkat dug a tunnel and disappeared. After a few moments, he came back.

“I dig very small tunnels,” Meerkat said. “You’re very big. I bet you dig gigantic tunnels!”

Zebra took a deep breath and began to dig. He moved his front legs as fast as he could. He kicked up a huge dust cloud.

“Keep going, Zebra!” Meerkat called. “Your tunnel must be very large. I’ve never seen so much dust!”

Zebra dug and dug. He was drenched in sweat. He stopped digging.

He looked for his tunnel. He saw a long, shallow ditch.

Meerkat shook his head. “That’s not a very good tunnel,” he said. “It’s much too small to hide you from Lion.”

Zebra felt like crying. He would never learn to hide. Lion would catch him and eat him. He ran across the savannah.

A small voice shouted, “Hey, watch where you’re going! You almost squashed me.”

Zebra looked around. He didn’t see anyone. “Where are you?” he asked the voice.

“Right here.” Baby Impala slowly stood on wobbly legs. “My mother told me to hide in the grass.”

“You’re really good at hiding,” said Zebra. “Will you teach me to hide in the grass?”

“It’s not hard. Lie down.” Baby Impala replied.

Zebra lay down. “Am I hiding yet?” he asked.

“I still see you,” said Baby Impala. “You’re taller than the grass.”

Zebra rolled onto his side. “How about now?” he asked hopefully.

“I still see you,” said Baby Impala.

Zebra curled into a ball. “I must be hiding now,” he said. “I can’t get any smaller.”

“Your black and white stripes are really easy to see,” said Baby Impala. “And you’re really big.”

“What can I do?” asked Zebra. “I can’t hide anywhere.”

Baby Impala thought for a moment. Then she said, “Rhino is really big too. He’s not afraid of Lion. You should ask him how he hides.”

Zebra found Rhino drinking at the water hole. “Rhino,” Zebra asked, “How do you hide from Lion?”

“Hide?” Rhino snorted. “I don’t hide from Lion. I charge him!” He backed up and ran. The ground shook. His feet sounded like thunder.

“Can you teach me to charge?” asked Zebra.

“Of course,” said Rhino. “Just pick something. Then run into it as hard as you can.”

Zebra picked a tree. He ran as fast as he could. He thought, “It’s really going to hurt if I hit that!” He zigged out of the way.

“That’s no way to scare Lion,” said Rhino. “Try again.”

Zebra tried again. At the last moment, he zagged.

“Zebra, you can run, but you’re no good at charging,” said Rhino. “No wonder you’re afraid of Lion. Maybe you should ask Elephant for help. She’s old and wise.”

Zebra hurried across the grassland. He must find Elephant. He must learn how to hide from Lion.

Zebra heard a noise. Lion was nearby!

Zebra was too frightened to think. He ran as fast as he could.

Lion followed.

Zebra zigged. He zagged. He ran over hard, rocky soil.

Zebra ran until he couldn’t run any longer. He stopped beneath a tree. He took ragged breaths. His legs shook.

The branches rustled. Had Lion caught him?

Zebra looked and saw Monkey.

“Why are you shaking?” Monkey asked.

“Lion’s chasing me,” Zebra gasped. “He‘ll catch me and eat me.”

Monkey climbed to the top of the tree. He looked around.

“Lion’s lying down,” Monkey called. “He looks exhausted. Are you sure that he chased you?”

“I outran him,” Zebra cried. “What luck!”

“Was it really luck?” Monkey asked.

Zebra paused. Monkey could hide in trees, but Zebra couldn’t. Hippo could hide in water, but Zebra couldn’t.

Zebra couldn’t hide among rocks, in the ground, or in the grass. He couldn’t charge like Rhino.

“I can run,” Zebra whispered. “I’m faster than Hippo, Monkey, Hyrax and Meerkat. I’m even faster than Rhino and Impala. Best of all, I’m faster than Lion!”

Zebra jumped up. He had a wonderful gift. He ran off to let everyone know.

My Notes:

I've sold four short stories to magazines so far. (Ever since I started working on novels, I've written and submitted very few short stories.  They're completely different kinds of writing!) Of those sales, I am confident that this is the only story that comes close to working as a picture book.  And even this one turned out to be a near-miss, not a win!

You'll notice that both versions of the story have a lot of visual humor.  Zebra gets into some pretty bizarre scrapes, which would translate well to a picture book spread.  Also, it's a story line that appeals to young children.  For a magazine story to work as a picture book, it needs to be targeted to the very young AND it needs to be something that would benefit from illustrations. (Clubhouse, Jr. ran the original story with awesome illustrations.)

This story is also not a mood piece or a 'slice of life'.  It has a pretty clear character arc, a varied cast, and a solid, satisfying ending.

One last random thought.  Most book editors have never worked on a magazine.  So saying "This is more of a magazine story" may not actually mean that the story is a good fit for a children's magazine.  It might just be a polite way of saying that it's not a good fit for a picture book.

1 comment:

Theresa said...

I love that story! You're a great writer! Maybe someday I'll find time to get into the writing business, but I feel I am much more suited to non-fiction. So, it will be a while :)

I'm enjoying your blog, too!