Freelance editor, children's writer and occasional word inventor.
What makes one picture book a bestseller and another a flop? While there’s no way to predict a bestseller, many of the most successful picture books have some (or all) of these factors:
1.) Illustrations that are colorful, varied and full of movement. Successful picture books surprise the reader by the art on the next page — whether it’s by using an unexpected image for humor, or using a different perspective (looking at something from above rather than below, or close up rather than far away), or using mixed media in ways artists haven’t done before, etc.
(FYI: If you are an author, you’ll be paired with an illustrator by your publisher, so generally authors have no control over this factor. Publishers tend to match lesser known authors with well-known illustrators, hoping to introduce the author to the illustrator’s established audience.)
2.) Lovable, identifiable characters. Kids read picture books to see other kids (or kid-friendly characters) accomplish big things. The typical “try 3 times and then succeed” type of picture book requires the protagonist to fix their own problem, because what we want to tell children is that though they may be small, they can be independent/fix their problems in their own ways.
3.) Universal appeal. Fancy Nancy has taken off because it found something that almost all little girls like to do (play dress up) and turned the book into something as sparkly and fabulous as the activity itself. The illustrations are very distinct, there is glitter throughout the book, and Nancy is even more over-the-top in her dress up choices than the most diva-ish of six-year-olds. There is another level though, than just sparkle and glitter. Externally, Nancy wants to be fabulous, but internally, she just wants her family to play dress up with her and accept her ‘fabulousness.’ (Eventually, they do.)
4.) Humor. Funny picture books that take a new/unique look at something old do wonderfully. For example, in Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin’s Duck For President, we saw someone climb through the ranks of government — but that someone was a duck. It was funny, it had jokes for both the parent and the child, and it featured an unlikely but child-friendly candidate for president.
5.) A strong/unique concept. A picture book needs to be layered enough that it makes sense as a fully illustrated book, instead of an easy reader or a short story. The layers come from the internal/emotional problem and the external/physical problem working together, so that when the character is actively working towards one goal, they are unwittingly working towards the other as well. The art also has to give us an additional layer to the story, not just show us renderings of the text.
6.) Pattern and/or repetition. Some books are successful because of a refrain that kids like to hear repeated. For example, Munsch’s Love You Forever has the refrain “I’ll love you forever/I’ll like you for always/As long as I’m living/My baby you’ll be.” It’s sweet, it works throughout the whole book but in a different context, and the meter is perfect. Fun fact: My favorite picture book as a child was Chatty Chipmunk’s Nutty Day by Suzanne Gruber, because of the alliterative refrain, “Chitter chitter chatter, I like nuts!” (I’m not really sure about what that choice says about me as a person.)
7.) Rhyme that’s well-written/necessary. If it’s a rhyming text, the rhyme has to flow smoothly and each line has to further the plot. Sometimes authors are tempted to throw in a line just because it rhymes with “dog” or whatever the previous line is (i.e. “At school today there was a dog/he did not bring himself a log.”) Some concepts do make more sense in rhyme than in prose. For example, if you’re writing a book about a jazz musician, then you can use rhyme to imitate the rhythm of music for your reader.
8.) Interactivity. Some books are more interactive when they’re read to a child. Mo Willem’s Pigeon series is very successful because the child reader is given a task — “Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus.” Then, the pigeon comes in and begs and pleads to be allowed to drive. The child then repeats “Nooooo!” with each questioning from the pigeon, thus becoming a participant in the story.
9.) Re-readability. Because picture books have to be read to the child by the parent and children tend to want the same book read to them over and over again, they have to be something that a parent is going to want to read over 100 times. Part of re-readability is the visual interest in the illustrations, which is why an illustrator will put a small visual subplot (such as the ant slowing stealing food at the picnic) for readers to notice perhaps on the their second or third reading. The other part of re-readability comes from some of the elements above — either a refrain, or humor, or word play.
Take a look at your works-in-progress. Do your picture books have some of these factors?