The easiest way to know when a picture book manuscript should really be a novel is to have an editor tell you so. This is what has happened to me with three picture books so far. I’m hoping I’ve learned enough from this that I can share some of the whys with you.
My picture book subjects were:
3. A girl whose little sister is sick. (Don’t worry; mine isn’t.) You got it–also told in poems.
For the kitten story, an editor wrote, “I think you have more to say about this girl and her father.” She suggested a novella-in-verse. I asked myself, “Do I have more to say about them?” And the answer was Yes. There was a lot going on behind those 15 or so poems and that relationship. I wanted to find out what it was.
So reason number one: Depth. Have you only scratched the surface of the story and the characters with your picture book manuscript? Are there intriguing possibilities you could explore? You will probably also need to make your characters older.
For the soccer story, the age of children who were being read picture books, or even reading them themselves, wouldn’t be passionate in the same way, and certainly not as skilled, as the character in this book. So the audience for the book was older. Therefore, the book should be of a length appropriate for this age group.
Which leads us to reason number two: Age appropriateness. Are your characters’ skill sets and interests beyond the age of most young children? If your characters are too young for a middle grade novel, make them 9-14 and see what else happens to your story then.
For the sick sister story, an editor was concerned that the appendicitis limited the story’s appeal, and that the nontraditional structure already limited its saleability. This wasn’t a suggestion to move it to a novel, but it reminded me that another editor had suggested making it a book with chapters about the sisters. That would solve the problems, as novels-in-verse are an easier sell than picture books with the story written in poems, and the appendicitis would no longer be the main storyline.
So reasons number three and four: Subject Matter and Story Structure. Is your subject matter not universal enough for a picture book? This will limit sales to customers and to editors.
Is your story structure more accessible in novel form? Is it too sophisticated for a picture book? You can either find a more universal subject and write it more in keeping with a picture book, or you can take the story to a longer form for middle graders.
The joy for me in moving a picture book to a novel is that these are already characters I love, and now I get to spend more time with them and get to know them better. May it be so for you, too.