Some children's publishers do not take unsolicited submissions. Instead, they ask for queries. Many picture book authors are, understandably, confused by this. Why, they wonder, would a publisher want to read all those letters? Isn't it easier to just read the manuscripts? I don't know the answer for sure, but I'm guessing there are several reasons:
1) It cuts down on the actual size of the slush pile - #10 envelopes are much smaller than 9x12s, 10x13s, Fed Ex envelopes and boxes.
2) Frankly, a lot of amateur picture book authors can't figure out how to write a query letter, so they don't bother even submitting to these houses. This probably cuts down their slush considerably and keeps quality high.
3) Okay, I can't think of a number 3. I'm convinced it's mostly number 2.
So, what goes into a good query? Opinions vary, but the letter below got me published, so it couldn't have been too bad. Note that it offers a fun description of the manuscript, showing a bit of the voice - this is key! - followed by some evidence that I had done some research on other published books that might compete with mine.
If I had to do it all over again, I probably would delete the paragraph about how the manuscript "breaks the fourth wall." I don't think that was necessary. It might also have been dangerous to say that my story was a "unique, layered approach..." I can probably get away with such statements because I have a decent set of credentials to back me up. Editors will, I hope, assume I know what I'm talking about. But new authors sometimes overstate their abilities and such statements make them look silly.
Oh, and like it or not, your query success rate will go up as your "resume" paragraph gets more impressive. If you're a published children's author, they will be more likely to express interest in reading your work.
In this particular query, I mentioned the fact that I have a Ph.D. I rarely do this. Holiday House is a school-library publisher, so I felt my academic credentials might interest them. But for other trade houses, I do NOT mentioned my degree. It sounds pretentious and could even backfire. After all, academics have a reputation for being ponderous. I don't want them to think I'm ponderous!
Here's my query letter to Holiday House for a manuscript called A STORY WITH PICTURES. This query garnered a request for the manuscript followed by THE CALL four months later. A STORY WITH PICTURES has just been published. Click here to read about it.
Please note: Holiday House's submissions guidelines have changed. I believe they now prefer to read full picture book manuscripts. Check this before you submit!
Dear Acquisitions Editor,
I hope you will consider reading my 900-word picture book, A Story with Pictures. When the author of A Story with Pictures loses her manuscript, the illustrator ends up painting all the wrong pictures. Particularly annoying is the illustrator's insistence on including a duck in the book ("I would NEVER write about ducks"). The author faces all sorts of slapstick humiliations such as being half-painted, having to wear silly slippers and being turned upside-down, before she figures out how to take back control of her book - by writing, of course! In the end, she writes about an author who loses control of her book. And she puts a duck in it.
A Story with Pictures breaks the fourth wall between book and real world, sort of in the spirit of David Wiesner's The Three Pigs. The manuscript is meant to be funny, of course, but it also happens to tie into the elementary school language arts curriculum (grades one through five) by addressing story elements such as character, setting, and problem/solution.
There are surprisingly few trade books that address story elements and writing, the main ones being Eileen Christelow's What do Authors Do?, and two by Holiday House: Loreen Leedy's Look at My Book: How Kids Can Write and Illustrate Terrific Books and Janet Steven's From Pictures to Words. I believe my manuscript differs from these, first because mine focuses on the story elements themselves, rather than on the process of being an author, and second, because mine is a unique, layered approach that, I hope, inspires multiple readings.
To remind you, I am the author of Circle Rolls, a forthcoming picture book with Henry Holt and Co. I have stories and poems published in Highlights for Children, Ladybug, Guideposts for Kids, Fun for Kidz and other children's magazines, and I received an honorable mention in the 2004 Writer's Digest Annual Writing Competition. I also have a Ph.D. in natural resource economics and a large number of academic publications, mostly on statistical topics.
Thank you for taking the time to consider my work. I look forward to hearing from you soon via SASE.