Teaching Tuesday – Titles and Twain

I’ve been struggling to come up with a new title for one of my polished picture book manuscripts. The title I had been using was suggested in a critique, and it played off of a current title on the market. It rolled off the tongue and gave a good feel for the story, or so I thought. But when I recently got a (thoughtful and personalized) rejection from a publisher, one of the critiques they had was that it was too much like the existing book. Although I’m not certain if I agree that my story is overly similar to the existing book, I can see why the title put it immediately into their minds. Before they even read my manuscript, they were already comparing it. So, as I rack my brain to come up with a better, more original title, I thought I’d research some best practices in writing titles. Here are some suggestions that I’ve found, in no particular order.

  • “Don’t give away too much too soon…. The best titles give you a dramatic notion of what the book is about but don’t give much else.” – How to Write a Children’s Book and Get It Published by Barbara Seuling. This is actually in the section on novels, but I think it’s appropriate to picture books, too. Sarah Finds the Missing Puppy seems much less exciting than The Day the Puppy Went Missing or Now You See Puppy, Now You Don’t! These aren’t actual books as far as I know, but now I’m wondering if they should be…
  • Rather than using character names for a title, try using the story’s goal. The goal is much more exciting and creates the forward motion that that the reader wants to see resolved. In her Writing for Children podcast, Katie Davis gives the example of the game Monopoly, which was once titled The Landlord’s Game. The latter is about the characters in the game, but the former, and highly successful, title is about the players’ goal.
  • Don’t make the title too long. Tara Lazar says that picture books sell on their concept, which should be relayed succinctly in the title. “If your picture book manuscript has an overly long title, it may suggest your concept is either too vague or too complicated for the format. You want to nail down your concept and make it snappy, catchy.”
  • Use alliteration. Or, don’t use alliteration. This seems to be both a warning and a recommendation. When used thoughtfully and sparingly, alliteration can add zest and flow to a title, particularly when balanced with other word play, for example Rosie Revere: Engineer. Alliteration can also signal the types of wordplay or lyrical language the reader can expect in the book. But when overdone, alliteration in a title can be a distractor or a cloying attempt that ultimately does the opposite of what a great title should do—entice a reader to pick up the book. (Just look at the title of this post!)

These are a few things that I’m now considering as I tackle my own story title. Of course there are exceptions to every rule. When you dive deeper into these book titles that seem to break from best practices, you can often discover why they still work. For example, with regard to long titles, Tara Lazar gives the example of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which has an exceedingly long title specifically for hyperbole purposes. The title is as dramatic as Alexander is about his disastrous day.

Ultimately, whatever title we writers come up with will likely be changed on our books’ path to publication. The editor and others at the publishing house will have their own suggestions. However, finding the right title to catch the eye of an agent or editor (and perhaps one that doesn’t cause instant comparisons to a successful published book) is a great way to get you onto that path.

Resources:

For more resources on writing children’s book titles, check out these links.

Long Picture Book Titles: Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad? from Tara Lazar

What’s in a Title? from Emma Walton Hamilton

How Good Is Your Title? | Writing for Children Podcast Episode 108

Random Fact

I’ve known since high school (as most of us have) that Mark Twain was the pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, but it never occurred to me to wonder why he chose that name. Today, I happened to find out what the name meant. According to The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, “‘Mark Twain’ is a riverboat term measuring two fathoms (12 feet) in depth: mark (measure) twain (two)….. On the river, the depth of the water was vitally important….. If the man checking the depth called out ‘Mark Twain,’ it meant a depth of twelve feet, ‘safe water’ for riverboats of the day.” Of course that doesn’t answer why Twain decided to make this his pen name, but given the importance of the Mississippi River in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it’s not hard to guess that why it may have held value for him, and perhaps offered a dose of humor, too.

To learn how Teaching Tuesday got started, check out this post.

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