Updated: Sep 19, 2021
For many aspiring authors, writing a picture book sounds like the best way to kickstart their career. After all, they think, picture books are the easiest to write, and to write quickly. Elaborate, colorful pictures paired with simple rhymes or plot lines--how hard can they be?
Truthfully, writing a picture book is no easy task. Traditional publishers are increasingly picky about the picture books they deem worthy of accepting. And you'll only have success with self-publishing if you're willing to put in the time, effort, and money to produce a high-quality book. Parents and teachers want to ensure that children are reading engaging content, and kids--the target audience--are often the toughest critics of all!
Whether you’re thinking about writing your first picture book, or are looking for tips to refine your craft, there are a few helpful points to keep in mind.
First, as with any genre or type of book, read as much as you can. If you’re a parent or teacher, you may think you know everything about picture books already! However, taking the time to read a variety of them on your own time, by yourself, can be incredibly valuable. Analyze story arcs. Look at the verbiage and how sentences are formed. Study how the pictures tell the story just as much as the text does. Do your research, and your own book will be more likely to succeed with publishers and readers alike.
After you’ve done a lot of reading, it’s time to make a story your own. Decide what story you want to tell and exactly who the audience is. Typically, the picture book audience is aged 3 to 7, so be sure to keep them in mind as you begin to write. Be sure, too, that your protagonist, whether a person, animal, or object, has childlike qualities and personality traits, so that child readers can see the story through their eyes. Then, write from the heart! Whether your story is a twist on existing tropes or an original idea, make sure that it’s a plot that resonates with you--and, more importantly, one that will engage your readers. Don’t write something just because it seems “easy.” Your readers will be able to tell.
As you write, be sure to use detailed descriptions. Children will quickly lose interest if your "story" is just a list of events (and adults will, too!). For example, there’s little excitement in this “story”: a boy walks to the store. The boy buys a sandwich. The boy drops the sandwich. He is sad. Instead, get into the character’s head and be sure to describe everything that’s happening. What does the store look like? What kind of day is the boy having? Why does he want this particular sandwich? How excited is he about his lunch? How does he feel when he drops his sandwich? There’s so much more to a story than a simple list of what happens.
After you’ve solidified your story, pay attention to the pictures. Illustrations provide just as much information to the audience as words do. Avoid redundancy--there’s no need to describe a woman as wearing a green hat or having curly hair if the illustration can do that for you. Furthermore, children see everything and will be eager to analyze every detail in a picture. They may even pick up discrepancies between the text and the pictures, or note inconsistencies from picture to picture. Remember that their eagle eyes will see all!
Finally, if you decide to include them in your picture book, use rhymes carefully. Writing a rhyming book is not for the feint of heart--it requires a lot of revising, professional editing, and research to fully understand the mechanics of how rhyme works. When authors squeeze too many syllables into a line or use a nonsensical word just to get a rhyme, it’s (often painfully) obvious. Be careful, too, not to use too many difficult words in rhyming stories. If a story is being read aloud, a child stopping mid-sentence to ask what a word means will interrupt the flow of the book. Finally, be mindful of the meter: the syllabic pattern that makes rhymes sound easy and natural for every person who reads your story. Rhyming books are far more difficult to write well compared to prose ones, so ask yourself: is it important that this book rhymes? Will rhyming help or hinder this particular book? You answer will vary depending from story to story. If you need help perfecting your rhyming manuscript, consider courses or poetry coaching.
Picture books may not be as simple as they look, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more rewarding career. Even better is the knowledge that your book will entertain a child or help them learn something new. Do your research, use detail, and masterfully refine your craft, and your book is bound to become a favorite.
Need more help? Check out this comprehensive course that covers all the basics, including the mechanics of writing in rhyme, how to write a proper story arc, strategies for keeping your word count plot-driven, editing tips and tricks, and much much more...OR book a coaching session and work with a children's book expert live on Zoom.