Writing Picture Books for Children
By Robyn Opie
Picture books look easy to write. They usually contain less than 1,000 words with stories
that appear so simple that anyone can write one.
In fact, picture books are the hardest of all children's books to write and do well.
That doesn't mean you can't write one. It means that you need to take time to produce your
absolute best story and you need to know what you're doing.
There are a lot of things to consider when writing picture books.
Picture books always have 32 pages. This allows about 28 pages of text. Every page has
a colour illustration, either on a single or double-page spread.
The majority of picture books are targeted at children aged between 3 and 8 years old.
However, there are a number published for the older audience aged from 9 to 12. The latter
stories are more complex, as are the illustrations.
Even though picture books are short they still need to contain all the usual elements of a
good story - a main character that readers can identify with and care about and a conflict that
needs to be resolved by the end of the story. All picture books have a happy, satisfying ending.
The conflict of a picture book must be something that children of the targeted age group
have experience with and therefore understand. It should also be something that interests them.
A general rule is that whatever appears in the illustrations doesn't need to be mentioned
in the text. Firstly, you don't have to describe your characters in a picture book. The reader
can see what the characters look like from the illustrations. Secondly, you don't need to describe
your settings because they also appear in the illustrations.
It is helpful for you to imagine the illustrations as you are writing your story. Of
course, the illustrator will probably do something entirely different to what you imagined.
But imagining each page helps you see whether there is enough variety in the illustrations
and to also decide what to exclude from your text.
Adults read picture books aloud to children. It is important that your story reads well
aloud, that it has a lovely flow and rhythm. Hence, sentences should be short and easy to understand.
Repetition of a sentence (or sentences) is popular in picture books as it adds to the rhythm
and children enjoy joining in.
Picture book texts take a long time to get right. Published writers of picture books
spend a lot of time writing their story then perfecting it.
As you are working with a limited number of words, every word is vital. You should consider
every word and make sure that it is necessary. You should also ask yourself if the words you
are using are the best choices. Consider things like sound, meaning, interest, tension, page-turning
After you are satisfied that you've written the best possible picture book, put it away
for a week or two, even a month. This distance will allow you to return to it with fresh eyes.
Make sure you read it out loud. As I mentioned earlier, picture books are read out loud. Yours
must sound great.
I've heard many publishers suggest that writers of picture books avoid writing in rhyme.
They say that it is extremely difficult to do well. The majority of rhyme-texts they receive
simply don't work and thus are unpublishable.
Another point on publishers is that they prefer to receive the text-only for a picture
book - unless you're lucky enough to be an accomplished illustrator and can write/illustrate
your own books. You don't need to find an illustrator for your story or send illustrations
to a publisher. Publishers have a stable of illustrators and they are experienced in deciding
who would be best to illustrate your book.
As you are working with a limited number of words and aren't including in the text what
should appear in the illustrations, it is sometimes unclear from your words what should appear
in the illustrations. This makes it necessary to include an illustration note next to the page
number in your manuscript.
For example, I have a picture book text about a dog. Some of the pages end with - CRASH!
SPLASH! OOPS! I don't explain what happens because it is evident in the illustrations. But
a publisher probably needs to know what I'm thinking to get the gist of the story, so I include
a note on how I envisage the illustrations.
My advice is that you visit your local library and borrow a huge pile of recent picture
books. Take them home and study them. Ask yourself what makes them work and why they are popular
with children (and adults).
And take a long time to perfect your picture book. There are no shortcuts to success.
Robyn Opie. Author of 61 published books. To subscribe to her free newsletter go here:
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