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The Elements of a Good Picture Book

A picture book is an illustrated story book for 0-6 year olds. As the number of words is about 500, many writers consider it an easy option. They are very wrong to do so. Picture book writing is one of the hardest and most competitive fields of all. So what are the elements of a good picture book?

Format: Picture books have a specified number of pages between 24 and 40, which is always divisible by eight. These include the front and back covers. It is essential to decide how your text will be divided out across these pages in relation to the pictures.

Empathy: Picture book writers need to have an empathy with young children and be able to retain and reproduce childhood feelings and experiences of what it is like to be small.

Illustrations: Writers do not need to be able to illustrate their own books, although many popular picture writers do - Jane Hissey, Nick Sharratt and Jez Alborough, for example. Unless you are a professional illustrator it is better just to send an editor text. He or she will provide an illustrator if they decide to publish. Stories for picture books need to provide the opportunity for imaginative illustration and the text should suggest strongly where and what these pictures should be.

Simple plot: There should be only one plot line which is easy to follow. Young children learn from repetition and like to join in with the story, so skilled use of repetition and refrain is an advantage. Rhyme, alliteration and onomatopoeia are also popular. Sudden actions and unexpected mishaps go down well.

Memorable characters: Animals are well-liked, especially bears. These animals usually act as humans with the story being told through them. (Elmer, Spot, Paddington Bear) Publishers usually want to market the book abroad. Animals are more easily transferred than people with varying dress and customs. This also applies to live toys (Jane Hissey's Jolly Tall) or monsters (Maurice Sendack's Where the Wild Things Are or Nick Butterfield's Q Pootle 5)

Adult appeal: Picture books must appeal to adults as it is they who buy the book then read it to the child, often repeatedly. Parents and teachers want educational value so if a book includes learning concepts such as colour, shape and number it has extra appeal.

Themes: Real-life situations such as starting school, potty training or moving house are popular as are family relationships, domestic activities, pets and machines. Modern or updated versions of traditional stories sell well, especially if they approach the story from a new angle.

Think you can meet the requirements? Read as wide a variety of picture books as you can. Then follow the advice and rules above and write a dummy picture book. Send it to the right publishing house and who knows, it might be the beginning of a fun new career.

Dorothy Massey is the author of Better English published by Studymates and the Ghost Twin Tales: Mini Mysteries and Kooky Spookies, a Pinestein Press publication. An expert in literacy for adults and children, she writes quality educational materials and children's fiction. To find out more about Dorothy and writing for children in the UK, visit Dorothy's blog: Kids' Books UK

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