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Writing Picture Books - How to Captivate a Young Reader

Picture books aren't read, they're performed. The very act of reading a story out loud to a child forces the reader to add inflection, dramatic pauses, and even ad-lib some commentary. Where the pages are turned can add (or detract) as much from the experience as the quality of the story itself.

Picture books are almost always 32 pages long. There is no mysterious artistic reason for this; it's simply how the printing presses work. If the book is longer, it will go up in 8-page increments, but most publishers don't risk this added expense on new authors. The 32 pages includes the endpages (the white or decorated pages at the beginning and end of the book), the title page, and the copyright/dedication page. So the author has an average of 26 pages to tell the story. In general, the first page of text is a righthand page, and the last page of text is on the left.

Once you've written your story, it's useful to break the text into 26 sections, type each section on a separate piece of paper, and staple those pages together like a book. Now read your story as you turn the pages. Does each spread (two facing pages) encompass a different scene from those before and after? Are your characters doing something the illustrator can draw? Finally, is there a reason your readers will want to turn the page to see what comes next?

Talented picture book writers consider pacing when they're revising their texts. Here are four page-turning methods that work:

Anticipation and surprise. In her book Maxwell's Magic Mix-Up, Linda Ashman devises a rollicking rhyming story of a magician who can't get anything right. While performing at a birthday party, Maxwell accidentally turns the guests one by one into animals and objects. After the first mismanaged spell, the reader anticipates that Maxwell's magic will go wrong again. The right side of each spread sets up how Maxwell tries to undo his blunders, and shows him waving his wand. The reader turns the page to find out the result of the spell, which is always something different from what Maxwell intended. When Maxwell's nephew arrives to fix the mess, the same pattern is repeated, with better results.

Flow. In my opinion, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is one of the most elegant picture books ever written. He employs long, rhythmic sentences to lead the reader into the story, with tight, descriptive phrases evoking the changing illustrations. The pages break mid-sentence, so the reader is forced to turn the page to finish the thought. As the action speeds up the sentences shorten, then lengthen again to lead Max and the reader back home.

Complete verse. Often in books written in rhyme, the pages break at the end of a verse. This is satisfying visually, as each verse should contain a distinct scene, but can be risky if there isn't enough forward momentum to the overall story to keep the reader going. In Food Fight! by Carol Diggory Shields, the author has another hurtle besides the rhyme: the characters are inanimate objects. In order for the illustrator to have enough to work with, these objects (food) must really act up.

The story has a simple concept: Here's what happens in your refrigerator at night. The food gets antsy, a food fight ensues, and then everything must be cleaned up before daybreak. Each spread contains one verse, but another ingenious element keeps the pages turning: the text is riddled with puns. The coffee perks, the gelatin jumps, and the chocolates kiss. The book's design also helps move the eye across the page with graphic typefaces that twist about the food, speech bubbles, and edibles with expressive faces.

Cause and effect. Cause and effect allows the story to build naturally scene by scene, with one event leading directly to another. The payoff when the page is turned might be humorous, scary or satisfying, but it should never be predictable. It's not as action-packed as using anticipation and surprise, but it still holds the reader's interest. Many picture books use this pacing technique. A terrific example is Janet Stevens' Tops & Bottoms, in which a hare tricks a rich, lazy bear into letting him use the bear's land to plant several crops of vegetables. Each scene is a setup for the following page. The text focuses alternately on the bear and the hare, so the reader sees that one character's actions cause the reactions of the other. The reacting character in turn sets the next scene in motion.


Jon Bard is the managing editor of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Book Writers. For much more about getting started as a children's writer, visit The CBI Clubhouse

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