ame your favorite childhood books, and chances are you’ll include some picture books. This isn’t surprising. Picture books were your first books. They meant snuggling up with an adult for together time and a story you wanted to hear again and again. Given memories like these, it isn’t surprising that so many writers want to create their own picture books.
Whether your picture book idea is warm and cuddly or fast and funny, creating a workable picture book manuscript may be the most difficult writing task you’ll ever undertake. These six tips will help you understand why it is so difficult and how to improve your own work.
Think Child Friendly
The single most important thing you can bring to picture book writing is respect for your young audience. This means writing about things that interest them and writing from their perspective. To do this, you must think like a preschooler, not a preschooler’s parent, grandparent, or teacher.
How do you know you’re thinking like a preschooler? Read a humorous picture book like No, David! by David Shannon. When David made a food dude from a chicken leg, did you cringe at the mess? When he ran naked down the sidewalk, did you worry the neighbors might be looking? If so, you’re thinking like an adult.
Children know David’s actions are inappropriate. They know he’ll get in trouble. The book is called No, David!. They get it, just like author/illustrator David Shannon knew they would.
Whether you’re writing for the toddler or the grade school child, children want stories about the world they’re exploring. Some authors give them stories about family and independence like Sheila Rae the Brave by Kevin Henkes. Others go with stories about friends like Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin. They use humor to tell tales of children finding their way in a big world.
Sometimes this big world is scary. Picture books deal with that too, such as Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery’s story of surviving Hurricane Katrina, Two Bobbies. Larson and Nethery make this huge situation manageable for children by narrowing the story to one cat and one dog and how their friendship helps them survive. That’s something a young reader can handle, but the authors respect their readers enough to know that they not only can deal with information about the hurricane, they want information about the hurricane.
Does your story respect the child reader? This doesn’t mean it has to be silly or slight. It just has to respect the child as someone who knows right from wrong, loves to laugh, but also wants to know how the world really is. Envision a child friendly story. Then get ready to tell it and tell it fast, because picture books are short.
“Omit characters who only play bit parts.”
Keep It Flowing Forward
Most picture books are limited to 32 printed pages. It isn’t 32 pages of text because the publisher must work in the title page and various other content including the Library of Congress information. You will have approximately 28 pages, or 14 spreads (1 or 2 pages facing each other) for text and illustration.
Most picture books are less than 1,000 words. Many are much less. Duck for President by Doris Cronin is only 748 words. Mammoths on the Move by Lisa Wheeler is only 472 words long. Stuck in the Mud by Jane Clarke? A brief 343 words.
With such a low word count, your picture book must flow straight from beginning to end. You don’t have the space for flashbacks or subplots. Omit characters who only play bit parts. You simply don’t have the space because you still have to develop a complete story, including a plot and several failed attempts to solve the problem. Your breakdown might look like this:
Introduce character and problem: 3 spreads
First attempt to solve problem and failure/complication: 3 spreads
Second attempt and failure/complication: 3 spreads
Third attempt and success: 3 spreads
Resolution: 2 spreads
Sometimes you will take less time to introduce the character and problem and more on the resolution. Variety works but balance is key. Take too much space to introduce your problem and you won’t have enough left to solve it. Or, you might force yourself to scrimp on something else, like character development.
“You can tell readers a lot about a character by the name you choose.”
Make Your Characters Count
One of the toughest things to do in a picture book is to develop your character. Many new picture book writers focus on how their character looks. Red hair. Blue eyes. What they are wearing. Unless these details are integral to your story, leave them to the illustrator. Go deeper.
You can tell readers a lot about a character by the name you choose. Although many of Kevin Henkes’ picture book characters are mice, each has a distinct personality. Sheila Rae and Chrysanthemum are equally fun and funny, but one is brave and brassy. The other is sensitive. Say the names out loud. Which has hard, strong vowels? Which flows like water? See if you can figure it out.
Henkes also tells us a lot about his characters through the things they love and the places they end up. A little girl who wears red cowboy boots and a tiara in the uncooperative chair is a very different mouse from a boy who hauls his filthy, fragrant security blanket to the sandbox.
Don’t be afraid to use what your character does and says to tell us what they are like. Maurice Sendak does this in Where the Wild Things Are when Max tells his mother “I’ll eat you up!” Sendak reinforces the message when the Wild Things make Max their king and he leads them on a wild rumpus. No words were wasted. We know Max is strong-willed.
Chose your details carefully and we’ll get the picture. Just leave the actual pictures to the illustrator.
“Your place to shine is in the text.”
Leave Room for the Illustrations
You may be wondering where to find an illustrator. Easy. You don’t. That is up to the publisher.
Then how do you tell the illustrator what to do? Again, you don’t.
Are you panicking? Many writers do when they think about turning over their manuscript to be illustrated. Take a deep breath. Your story contains all the direction the illustrator needs. You’ve already determined where it takes place—island, castle or karate class. You peopled it with a cast of characters—boys, girls, or possibly guinea pigs. You even put them into action—running, tumbling and flying—across the pages of the story. The illustrator will take these directions and run.
Just as you had the space to write the story, the illustrator needs the space to create top-notch art like Mark Siegel did for Lisa Wheeler’s Boogie Knights. Into this story of a family of knights and a goulish midnight party, Siegel adds a prince and a ghostly princess. They aren’t mentioned in the text but they pull the reader in with the desire to go back and see where the two are in each spread.
Give the illustrator room to create and marvelous things will happen. Your place to shine is in the text.
“One-syllable words have an even rhythm and a fast flow.”
Million Dollar Sound
Picture books are meant to be read aloud, so your story has to sound good. This means more than weeding out sentences that makes you stumble. There must be something about your text that brings the audience back again and again.
Some writers use rhyme. Done well, it is something publishers like, even for nonfiction. Check out Donna Bateman’s Deep In the Swamp and Lisa Wheeler’s Mammoths on the Move. If you can’t do it as well as Wheeler or Bateman, don’t even try. Near rhyme or reversing the word order in a sentence to force a rhyme are sure to earn you a rejection letter. Instead, use one of the other tools available to picture book writers—rhythm, onomatopoeia and repetition.
Many picture book writers craft fun read-alouds by playing with the rhythm and patter of words. Read Mem Fox’s Hunwick’s Egg. One-syllable words have an even rhythm and a fast flow. When Fox uses a multi-syllable word, you feel it shift the pattern of the sentence.
Another way to make your writing dance is through onomatopoeia, or sound words. Which would you rather read about? A horse prancing clippity clop? Or a horse walking down the road? Rain can fall, or it can splish splash splosh. A character can pitty pat or slinky slide across the floor. It simply depends on whether the character is a cat or a snake.
One final way to make your words sing is through repetition. Children listening to a picture book love to join in when lines recur, such as when various animals “push and pull, again and again” in Jane Clarke’s Stuck in the Mud. Knowing that such a chorus is coming gives young readers an “in” and makes them a participant in the story itself.
Whatever you chose for your manuscript, work with it until it sounds effortless. You know it isn’t effortless, but that’s the way it should sound.
Bring It Together through the Rewrite(s)
By now, you’ve realized there is nothing effortless about writing a picture book. The trick is not freezing up by trying to do it all at once. My method is to take it one step, or draft, at a time.
In my first draft, I focus on story. I get down what happens when and where. I pace it so that I have enough, but not too much, for a solid picture book. At this point, my characters are lean.
Before I begin my second draft, I write down everything I know about my character—favorite foods, hopes and fears. Hobbies, verbal habits and ticks. I write down more than will appear in the story. I get to know my character and pick just the right details to move my story forward.
Then I make the text sing. I’m usually playing with things that I put in place back in the first draft. I read the manuscript aloud and mutter possible word combinations as I do chores.
On my last draft, I tighten things up as much as possible. I don’t usually accomplish it, but I try to cut about 30% of my text. I fish around for characters that do next to nothing and visual details that don’t feed into the plot. More words that can go.
Is this exactly what you have to do? Probably not. You’re your own writer. Find what works for you. It may vary from one manuscript to another.
If picture books are your passion, all of this work will be worthwhile. After all, that’s what will put your story out where it can be enjoyed by a child who wants to hear it again and again and again.
Sue Bradford Edwards is a book reviewer and writer who lives and works in St. Louis, Missouri. Find out more about her work at One Writer’s Journey, her blog about writing (suebe.wordpress.com), the Bookshelf, her book review blog https://suebe2.wordpress.com, and her website www.suebradfordedwards.com.