Friday, July 3, 2009

Writing Picture Books - It's Child's Play, or is It?

I'd like to welcome guest blogger Dorothy Massey to my blog today. Dorothy is posting a thought provoking article entitled, "Writing Picture Books - It's Child's Play, or is It?

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.

If you are interested in other ezine articles written by Dorothy, see her blog at


Deb Hockenberry said...

Hi Katie & Dorothy,
Great advice on picture books! I've been working on one & you've inspired me to keep on going!

Nancy Famolari said...

Excellent advice about writing picture books. It's good to see all the rules spelled out.

Vivian Zabel said...

Another point, from the publisher's point of view, the writing must be good, too.

Thanks for sharing this information with others, Dorothy.

Cheryl said...

Excellent advice. I like how this article is broken down into sections.

I didn't know about bears being especially liked characters. Always good to learn something new.

Thanks for a great article with tons of helpful information!


Donna McDine said...

Dorothy: Thanks for sharing this valuable info. One worth printing and saving for future referrals over and over again.

Donna M. McDine
Marketing Manager, SFC Magazine
SFC: Families Matter Blog
SFC Magazine Website

orcalover said...

I can't draw a straight line with a ruler so I'll leave the illustrations to ssomeone else. But my children's stories are a bit longer and for a little older group.

This is good advice on how to write picture books though and Thanks for the breakdown.

Liana said...

Great tips! I absolutely agree with you-I apply all these to my own creations. The only thing that I have to mention is that although a writer may not be a professional illustrator they can illustrate their stories just for the fun of it. Satisfaction counts more sometimes...

Helena Harper said...

As an aspiring picture book author, Dorothy, I thoroughly enjoyed this article and found it informative as well. One question: do you think it's important to have a mixture of 'male' and 'female' characters, whether animals or something else?