Picture Book Basics

Back in the day I believed that picture books were THE books for kids. I had good reason to feel this way as BHP (Before Harry Potter) there was no real “middle grade” category, and YA was still in the semi-adult realm, with books like The Red Badge of Courage.

So, like many of you, I cut my kidlit-writing teeth trying to write picture books.

I had no idea what I was doing.

My Childhood Picture Books…

Were for the most part heavy on the words. Lots of them were fairy tale retellings, although two of my all-time favorites were this one and this one (yes, these are my own pics of my own books):

Now that children’s literature has entered its golden age – I do believe that’s true – and I’ve learned to write picture books* as well as middle grade and YA, I have a bunch of tips to share with those of you trying to write your first picture book.

Audience, Subject Matter, Pacing

  • The first tip speaks to defining your audience. Of course it’s kids. Young kids, although lots of older kids, including those who struggle with reading, read picture books. But so do adults, and most importantly, you need to know that it’s adults who buy picture books. The librarians, teachers, booksellers, parents, and grandparents are also the readers you need to know and understand. They will look for books that add value. Books that have strong content, appropriate word choices, beautiful illustrations. Books that are funny, books that are serious, non-fiction books – all as long as they add value.
  • What do I mean by that? Tip number two: write, as always, from the heart. Read a million current picture books. Books like Watercress, Hello Lighthouse, How to Eat a Book, Eyes that Speak to the Stars. These are fun books, serious books, beautiful books, but all share the same feeling of being written by someone coming from a place of deep true emotion.
  • Tip number three: pacing is critical. Each page needs to create the feeling of “I’ve got to turn this page”. The overarching story is one part of this, but the other is the nature of suspense at the end of each page, prompting the young reader to want to know what’s about to happen next. Word count is also crucial to pacing. Know how many words are in Where the Wild Things Are? Fewer than 300. (And it was made into a movie.) Word choice is also crucial – choose diction and syntax that are age appropriate, not adult language. The way that picture books are made (not the story you want to tell) dictates the number of pages, which are always a multiple of 8, and most often 32 pages long.
  • Tip number four: templates are helpful. If you Google “picture book layout/template/dummy” you’ll find many of these layout templates. And specifically to making a picture book dummy, you can make one yourself by folding a stack of pages in half. Then you can get a real feel for the page turns and layouts, even if you are not the illustrator.

A downloadable self-ended 32 page picture book template

And speaking of illustrators…if you are not a professional illustrator, don’t try this at home. Don’t hire someone from Fiverr to illustrate your book. If you write only the text, you’ll sell it to a publisher who will have a very clear idea of who to hire to illustrate and what the finished book will look like.

Where To Find More

One of the best resources in the industry is Julie Hedlund’s 12×12. The SCBWI also has plenty of resources.

But make a note that very soon! I’ll be offering a free webinar followed by a low cost introductory course (“The Five Things You Need to Know to Start Writing for Children”) that will also include more about writing picture books (character arc, plot arc, etc.) so if you want to be kept informed about this, please click the button below.

And……….I now offer book coaching on picture books, so contact me here if you are interested in coaching.

*My second picture book will be out later this year, from Neal Porter Books, illustrated by Jasu Hu, and I can’t wait to share Jasu’s incredible artwork and my story, Wintergarden, with you all.

Please keep me informed about your upcoming classes!

One Response to “Picture Book Basics”

  1. Linda W.

    Great tips. I find it interesting the books a child might pick for herself versus books an adult might choose for the child. The boys I babysat often surprised me in the books they chose from the library.😊


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