Picture books look
easy to write. They usually contain less than
1,000 words with stories that appear so simple
that anyone can write one.
In fact, picture books are the hardest of all
children's books to write and do well.
That doesn't mean you can't write one. It means
that you need to take time to produce your
absolute best story and you need to know what
There are a lot of things to consider when
writing picture books.
Picture books usually have 32 pages. This allows
about 28 pages of text. Every page has a colour
illustration, either on a single or double-page
The majority of picture books are targeted at
children aged between 3 and 8 years old. However,
there are a number published for the older
audience aged from 9 to 12. The latter stories
are more complex, as are the illustrations.
Even though picture books are short they still
need to contain all the usual elements of a good
story - a main character that readers can
identify with and care about and a conflict that
needs to be resolved by the end of the story. All
picture books have a happy, satisfying ending.
The conflict of a picture book must be something
that children of the targeted age group have
experience with and therefore understand. It
should also be something that interests them.
A general rule is that whatever appears in the
illustrations doesn't need to be mentioned in the
text. Firstly, you don't have to describe your
characters in a picture book. The reader can see
what the characters look like from the
illustrations. Secondly, you don't need to
describe your settings because they also appear
in the illustrations.
It is helpful for you to imagine the
illustrations as you are writing your story. Of
course, the illustrator will probably do
something entirely different to what you
imagined. But imagining each page helps you see
whether there is enough variety in the
illustrations and to also decide what to exclude
from your text.
Adults read picture books aloud to children. It
is important that your story reads well aloud,
that it has a lovely flow and rhythm. Hence,
sentences should be short and easy to understand.
Repetition of a sentence (or sentences) is
popular in picture books as it adds to the rhythm
and children enjoy joining in.
Picture book texts take a long time to get right.
Published writers of picture books spend a lot of
time writing their story then perfecting it.
As you are working with a limited number of
words, every word is vital. You should consider
every word and make sure that it is necessary.
You should also ask yourself if the words you are
using are the best choices. Consider things like
sound, meaning, interest, tension, page-turning
After you are satisfied that you've written the
best possible picture book, put it away for a
week or two, even a month. This distance will
allow you to return to it with fresh eyes. Make
sure you read it out loud. As I mentioned
earlier, picture books are read out loud. Yours
must sound great.
I've heard many publishers suggest that writers
of picture books avoid writing in rhyme. They say
that it is extremely difficult to do well. The
majority of rhyme-texts they receive simply don't
work and thus are unpublishable.
Another point on publishers is that they prefer
to receive the text-only for a picture book -
unless you're lucky enough to be an accomplished
illustrator and can write/illustrate your own
books. You don't need to find an illustrator for
your story or send illustrations to a publisher.
Publishers have a stable of illustrators and they
are experienced in deciding who would be best to
illustrate your book.
As you are working with a limited number of words
and aren't including in the text what should
appear in the illustrations, it is sometimes
unclear from your words what should appear in the
illustrations. This makes it necessary to include
an illustration note next to the page number in
For example, I have a picture book text about a
dog. Some of the pages end with - CRASH! SPLASH!
OOPS! I don't explain what happens because it is
evident in the illustrations. But a publisher
probably needs to know what I'm thinking to get
the gist of the story, so I include a note on how
I envisage the illustrations.
My advice is that you visit your local library
and borrow a huge pile of recent picture books.
Take them home and study them. Ask yourself what
makes them work and why they are popular with
children (and adults).
And take a long time to perfect your picture
book. There are no shortcuts to success.