So You Want to Write a Picture Book for Children?

Write a Picture Book for Children
Share to Facebook Share to Twitter

How do you win a marathon? You run really fast for 26.2 miles without stopping.

Like winning a marathon, writing is easy to describe, but hard to execute.

Writing a good book is a magical art that blends creating interesting characters, placing them in intriguing settings, and weaving an engaging plot with page-turning action and authentic dialogue. Easy, right? Not so much.

And if writing well wasn’t difficult enough, writing picture books puts additional limits on the author. These children’s books are shorter than adult books, so there’s much less time for story arc or character development. The author is further constrained by the audience’s age; most kids won’t understand adult vocabulary, scenarios, or themes.

Think you’re ready to try your hand at writing a picture book? Here’s what you need to know.

What exactly is a picture book?

Picture books are typically, but not always, 32 pages. They are published in larger trim sizes (e.g. 8.5” x 11”) and can contain anywhere from zero to 1,000 words. Word counts under 500 are most common.

Picture books are anomalous in that they can be written at a reading level higher than the age of the intended audience. That’s because picture books, unlike easy readers through YA, are often read to a child by an adult. That said, truly timeless picture books, like Where the Wild Things Are or A Sick Day for Amos McGee can be enjoyed by kids of any age.

As the name suggests, these books have pictures on every page. Illustrations help tell the story, describe the setting, set the mood, and convey information about the characters. They provide visual appeal to young readers, and help the author tell a story in fewer words. Ironically, an artist illustrates a picture book after the manuscript is accepted by a publisher. So, it’s common for a picture book author and illustrator to never meet or even speak with each other!

While there is no formulaic prescription for writing a picture book, certain crucial elements should be considered: plot type, genre, setting, theme, appealing main character, point of view and tense, word choice, love/friendship, re-readability, and satisfying ending.

Plot type

Which picture book plot type is best for your story?

Often called a sausage story, a “series of events” is just that, a string of small episodes, as in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. “Discovery” plot types begin with the character laboring under a misunderstanding. Eventually, they discover something and reverse their situation or outlook, as in Green Eggs and Ham.

“Wish fulfillment” plot types have a deserving main character wish for something and subsequently receive it, as in Cinderella. Contrast that with “purpose achieved” plots, where the main character has to struggle to attain a goal, as in Swimmy.

Genre

Choose your story’s type of fiction, such as fairy tale, fantasy, historical fiction, horror, humor, mystery, mythology, poetry or science fiction. In my own writing, I don’t pick the genre first. I devise story concepts, then see what genre fits best, but some writers prefer to plan their genre before outlining their story.

In some cases, the choice of setting (Alpha Centauri = science fiction) or main character (Abraham Lincoln = historical fiction) dictates the genre. And yes, you can write horror, but it should be mild and humorous — more like There Was an Old Monster than The Call of Cthulhu.

Setting

Picture books generally occur within a single setting. What is the best time and place for the story to occur — on a farm (Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type), in a medieval castle, aboard a pirate ship in the Caribbean, or on a spaceship orbiting Mars?

Theme

What positive message will the story convey? Examples include: beauty is in the eye of the beholder (Shrek), do unto others (How the Rhino Got His Skin), look before you leap (Curious George), and so on.

Main character

Is the main character interesting or endearing enough that the readers care about what happens to him/her? Can readers easily imagine themselves within the story?

Main characters in picture books are usually the same age as the readers, typically either kids or animals. Rarely are they adults or inanimate objects, but there are exceptions: The Day the Crayons Quit features crayon characters. For character naming tips, see 6 Creative Ways to Name Your Fictional Characters.

Point of view and tense

Which point of view and tense are most effective for this story: first-person present tense, second-person future tense, third-person past tense? Be consistent once that choice is made.

Word choice

It is far more powerful to show than to tell. Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

The low word count of picture books requires the author to be scrupulous in their word selection. Don’t dilute the impact of your writing with weak words.

Consider “the sun had nearly set” with “the sun kissed the horizon.” Characters should act, not get ready to act. Use strong, descriptive verbs. Contrast “Josh started to get up” with “Josh vaulted up.”

Love/friendship

Does the story feature love or friendship that resonates at an emotional level? Is there a strong bond between characters (Frog and Toad) or an enduring message (The Little Engine That Could)? Will readers laugh (Flap Your Wings) or have a catch in their throats (The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore)? Love and friendship help form a bond between the reader and the story.

Satisfying ending

Is there an unexpected twist (The Monster at the End of This Book) or satisfying payoff (I Want My Hat Back) at the conclusion of the story? A satisfying ending is the unexpected surprise that completes the child’s reading experience. It is the cherry on top of a good story.

Re-readability

Re-readability can’t be added to the recipe like any other ingredient. Rather, it is the result of considering all of the above elements.

Is the tapestry you’ve woven rich enough to warrant multiple readings? The ultimate proof that you’ve written an engaging and entertaining story is that kids read it over and over. (Click to tweet this idea.)

While at first glance it may not seem like it, a great deal of thought goes into the few words that comprise a picture book. Every single word counts. Shakespeare was right when he said, “brevity is the soul of wit.” And as far as we know, he never even wrote a picture book.

Have you written or considered writing a picture book?

Looking for a quick introduction to publishing picture books on Kindle? Check out this free mini e-course from Children’s Book Insider.

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter

Henry writes sci-fi and fantasy books for kids. He’s a SCBWI member, and he interviews KidLit and SpecFic writers on his blog at www.henryherz.com.... .

Henry Herz | @Nimpentoad

Henry Herz
Kindle Kids Mastery on Amazon

Featured resource

Kindle Kids Mastery

This course guides children’s authors step by step through publishing illustrated ebooks using Amazon’s Kindle Kids’ Book Creator tool.

Comments

  1. Yes, I’m developing and writing a children’s picture book series based on my cat Benny. On May 16, 2014, I read “A Home for Benny,” Book One of my series, to John Muir Elementary’s kindergarten class in Parma, Ohio. The kids loved the story! What made the reading more special is that it was the school’s Right to Read Week. I brought Benny to the school’s afternoon assembly so the kids could meet him.

    I’m shopping around for self-publishing companies that offer illustration. However, I’ve noticed that most self-publishers don’t offer illustration services. I may have to hire an illustrator.

    P.S.

    Book Two in my children’s picture book series is written, and I have several other stories I’d like to develop. But I have to outline them. I’m looking to develop a website and social media networks, specifically for my children’s picture book series.

    • Good for you, Amandah! And as someone with the initials HH, I approve of the extra “h” at the end of your name. 🙂

      I hired different illustrators for each of the three books I’ve self-published (and, breaking the rules, the fourth book I just sold to a publisher). There are plenty of talented illustrators out there, but finding the right illustrator is a challenge, because “right” means the right skills, the right art style, the right availability, the right level of collaboration, the right responsiveness, and the right price. And remember, not every illustrator also knows how to lay out a book interior and cover. Ask to see their previous work. A serious illustrator will have an online portfolio/gallery.

      Good luck!

      • Hi Henry,

        Thank you… And, congratulations on selling your fourth book!

        Thanks for the tips about hiring an illustrator. I connected with an illustrator through a friend in L.A. I also received an email from an illustrator in Argentina. My initial thought was to pay for an illustration package from a self-publisher. However, I want to weigh the pros and cons between hiring a freelance illustrator vs. paying for an illustration package.

        • I’ve only worked with freelance illustrators. They (quite reasonably) expect to be paid up front. That said, I’ve had more than one flake out. So, make sure you have a written agreement with your illustrator. I like to pay as I go (pay for each illustration as it’s completed), but even then you are at some risk. What if half-way through the project, the illustrator becomes unavailable? You’ve paid for half the artwork, but none of it is usable (due to stylistic inconsistency with the next artist).

          I also think it is sensible to establish a mutually agreeable production schedule, to set expectations for both parties. The best way to have a collaborative working relationship is to have good communication up front and throughout the project.

          • Hi Henry,

            Thanks for the advice!

            I would have a contract, non-disclosure agreement, and proposal for the project. I use these documents in my freelance content writing business.

  2. Hi there, I enjoyed your article, thank you. I have written some picture books and had them illustrated. Now I wish to publish them as ebooks and also make them available print on demand. Are you able to advise me of the next step please. Most sites I refer to do not include any suggestions for picture books. I’d really appreciate any suggestions you are willing to share. Many thanks, Norah

    • Hi Norah
      Apparently, only people whose names end in “h” are making comments. 🙂
      I’ve indie-published using CreateSpace. I like the quality of their printing & paper, the seamless integration with Amazon & Kindle, and the excellent customer service. Publishing on Kindle via CreateSpace requires only a PDF version of your book and cover. To avoid problems with text not flowing where I want it, I embedded the story text within all my images, so the picture book is comprised of 14 two-page spread images (full bleed), plus front and back matter.

      Other eBook platforms (e.g., B&N, iTunes, Smashwords) require you to convert your book to mobi or epub format. You can pay someone to do that for you, or try it yourself. Google “ebook formatting” or “ebook conversion”.

      Best of luck

  3. What about people with an “h” in both first and last names? Amandah, Henry gives some great advice in his first response to your comment/question. Also, since your stories are about your cat, you might consider using photos or photos mixed with illustrations. Some photos, if not all, will at least cut down on the number of illustrations needed and thus the cost. If you decide to include photos, use a good camera, not a cell phone. If paying for illustrations up front is a problem you could consider offering an illustrator a royalty sharing deal.

    For all: Picture books in print and ebook

    I agree with Henry that Amazon’s CreateSpace is a good way to go for print on demand. No money up front, liberal royalty, great printing and binding, “slick” covers, a very good cover designer feature (illustrators for covers charge big bucks), books are posted for sale on their site. Sign up, submit a PDF file, and you’re done.

    Ebook formats: The issue here is the variety of digital formats for different devices and their screen sizes–PC, laptop, tablet, ereader devices (Kindle, Nook, etc.). The introduction of ereader devices, by the way, is what complicated the ebook publishing biz for us with their proprietary and different format devices. If they had stayed out of the picture we could write in Word, convert to PDF, and submit rather than finding software conversion programs (which don’t work for picture books!) or paying a person/company to do the conversion. This is not expensive for one book but if you have/plan a series the costs can mount up.

    There are two layouts for ebooks–reflowable and fixed. Reflowable is primarily for a lot of text only. It allows text to “flow” to the next screen or page depending on the size of the device. This does not work with picture books where the text must stay on the same page as the illustration, hence fixed format. For Kindle I tried numerous conversion software programs and none of them worked; they all reflowed my text to the next page. I was really getting tired of seeing my sentence on tigers on the page with a photo of an elephant! Then I discovered a little-known secret–Kindle itself offers a software program that does the trick. They don’t promote or advertise it so for a mere $100 I’ll . . . nah, just kidding. The program is called Kindle Comic Creator and it’s free. The Amazon page it’s offered on doesn’t mention using it for picture books but I reasoned that it if works for comics that must be fixed layout maybe it will work for picture books. It’s so simple even a cave man can use it! I didn’t even open the guide. Save your Word doc as a PDF from within word (or use a Word to PDF converter if you have one). Open Comic Creator, insert your PDF file and it instantly converts each page (illustration and text) to a jpg, and creates a Kindle (mobi) file with fixed pages–conversion can’t reflow or separate text and illustrations when the page is a picture.

    That takes care of formatting an ebook for Kindle (mobi) but there remains the EPUB format for iBooks, Nook, Kobo, etc. How hard would it be for a software engineer type to create a Comic Creator equivalent for PDF to EPUB? Come on, computer nerds, help us out here!

    Hope this helps. Sorry for the abundance of words.

    • Wow, John — thank you for sharing Kindle Comic Creator! I hadn’t heard of it before, but it does seem like exactly what’s needed for converting picture books to mobi. Now for the other formats…

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

      • John Wilhite says:

        Thanks, Heather. Glad to be of help. I hope you and others can find it on Amazon’s vast web site. The Comic Creator saves tons of time and frustration in trying to get the right format for Kindle.

  4. A final word and then I’ll shut up. Our print books on CreateSpace and ebooks on Kindle will be on “bookstore shelves” with millions of other books. They don’t promote or advertise our book(s). We are expected to market ourselves; they provide the product, we handle sales. This is the new version of vanity “publishing.” Our books are not published, they are merely printed and posted on line. And there they’ll sit not noticed, not purchased, and not read until we send thousands of paying customers Amazon’s way. For those of us, like me, who don’t have tens of thousands (that’s the number it would take) of followers on blogs, facebook,, twitter, etc., well, we are just s**t out of luck. I don’t want to end on a downer so let me encourage you to keep on working while realizing that a lot of your time will be spent on promotion.

  5. John Wilhite says:

    Yep, Heather and Henry (what’s with all the h’s?), self-marketing is about as common a topic on writing sites as writing itself. It’s definitely a necessity but an unfortunate one for those, like me, who can do it but just don’t want to. It takes a great deal of time, a greater percentage of one’s writing time than the writing itself. I’m an old geezer and I don’t think I have enough time to write my projects much less market them. To copy a phrase, “it’s not what I do; it’s not who I am.” But there are many aids to our writing life, like the Kindle Comic Creator, for example, and Library Journal’s initiative to get independently published ebooks in public libraries nationwide for those they “curate” (select as “worthy”) and in an author’s home state (as “works by local independent authors”) for the “not-so-worthy.” The library program appears to be a good aid for us in the self-marketing aspect. I, for one, am excited about it. As I understand it, there are no royalties but we get a lot of exposure and it’s non-exclusive rights so we are free to publish wherever. The writing landscape looks better every day but there are still many pot holes in the road that need to be filled.

  6. Henry, I was very impressed with this article. I’d considered writing a picture book, but was unsure of all the variables involved. You’ve given me a lot of clarity….Thank you 🙂

  7. Sneha Susan Shibu says:

    Yes, I have finished two and looking for a traditional publisher. Approached two. Both gave good feedback but since they do not fit into their target age group, I was not accepted. One said the age group and language was higher, so I was asked to cut short the story and simplify the language which I did not do. (They promised a great success if I did that.) As for the other, it fell in the lower age group. Hahaha! So I was kind of lost. Thought I will play by my time and hope to evoke the interest of another publisher with good in-house illustrators.

  8. Going back and editing your own children’s book story is a hard but necessary chore. I like to put the story aside for a few weeks and then revisit it with fresh eyes. The story-telling process grows stronger each time I do this. Much of what I learn comes from articles on the the SCBWI website. It is a wellspring of helpful tips and ideas.
    Rich Olson/children’s book artist
    http://braintofu1.blogspot.com

  9. Any special software suggestions specific to writing children’s/preschool aged books?

  10. if you’re after a smaller sized picture book series with less pages and less words, might i recommend the Ribbon & Robin children’s book series? 🙂

    • That would be FEWER pages and FEWER words!! Poor spelling and poor language usage = no credibility as a writer. Language is the tool of the craft. Faulty tools render a faulty product.

      • Hey guys, I’m jumping in to prevent a flamewar. Rob, my article on writing picture books is not the appropriate place for you to promote your books. And John, “Don’t be mean. Remember, no matter where you go, there you are.” — Buckaroo Bonzai

        • I don’t do flame or any other kinds of wars. I’m a pacifist. Mean? MEAN!? There’s NOTHING mean in my reply. It’s informative & educational; I’m a retired univ. prof. If you can’t take constructive criticism of others much less yourself perhaps you don’t belong on the web. Tell me what I wrote that you consider mean. I wrote the truth and in a far from “mean” tone. With spelling & grammar checkers in Word what I suggest for credible writing is not that difficult. It’s sad that people, especially those who want to write, no longer LEARN the basics of language, sadder still that they will not even bother with language tools that are handed to them on a silver platter by simply clicking “Check spelling & grammar” (for me because I’m too lazy or ill-prepared to do it myself).

          • I fully agree with your statement that authors must master the craft of writing. And I am quite open to receiving constructive feedback on my own work. It makes me a better writer! However, my point was that the comment could easily be interpreted as a critique of Rob’s book. I’ve not read his book, and so I don’t have an opinion on the validity of the critique. If your intent was to help Rob, my suggestion would be to provide feedback privately, rather than publicly, since some people may be embarrassed by it. By way of analogy, imagine you’re teaching a writing class. If a student turns in sloppy work, wouldn’t it be kinder to point out how they could improve it individually, rather than in front of the entire class?

Trackbacks

  1. […] Henry Herz, “So You Want to Write a Picture Book for Children”, TheWriteLife.com […]

  2. […] children’s book publisher, this award is given for a previously unpublished children’s picture book manuscript (of no more than 1,500 words) written by a writer of […]

  3. […] So You Want to Write a Picture Book for Children? […]

Speak Your Mind

*