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How To Write a Picture Book

Updated on July 1, 2011

The Basics of Writing a Picture Book

 A picture book for children is generally a 32-page illustrated book with less than 1000 words.  That said, there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to picture books, other than the book must be written with the child in mind, and appeal to both the child and the adult gate-keeper, who must decide what book to buy and what book to leave on the shelf.

While the picture book seems simple on the surface, there is something of a science to writing a good one.  If you pick up and read 100 picture books, you'll notice some commonalities of style:

  • Picture books have a "rhythmical" or "lyrical" style. This doesn't mean that the book is necessarily written in rhyme.  It means that the book, when read aloud, flows well with a sense of rhythm.  The words have texture and depth.  Try as you might, you can't think of better words to use than what the author chose.
  • Picture books conjure the senses.  The author uses sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch to bring the story to life.  Remember that children are tactile, sensory beings who don't rely on a single sensory element in their daily lifes, so why should their books ignore any of the senses?
  • Picture books are visually stunning.  This is partly because illustrators of children's books understand how to convey a narrative element to the illustration, and partly because the author understands how to convey an image with the story.  The writer must have a scenic sense when writing a picture book, so that the illustrator has something to illustrate. 
  • Picture books keep the child in the forefront of the story.  Children like picture books because they can relate to them somehow.  They either illuminate some aspect of their lives, make them laugh at something they can connect to, or give them a connection to the parent who reads the story aloud.  The most engaging of picture books have a sense of a child in the story.


A Lyrical and Visually Stunning Picture Book

Edit and Revise, Then Do It Again

You've got the story idea, and now you're ready to commit it to paper. The writing is usually the easy part. The difficult part is in the editing and revision.

All stories must be edited and usually all stories need to be revised as well. This is part of the process. Once you've written a first draft, check it over for some of the more common problems:

  • Vocabulary and sentence structure. Remember to keep vocabulary simple and specific. Keep sentences short, and avoid conjunctions. Instead of saying, Jack played ball and then he had lunch, use two sentences as in: Jack played ball. He ate lunch.
  • Use of unnecessary words. Think of saying things as plainly as possible. Look for words like just, however, but.
  • Alliteration - read the story aloud. Does it flow? Does it make use of the appropriate senses in an organic way?
  • Dialog tags. For very young children, the tag said should be used most often, as it tends to dissapear when the story is read. Children can get hung up on dialog tags, making the story stumble. Writers can also go overboard in trying to be creative with tags. A common misuse is "she cried" as in "Watch out for that bump in the road!" she cried. Really, we don't cry when we warn people about things.

When you've completed a first pass edit, go deeper with your revision. You must revise in order to make your work the very best it can be. If you intend to submit your story to publishers, they will expect it to be polished and perfect. Some things to look for when you revise:

  • Can you identify the main child character in the story? Your central character plays an active role in solving the main problem in the story.
  • Can you identify your story arc? A picture book has a beginning, a middle and an end. There is conflict that drives the main character, just like in any other book. What does your main character do to move the plot forward? Story arc is sometimes called the "push" of the story.
  • Can you identify the emotional arc of the story? The emotional arc is sometimes called the "pull" of the story, or the main character's inner conflict or emotional growth or change.
  • Is the story child-centric? Can you identify the target age-range of your audience? One common problem faced by new picture book writers is the desire to write a story about something that children may not be ready for. This is not to say that there are off-limits subjects; rather, stories and information must be presented in an age-appropriate and engaging way.
  • Is the language and alliteration appropriate? Read the story out loud as your write and revise. The language you use should be entertaining to hear, words should be playful and energizing. Remember that the child will most likely be listening to the story rather than reading it himself.
  • Does the story have depth? Think in terms of a child who wants to hear the same story over and over again. These stories generally have "layers" to them - nuances that a child might not pick up in a single read. The very young child likes the sounds the words make, as well as the meaning of the words, the way the picture and words work together, things "unseen" that reveal themselves after several passes, the emotional impact of the words and story.
  • Does the story have a satisfying ending? Children like to feel satisfied when the book is closed. They want the conclusion - be it funny, sad, or silly.

Begin Again

You've written, revised and edited your story. Are you ready to send it to the publishing houses now? Wait. Before you send anything out the door, work on your story again, but this time, work on it with your peers - your fellow writers. It is important to connect, to network and to converse with others in your field.

  • Begin by finding and joining a writer's group. The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is a writer's organization for children's writers of all levels. SCBWI sponsors two national conferences, east coast and west coast, each year. They provide grants and scholarships to encourage new writers. Most major cities have local writer's organizations or SCBWI chapters.
  • Find and join a critique group. Through the message boards of SCBWI, you can find online critique groups, or find or start a group in your town. Check out University or community college classes or writing groups. Read and have your work critiqued in a critique group - it is the best way to truly polish your work, and to gain insight into what works and what doesn't.
  • Practice your craft. Take classes, read and research your chosen field. Look for or start a writing practice group with others who want to work on their writing. Google "writing prompts" to find blogs and websites that post writing prompts and set aside time to practice your writing.
  • Keep writing. Practice every day. Start writing your next book, even while polishing your first book.

Research Your Publishing Options

 Once you've written, revised, edited, critiqued, re-written, edited again,  and polished your picture book, are you ready to send it out the door to a publisher?  Not quite.  Before you send it out, you need to research your market. It is a waste of your time to send it blindly to a dozen publishers if they aren't open to unsolicited manuscripts, or if they don't publish picture books at all.

  • Read the Children's Writers and Illustrators Market, or similar books, to find out what the publishing houses publish, and if they accept unsolicited manuscripts.  Determine if your manuscript is a fit for what they are looking for.
  • If you are a member of SCBWI, read their Market Surveys to get more current information about publishers and what they are looking for. 
  • Always check websites of publishers to get the most current information.  It is very likely that anything in a hard-copy publication may be out of date. Look for submission guidelines and follow them exactly when you submit your manuscript.
  • Go to conferences where children's book editors will be speaking and hear first-hand what they are looking for, and find out what their submission guidelines are.   
  • If you don't know what a query letter or cover letter is, do research.  The SCBWI publishes a number of articles that give detailed guidelines on how to prepare a submission to an editor and what to include in the packet.



Packaging Your Submission

A picture book submission to an editor at a publishing house has a format, though there are few hard-and-fast rules. In general, your submission will consist of a cover letter, the manuscript itself, and a self-addressed-stamped-envelope (SASE) for the return of your manuscript should the publisher not accept it for publication. Not every publisher wants submissions this way, however, so the best approach is to go to the publisher's website and find out what their submissions policy is, and follow it exactly.

Many publishers no longer return manuscripts, and only contact the writer if there is an interest in publishing the manuscript. In this case, you don't include a SASE with your submission.

Some publishers only accept submissions via email, and have very specific steps to do so. Follow the rules exactly, so that your emailed submission does not end up in a spam queue.

If you don't know how to write a cover or query letter, do some research or take a class to learn how. In general, a cover letter is short, and contains the following points:

  • A request to the editor to ask if he or she would like to read your manuscript. Include the title and say what kind of manuscript it is. For example, "May I interest you in reading my children's picture book titled My Picture Book?"
  • A sentence or two describing what your book is about. For example, "My Picture Book is a hilarious story told in rhyme about a clown's son and his quest to find oversized school shoes."
  • A short paragraph of your previous publications. Even if you don't have publications, include your membership to SCBWI.
  • A thank-you to the editor for reading your manuscript.

The cover letter goes on top of your manuscript. You can use a paper clip to hold them all together. Usually you don't staple anything (unless the submissions guidelines tell you to do so.)

Once you have sent your manuscript off, be prepared to wait. Never call the publisher to check on status.

Resources - The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Recommended for every level of writer. Membership provides access to SCBWI Publications, member message boards. SCBWI holds two National conferences each year, one on the west coast and one on the east coast. - The premiere repository of articles related to the craft and business of writing for children. Maintained by a well-known children's book editor and freely provided to the public. This extensive collection is searchable. - Provides "The Blueboard" - A message board for children's book writers. Requires reqistration. - A social networking site for authors, illustrators, editors, booksellers and others with an interest in children's books.

Final Thoughts

 Writing stories for children is easy.  Writing stories for children for publication is more challenging.  Check your competition by going to your neighborhood bookstore and looking at the picture books on the shelf.  See what's displayed and understand why those books are on display, and why those books have child-appeal.  The more effort you put into your craft and in understanding the business of children's books, the more you will grow  as a writer.  You will have more confidence when you send your work out to editors and hopefully, you will not grow discouraged on your journey.  The best thing you can do for yourself is to take your writing seriously and be persistant.  Be positive in your approach and believe in yourself. 

Suggested Reading

Barbara Seuling's "How to Write a Children's Book and Get it Published." - A foundational title that explains the basics.  Section on picture books explains the structure and fundamentals.

Eve Heidi Bine-Stock's "How to Write a Children's Picture Book" Volumes I,II, and III - Destructs and explains various well-known picture books and explains several picture book paradigms.

Karma Wilson's "Bear Snores On" - A sensory, funny, child-centric picture book.  A contemporary classic of importance to writers and readers.

Elisa Amado's "Tricycle" - An example of a literary picture book of uncommon depth of theme, with illustrations in magical realistic style. 

Peter Brown's "Chowder" and "Fabulous Bouncing Chowder" - An example of emotional depth, hidden layers, of a dog that is like a child to a couple. Notice the narrative quality in the illustrations.



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