Picture Books: Oh, That’s Easy! (NOT)
Writing a picture book is NOT easy. It’s complicated, challenging, and requires the precise combination of words to tell a story with a story arc containing conflict with a resolution in exactly 32 pages. Sounds easy, right?
Everyone seems to think so.
Children’s books look adorable in a package written in simple language, but a picture book needs the same characterization, plot, story arc like every good story. When writing picture books you must consider the age of your audience, consider your language, and avoid preaching lessons. Your protagonist should solve his or her own problem. If a child identifies with the bullied main character, it is important the that character resolves his own problem. What example would it set if the parent comes in to solve the conflict in the book? The character needs to have agency in a picture book.
Unless an author is also a gifted artist, most picture books are illustrated by someone they have never met. A manuscript is written for a good story FIRST. If a publisher wants a manuscript, THEY will choose the illustrator and the author often has no say in who is chosen. If the author is lucky, they may get to see some samples prior to printing. It is possible that a book written about “Harry’s Happy Day” may become illustrated about Harry the dog instead of Harry the boy, and the author has little control over this.
Picture books should have as few words possible. Most picture books are less than 500 words and some even under 200 words. Avoiding adverbs and adjectives and using powerful verbs make your sentences strong and ACTIVE. When writing a picture book, an author should “leave room” for the illustrator. Instead of writing “he wore his red hat and purple polka-dot shirt”, an author can avoid writing any descriptive words about the character’s appearance because that will be left up to the illustrator to draw. This leaves room for more important action sentences to move the story along.
There is only one Dr. Seuss. Rhyming picture books cause stomachs to turn unless you are established and have perfected the art. Throwing rhyme on a page may be easy for some, but in a picture book (and good poetry) that rhyme must maintain the exact same rhythm and rhyming pattern in every line and stanza. The beats must be counted and you can’t twist your sentences in to phrases to match your rhyming words. Leave it to Seuss and the gifted.
Picture books are a wonderful art-form that deserve respect. The diligence of picture book authors to create masterpieces for our children while under scrutiny of form and style and a 32- page-limit should be commended. What would we do without Goodnight Moon, Scaredy Squirrel, Hop on Pop, Where the Wild Things Are, and your favorites?
So when someone says, “Oh, I have a picture book I’m going to write!” or “I think I can do that, too! I have an idea.” (as if they were planning on whipping it out next week.) My heart races a little, and I clench my jaw. I nod my head with a smile. Go for it.