You might think that writing a picture book will be easy… but you’d be wrong. Writing picture books for children is a remarkably competitive area. It’s also one of the trickiest forms of writing to get right. Generally speaking, picture books use very few words and have very little space to develop a narrative, which means that every word needs to earn its place in the narrative.
There is an over-tendency for authors to write in rhyme for children. Through focusing on rhyming, the author often loses sight of the narrative, the characters and the message they are trying to share with their young readers. They sacrifice good plot development and great characters for the sake of a rhyme – which often doesn’t even really make sense.
Picture books are generally aimed at children 4-8 years, although many cover 0-9 years. Publishers generally adhere to pretty strict guidelines in terms of length and content, they are also pretty clear on the type of language they want to see for each different age range.
You can break picture books down into a few categories:
- Novelty and Concept books: 0-4 years. Often board books.
- Children’s Picture Books: 4-8 years. The ideal length is around the 500-word mark (although it can be as little as 200 or as much as 1000, but generally less). Almost all picture books are 32 pages, usually planned in double-page spreads, with an allowance of 3-4 pages for the prelims.
- Picture Books for Older Readers: 8+ years. This category is a little like YA for picture books. Complex, or darker themes are often explored and long texts are common. Some are 48 or more pages.
- Chapter Books or Books for Emergent Readers: mostly 8-10 years. Anything from 1000 words to 12,000 words.
If you would like an overview of the different styles of children’s books you might like to visit an old blog article we wrote on the subject: Publishing: Children’s books explained
START WITH AN IDEA…
I know, I am stating the obvious. But it’s important to have a clear idea of the kind of story you want to tell. Or even who you want to tell it to? Or who it is going to be about…
Children’s books often start with a seed of an idea, a character, a setting, a fun concept, a reflection of something ordinary. Children’s books cover such a varied range of topics and ideas, the sky’s the limit!
Here are a few questions to consider as your develop your idea:
- Where do you want to take your young reader?
- Do you want them to take some message from the book?
- What are the themes in the book that might entice a young child to read and love your book?
- How does it relate to them and their world?
- What is the purpose of the story?
- What actually happens? What are the key events? How does it end?
- What age group are you writing for?
- Who are your characters?
- Where’s it set?
DEVELOP STRONG CHARACTERS…
Characters are really important in any narrative, but especially so for children. Children like to see characters who they can identify with in some way. The beauty with kids, though, is that their imaginations allow them to identify with more than just human characters. Children also love characters who are animals, aliens, dinosaurs, mythical creatures, objects – anything that can have a child-like quality to them. This means that central characters should always be young at heart and relatable to any little human. More than likely, this means adults shouldn’t inhabit central character positions.
Before you start writing, get a clear idea in your head of what your central character is like. What do they look like, how do they speak, do they have a special skill, a strange way of walking, have they got lots of friends, no friends, imaginary friends… what do they want, what’s stopping them from getting what they want, why do they want it, what does it mean to them…? What are you going to name your character?
So many things to think about!
If you have a interesting and well-developed central character then there might also be the potential to take him/her on a series of adventures across a number of books. Kids love to love things, and once they love that thing they can’t get enough!
It is also important to think about all your supporting characters. How many do you have, are there too many for a short narrative? Can you spend enough time with all of them? Is it hard to keep track of them all? Do you introduce characters just to serve some narrative purpose, or do they earn their place in the story?
Who is your narrator? What does their voice sound like? How are you telling the reader about your characters and their adventures?!
It is important to remember, at all times, that you are writing for children. Your characters need to be relatable to young readers, and easy for them to learn from and connect with.
CONSIDER YOUR WRITING STYLE…
Picture books are made to be read aloud, so it’s important that it reads well. It should be simple yet engaging. The format should be easy for young readers to follow along. Repetition can be good, it creates a sense of security in the reader, that they know what to expect (to some degree) and also helps develop an expected rhythm and pace. Repetition helps to cement ideas and themes, as well as build momentum in the narrative. Writing in a rhythmic way is great for this audience, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean rhyme.
Although rhyme can be fun, very often trying to tell a story within the strict guidelines of the form can get in the way and inhibit the story’s natural development. Writing in simple prose can be just as much fun and can allow for much easier access to the story line. It also makes the writer focus in on the intention of the characters, action, story and resolution, rather than the struggle to catch the rhyme. There is a tendency to want to write children’s stories in rhyme, but they so infrequently work well. It’s a real trap for new writers and one from which publishers shy away. I’d say that 99% of children’s picture books we receive for appraisal work are written in rhyme. And about 99% of them don’t use the rhyme well enough to justify its use.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that publishers invest considerable sums of money into a picture book. The Australian market is very limited and publishers are always looking to invest in books which will offer them international sales opportunities, often in a foreign language. The rhyming text does not accommodate foreign language sales as easily and is therefore less attractive.
It’s also really important to choose language that is appropriate to the age group you are writing for. Introducing new words is fine, as long as the surrounding word choices support the introduction of this new word.
DON’T FORGET A STRONG NARRATIVE!
Can you clearly to tell a friend what your story is about, or what it’s trying to teach the young reader? Do you know where you want to take your reader? What’s the action/movement/energy of the manuscript? Is it a reflection of their own lives, or a magical journey that exists in the imagination? What’s the purpose of the narrative? Why do you want to tell this tale – educate, inform, entertain, all of the above?
It’s nice to have a moral or message in your narrative, but it doesn’t need to be front and centre. Kids absorb plenty of information subliminally, they don’t need to be force-fed any message. The narrative can do the heavy-lifting for you, as long as it is strong enough.
Often children’s books have an external plot (all the things that are happening) and an internal plot (the way the child is feeling, what they are seeing, how they are interpreting the world around them, emotional changes they experience as a result of their narrative journey). What is happening in your narrative, and how does your character feel about it?
Creating a strong narrative should be a priority before working with illustration/imagery. Trying to write a narrative to fit with illustrations risks creating a flimsy narrative. However, it is important to think about your writing/narrative, is there enough for an illustrator to work with? Is there too much in the writing that can actually be shown through the illustrations (ie detailed description of clothes and surroundings isn’t needed, as this can be provided through the illustrations). Often you can allow the illustrator to do some of the heavy lifting and add depth to the reading, but there needs to be plenty for them to work with in the first place, think: action, movement, emotion.
More about illustrations below.
PUBLISHING AND FORMATTING
Children’s picture books are generally 250-700 words (and generally under 1000 words). Children’s book publishers think about their books in terms of page extent and spreads – how will your narrative fit into the standard 24-page (12 spreads) or 32-page (16 spreads) format? Remember that Page 1 is the first right hand page you see when you open the book and this is usually the title page.
Once you’ve written your narrative and are in the editing phase, it is worth considering your tale in a visual fashion, how will the text be broken up to fill all the spreads? What will the flow be? Consider how the momentum is affected by the turn of a page. Is there a natural place to pause the narrative for the page-flip? It’s a great idea to use page breaks to your narrative’s advantage, to build drama and tension in both the text and illustrations.
It’s also important to consider how you spread the narrative over the spreads as a whole (beginning, middle and end). You don’t want to use up too many spreads on introducing the character only to find you have 6 spreads left to finish the whole story!
I’ve included a image above of what 16 spreads might look like. Drawing up a diagram like this will help you visualise and pace your narrative across the spreads. The above is just an example, sometimes the prelims take up more space, while other times they can be squeezed onto one page. Take a look at children’s books and you will start to get a feel for the possibilities.
HOW DO ILLUSTRATIONS FIT IN?
When submitting your manuscript to publishers, the text (the narrative) will be of primary concern. A publisher will first look for the strength of the text alone as often they might have another illustration style in mind, one which might be their preference to allow the story to ‘fit’ with other titles within their list.
It is worth presenting your work to a publisher without illustrations in the first instance. If you’re also an illustrator, or worked with an illustrator, and have illustrations that you wish to submit then it might be worth considering submitting this as a separate document, along with the associated text. The publisher can then see what editorial depth and enhancement your illustrations bring to the work and they can also see the strength of the story in isolation. You should consider that a publisher might be attracted to a story but that they might not want the illustration style, or have a different preference – for a variety of reasons.
We often work with authors who are both writers and illustrators, we work with the text in the first instance, but will then look over the text with the illustrations (usually as a pdf document) at a later stage in the evaluation process.
RESOURCES FOR CHILDREN’S BOOK WRITERS
Join a local branch of the Children’s Book Council of Australia. They hold a variety of different book related event for children and can have some very informative and interesting meetings. There is bound to be a branch in your area. It is a great opportunity to network with other local children’s writers.
It is a good idea to go to a good book shop (and preferably one with a children’s book focus) to see what has already been published, how they manage the flow of the narrative over the spreads. It is also worth looking at who is publishing what, to see who could be a good fit for your work. Talk to your book seller about the various books coming from publishers. And ask what the bookseller is looking for in a great children’s book that they want to stock.
A visit to the library and/or a school library can be a good thing also. Speak with the librarian about children’s books, I am sure that they will be a mine of information. Ask the school librarian what’s on offer from Australian writers and publishers and perhaps what the kids at their school are reading the most. What excites them?
Publishers’ websites are a wonderful source of information also, and will tell you a lot about the types of books they’re looking for.
There are writers’ centres in every state that are a wonderful resource for all writers.
There are a wealth of online forums and resources for children’s authors also, probably too many to mention in this article. A great place to start would be Creative Kids’ Tales, which includes an author resources page also.
We have some truly wonderful children’s picture book appraisers on our team, who are highly experienced in the field of writing, illustrating and publishing books for children. If you would like some advice on your own work then we’d love to hear from you and help you on your writing journey!
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