Recently, to my great delight, two of my short, original picture book texts have been accepted for publication: one, Two Rainbows, is about a farm child who’s moved to the city; and the other, Once Upon An Abc, is a quirky ABC book based on folk and fairy tale characters from around the world. Several other texts are out with publishers at the moment, so we’ll see what happens with them. It certainly seems that this particular way of writing, which I’ve dreamed about doing for years, has, like the children’s poetry I wrote about in an earlier post, suddenly clicked for me.
A little history: My first picture book, Two Trickster Tales from Russia, was actually published in 2013, but it’s a different kind of text from the others I mentioned, as it’s re-tellings of two traditional Russian stories. Another story, original this time, was published in a lovely illustrated multi-author and illustrator book, Three Dragons for Christmas, last year.
My focus in this post, however, is on the ‘classic’ picture book format: one original text by one author, illustrated by one illustrator, within a 32-page book. Writing one of these texts necessitates learning a whole other way of approaching writing. It’s been a delight, learning that, but also a challenge at times!
So I thought I’d pass on some of the things I’ve learned over the last couple of years as I’ve worked on several texts—some of which worked, others of which didn’t and were discarded—or left aside for a while and reworked.
- Picture book texts are akin to poetry but are not exactly the same. Poems need to build up the visual and musical images and patterns clearly within the words; picture-book texts need the music but the word-visuals need to be sparer to make space for the illustrator.
- Story is important in picture-book texts, even if that story is very simple and the timeline short (e.g. bedtime). Texts shouldn’t just be impressions—children don’t respond to that.
- Texts should be child-focused—i.e. have a child’s point-of-view even if the characters are non-human (e.g. talking animals). But remember that very often it’s adults who will be reading the book to children, so it’s good if the text can have appeal for adults too.
- Picture book texts are not, generally, long. They can be as short as 100 words, up to around 700 words (though occasionally, as with my retelling of the Russian tales, they can be slightly longer). Some publishers won’t look at anything above 500 words and also don’t like very short texts, but those are not hard-and-fast rules for most publishers.
- Pattern and rhythm are important in picture-book texts; it’s important to read your text aloud to feel its sound-patterns. But that doesn’t mean it needs to rhyme. (Though it can, of course!)
- A twist or surprise at the end of a text is a good idea—the trend at the moment is against ‘quiet’ books. But you shouldn’t force a twist that doesn’t belong onto a text; you just need to be able to finish it off satisfyingly.
- Don’t get hung up on ‘your’ vision of the illustrations; the illustrator needs as much creative freedom as you had in creating your text. However, you should still have a sense of the potential illustrative canvas of your work; publishers will often ask if you have a vision, even if sketchy, of that.
- Be prepared to craft and edit as you would for a longer work.
- And, of course–read! Get your hands on as many picture books as you can: classics that have stood the test of time, as well as the latest thing. Think about how the writers have approached the text. Think about how the illustrators work with the text. Get a sense of the range that’s around right now as well as the classics that continue to inspire.
Some great links if you want to research the matter further:
Mem Fox, Australian author whose classic picture books have been a great hit internationally, has some great tips for authors hoping to write picture-book texts.
Common misconceptions and traps to avoid are discussed in this piece.
Joyce Dunbar, British author of many children’s picture books, shares her tips here.
Here you’ll find a website specifically dedicated to the writing of picture books.
If you want to learn more from hands-on critique, workshops, etc, plus get to know about opportunities in the field, it’s a great idea to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; they have regional chapters all over the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada, and many other countries.
I’d love to hear from anyone who’s written picture books, and from readers of picture books, too. What are your top tips for a perfect text? What are your favorite examples of the genre?