Write It Right: Picture Books 101
Many writers who think about writing for children will automatically be thinking about picture books. For some, this is the only “children’s book” they can imagine. For others, it’s all about warm memories of beautifully illustrated books they read as a child. So, the first thing most folks write for children is something they envision being a picture book. And most of the time––almost 100% of the time––that first effort is not what makes a picture book.
Sometimes it might be a short story and it might be good. Sometimes it’s simply a sweet vignette. But rarely is it a picture book. Picture books are unique creatures in the world of writing––especially picture books written by those who are not professional illustrators.
Picture books are a marriage of two totally different story telling styles. The writer tells a story in words––either prose or verse. The illustrator tells his or her own story in pictures. And the two story styles together bring something deeper and richer than either could do alone. Even though the author and illustrator usually don’t interact, the story is truly something created by both. The book at the end isn’t the author’s book or the illustrator’s book; it belongs to them both.
To understand picture books, to truly understand them, and to know how to write them, you need to read them. (Actually, this is true of any genre!) It’s not enough to remember books from your childhood. It’s not enough to dig through the attic for the favorite books you stored up there. You need to read and study picture books today––the ones being published today. So to being your training as a picture book writer, you need to go and collect your books for study. You might begin in the public library, a school library or a bookstore. But there are certain things you must watch for in the books you choose:
Step One: Check the copyright date ... be sure the books haven't been out more than two years. You want to come as close to what publishers are buying now as possible. What works in a picture book has changed over the years. This is very much an evolving form. If you’re counting on picture books from your childhood or “classic” picture books being republished today, you’re going to miss some important things you need to notice that will apply to YOUR book. Because YOUR book is competing with those other new books coming out now.
Step Two: Avoid books written and illustrated by the same person. Someone who writes and illustrates is going to create a book in a very different way. Since an author who is the illustrator obviously controls the illustrations completely, the book created by an author/illustrator is a totally different creature from the book YOU are writing and selling.
Step Three: The same rule applies to celebrities. Celebrities sell books based on their name, not on the content of the book. The book might be good, but it doesn’t have to be––so steer clear of the celebrity picture book. In all probability, the celebrity book isn’t the same kind of book, at all, from the one you’ll ultimately write and sell.
Step Four: Nonfiction picture books are often quite a bit wordier than fiction picture books. The whole purpose is to impart something that is factual ... so they follow nonfiction rules. Again, unless you’re writing a nonfiction picture book, you want to look at the books that represent the same sort of thing YOU are selling.
Now, keep in mind that five picture books is not a representative sample, 100 is. Read at least 100 picture books before you begin to look at what works or does not in your own book. (You may have to go older than two years to get 100, but watch the other elements: stick with fiction picture books by non-celebrities who are not illustrators).
After you’ve read 100 picture books, pick out the top five or ten that really “clicked” for you. The ones you loved the most. Then go and type out the text only of those books. Type it like a normal book manuscript. Then put it aside for a few days or weeks. After that “rest period” go and read that re-typed text with your fresh eyes. Notice how the action works. Notice the characters and what made them unique. The editor never saw pictures when she/he bought
that text. Can you see what might have make the sale for that story?
Make a list of reasons why an editor might have picked THAT book out of all the other manuscripts he or she read that day. Do this with several of your picture book study samples.
Now look at your book. Pretend you’re an editor. Look at how YOU used action. Look at how you presented your character. Make a list of reasons why an editor might pick your book out of all that he or she read that day (that list may come in handy at query writing time). Be critical––what do the books that were published have that you didn’t have?
Go back and reread your “study” books again. Now, without your manuscript in front of you, sit down and try rewriting it on your computer from memory; see if it changes now that you’ve fueled your mind with publication ready manuscripts. Compare the rewritten manuscript to the original, how is it better? How is it not as good? Work on a revision that combines the best of both the original and the fresh rewrite. Don’t be afraid to revise.
Keep studying picture books. Avoid reading other book forms during this “study time” as they will pull you off course. It’s a lot of work to create a publication ready picture book, but if you do it … the end result of a beautiful book in your hands with your name on it will be worth all the effort. Click here to download the show notes with extra resources!