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Picture Book Autopsy

Many children’s writers have tried writing picture books. Some have gone on to tremendous success. Some have simply moved on to writing that suits their skill sets better. But the reality is that a tremendous number of picture books are being written right now, and if you’re hoping for your book to be one of the ones that goes on to commercial success, there are things you can do to help. One is to start with books that aren’t yours and do a little autopsy to find out what makes them tick.
1. Read 100 picture books.

Now. Do it now. Don’t say, “Oh, please, I have kids. I’m sure I’ve read 100 picture books over the years.” Yes, I believe you did, but you probably didn’t do it while trying to turn yourself into a picture book writer, so those don’t count. Start now. Read 100. Your public library can help, so can your big box bookstore, but stick to books published within the last year or two so you’re learning from the most recent trends in publishing.
2. Don’t base any of your writing on the worst books in the pile.

Never give in the to the temptation to look at a book you didn’t like and say, “I could do better than that.” You aren’t competing with the worst books in the pile. You’re competing with a tsunami of picture book manuscripts pouring into publishers and agents, and you need to be among the very, very best in the wave. So work on your book until you truly believe it can stand up to any of them.
3. Notice how much the author gets from few words.

If you’re holding a celebrity picture book that is crammed full of words, or a picture book by a well-known adult author that is crammed full of words, or a picture book by a well-known illustrator that is crammed full of words, set that book aside. You don’t get to do that. I mean, sure, you can. But the odds of selling a word-heavy picture book today are very, very low. Unless you can trade heavily on your name, you need to get a lot of work done with few words. So look at the authors who manage that. I remember when I took the time to copy all of my favorite picture book texts by simply typing them into Word, that’s when I was truly struck by how spare they are. Often, what feels like a meaty story is actually far, far fewer words than you thought.
4. Notice the rhythm.

Now, many lovely picture books rhyme, and if you can handle the challenge of telling a compelling story, writing in perfect meter, and making lines rhyme, well, more power to you. I can’t do it. But, what is essential to every picture book writer is the rhythm in the story. Even if you don’t understand how meter works, a good picture book writer will instinctively use it to build a specific rhythm to their text and make it appealing to read aloud and listen to. So read the picture books aloud and listen to the sound of the sentences.

  • Ask yourself questions as you read: why did the author use short sentences here?
  • What sound was he/she shooting for.
  • Why did he/she switch to a longer sentence?
  • Why did the author use this high level word, what did it bring to the text in terms of sound that a shorter word would not?

5. Note sound details.


Every sound decision in a picture book should be intentional. Keep that in mind for yours. Read single sentences over and over until the rhythm of the sentence gets caught in your head and then try making up a sentence that would go in a totally different story but use the same rhythm. This kind of copying of sound (not content) will help you add more rhythm options to your writer’s toolkit.

Noting sound details goes beyond rhythm and includes things like sound effect writing: Boom! Zing! Ka-Pow! Sometimes the sound effect choices are selected out into their own single-word sentences as I just did. Sometimes, though, they are simply slipped into a longer sentence: “Joey loved the color of pickles and their bumpity bumps. He loved the zip and zing of pickles. For Joey, pickles were pulchritudinous perfection.” See the sound effects: bumpity bump, zip, and zing? Those sentences contain another sound device as well: consonance, where like consonant sounds are grouped for specific effect. You can see it in “bumpity bump” as well as “zip and zing” and “pulchritudinous perfection.” Here’s another example of a quieter form of consonance, “Night slipped over the farm with a sigh.” Notice that you get a totally different mood from the soft consonance than from the hard consonance in Joey’s story. Sound and mood are connected in all writing, but picture books make special use of it.
6. Tinker.

Go through your pile of picture book reading and pick sentences at random from the books. Type the sentence into your computer and then rewrite it as many ways as you can while conveying the same information. Try for different moods maybe or simply look for different words that could have said the same information. See how many different sentences you can come up with (even if only different by a word or two). Now, look at the original and all these variants. Do you like any of your new sentences better? Why? Would you have to change all the rest of the book to make your sentence fit in with the same style and mood? The more you go through the process of thinking how these small changes affect the whole, the more you’ll be able to apply it to your own work.
Keep doing this until the mysteries of these 100 books are laid bare before you. You know why one sentence is better than another. You know how sound affects the mood of the book. Once you have gotten into these published picture books and examined them through your autopsy, you’ll have built some amazing skills that you can now bring to your own picture books, making them better than you ever thought you could. And that will help you compete in this demanding art form. It’s hard work, but writing often is. I think it’s worth it though, don’t you?

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