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Writing A Picture Book

In this exclusive extract from the new edition of the Guide to Writing for Children & YA, author Linda Strachan discusses the ins and outs of picture books. 

A common misconception is that a picture book is the easiest to write because it has so few words and a lot of lovely images. It can look so very simple. Some adults assume that because picture books are aimed at very young children they don’t have to be sophisticated. 

In fact, the very opposite is true: the appearance of simplicity is deceiving and the most successful examples of this genre are often quite complex when you analyse the content. 

Picture books are not only for the very young, either. Some authors use picture books to help interpret difficult or scary subjects for older children and adults; for example, Debi Gliori’s Night Shift uses the format particularly well to talk about depression, but is not aimed at young children. There are also illustrated versions of longer novels, such as the Harry Potter books; although these are not quite the same thing as a picture book, in that these are books with pictures inserted alongside the text, rather than the images being created to tell part of the story. 

Board books 

These can vary in style and size, but are typically made of solid board or very thick pages and aimed at very young children and babies. It might also have flaps made of paper, board or even felt, to hide fun things for the child to find. Children, especially the very youngest children, love surprises or being asked to find things. 

They might have textures so the child can feel the difference between a creature’s soft furry tail or scratchy tongue, and some have a mirror at the end for the child to see themselves. Board books can vary in length from three to four pages to slightly longer, and either have very few words or none at all. It may be strange to think you can be the author of a book that has no words, but you still have to create the story. Some novelty books have pull-out features or folded pages such as Alphabet Street by Jonathan Emmett and Ingela P. Arrhenius, which pulls out into a large concertina street, with flaps that lift and alphabet-inspired shops. It could also be used as a colourful nursery decoration. 

If you have an unusual idea for the format of a book, it is worth approaching a publisher but do bear in mind that production costs will be a big factor in their decision, particularly with a new author.  

Picture books 

Picture books usually have either more pictures than words or at least around 50% pictures, and normally they are written for the three-to-five age group. Most commonly, they are large, colourful books that do not have a lot of text. Sometimes that text will be in rhyme or at least rhythmic, but there are no hard and fast rules. Some picture books have cut-out pages or even flaps to lift to discover extra information or images, while those for slightly older readers often have more text.  

Like any book, a picture book needs a good, strong story and a satisfying ending. There are fewer words, so each one should be chosen with care. There’s nowhere to hide in a picture book; you cannot get away with sloppy writing and the text has to be cut and polished until it sparkles. 

Your story should be told clearly and simply, but that doesn’t mean the end result cannot be quite sophisticated and complex in emotion and concept. Subtlety in subplots and layers makes children want to read a picture book again and again, and also appeals to the adult reading it to the child. 

Normally a picture book will have the story told over twelve or fourteen double-page spreads, not including the title or copyright pages. This is not set in stone but it is the norm and publishers are less likely to get involved in a more expensive format unless they are sure of sales, and often this will only be with an established author or illustrator. 

It is important to tell your story evenly, taking the story arc to a climax and following up with a satisfying resolution. To that end, you have to pace your story over the available pages, making sure it doesn’t come to an end too early after perhaps only eight or nine spreads. 

Once I have a storyline, I find it useful to look at how it would stretch over the twelve spreads and use a page marked into twelve boxes, sometimes with a fine line marking the middle of the page. This helps me visualise the book and see how the action flows and how the images will tie in with the storyline. It is equally important at this point to make sure there are not several pages where the images will look almost exactly the same or very similar, and the grid helps you see if this is happening. Some picture book writers like to think about the story in sets of three, following the path of traditional tales such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears or the Three Billy Goats Gruff. This allows characters to try things a couple of times before they succeed on their final attempt.  

You can use the twelve spreads to split up the story in a variety of ways. You might introduce one or two characters or the situation on pages 1 – 2, while page 12 can be your resolution. That leaves three sets of three pages to have the character meet and fail at one obstacle and then another before they finally succeed on the third set. 

You could split all twelve pages into three sets of four pages or, if that scenario might not fit your story, you may want to use all twelve pages in a different way, but using the grid helps you make sure the story is going to work over the whole book, and not end too soon or become too long. 

I think 500 words is about right for a picture book. The suggested maximum word count is around 1,000 words but this is often considered too long, so never underestimate the benefit of good editing. It is amazing how much can be cut or reworded to reduce the word count, and how much careful editing can benefit the story. There are also longer picture books, with more text on each page that are suitable for older readers than the normal target audience for picture books, i.e. those aged three to five. My version of Greyfriars Bobby, illustrated by Sally J. Collins, has around 2,500 words, with between 100 and 200 words on each double-page spread, but like many longer picture books, it appeals to older children.     

Who buys a picture book?  

Another thing that makes a picture book different is that it must appeal to ‘layers’ of adults before it ever gets anywhere near a child: the editor, who will decide whether to publish it; the bookseller, who decides whether to stock it in the bookshop; the adult  –  parent, pre-school teacher or librarian  –  who will buy the book for a child.  

So keep in mind that although your picture book should be exciting enough to keep the interest of the child it is bought for, it should also delight the adults who will discover it first and will enjoy retelling it over and over again. Do that and you will likely have a success on your hands. 

Most picture books are written to stand alone, but sometimes they are so popular that the publisher and the author are keen to produce a sequel, or it may even become a series. Some are initially conceived as a series although a publisher is more likely to take a single book from a new author unless the series concept is very strong, and even then often they might wait to see if the first book sells well enough to merit a sequel or a series. 

The W&A Guide to Writing for Children and YA provides informed, practical advice from a successful and experienced writer of children's books across all ages. Its coverage includes picture books through middle grade and young adult; fiction and non-fiction; books for reluctant readers and books for the education market. It is one author's lifetime of experience distilled into an engaging guide on how to manage, kickstart or begin your writing career. You can order your copy now.