How do you win a marathon? You run very fast for 26.2 miles without stopping.
Like winning a marathon, writing is easy to describe, but difficult to execute.
Writing a good book is a magical art that combines creating interesting characters, setting them in intriguing settings, and weaving an engaging storyline with page-turning action and authentic dialogue. Easy, right? Not really.
And while writing well wasn’t difficult enough, writing picture books places additional limits on the author. These children’s books are shorter than the adult books, so there is much less time for story or character development. The author is further constrained by the age of the audience; most children will not understand adult vocabulary, scenarios or themes.
Think you are ready to try your hand at this creative project?
Here are some tips for writing a children’s book.
What exactly is a children’s picture book?
Picture books usually, but not always, have 32 pages. They are published in larger slice sizes (eg 8.5 “x 11”) and can contain from zero to 1000 words. Fictional picture books have less than 500 most common words.
Picture books exhibit an anomaly in that they can be written at a higher reading level than the age of the intended audience. This is because picture books, unlike YA’s easy readers, are often read to a child by an adult.
As the name suggests, these books have pictures on every page. Illustrations help tell the story, describe the setting, set the mood, and convey information about the characters. They provide visual appeal to young readers and help the author tell a story in fewer words.
Ironically, an artist illustrates a picture book after the manuscript has been accepted by a publisher. It is therefore common for a picture book author and an illustrator to never meet or even talk to each other!
Things to include when writing a children’s book
While there is no formula for writing a picture book, there are some crucial things to consider: plot type, genre, setting, theme, appealing main character, point of sight and time, choice of words, love / friendship, proofreading and end satisfaction.
Let’s dive into each of them.
What type of picture book plot best suits your story?
Often referred to as a sausage story, a “series of events” is just that, a series of small episodes, as in “If you give a mouse a cookie”. The “Discovery” plot types begin with the character working under a misunderstanding. Eventually, they discover something and reverse their situation or point of view, as in “Green eggs and ham”.
‘Wish Fulfillment’ plot types have a wish the main character deserves for something and then receive it, as in “Cinderella”. Compare this with the “goal achieved” storylines, where the main character must struggle to reach a goal, as in Swimmy.
Choose the type of fiction for your story, such as fairy tale, fantasy, historical fiction, horror, humor, mystery, mythology, poetry, or science fiction. In my own writing, I don’t choose genre first. I design story concepts and then see which genre works best, but some writers prefer to plan their genre before describing their story.
In some cases, the choice of the setting (Alpha Centauri = science fiction) or the main character (Abraham Lincoln = historical fiction) dictates the genre. And yes, you can write horror, but it should be sweet and humorous – more like “There was an old monster ” than “The Call of Cthulhu”.
Picture books generally occur in a single frame. When is the best time and the best place for the story to unfold – on a farm (“Click on Clack Moo: Cows That Type »), in a medieval castle, aboard a pirate ship in the Caribbean, or on a spaceship orbiting Mars?
What positive message will this story convey?
Is the main character interesting or endearing enough that readers care what happens to him? Can readers easily imagine themselves in the story?
The main characters in picture books are usually the same age as the readers, usually children or animals.
They are rarely adults or inanimate objects, but there are exceptions: “The day the pencils stop” features pencil characters. Here are some suggestions for naming fictional characters.
Point of view and tense
Which point of view and which tense is most effective for this story: present in first person, future in second person, past in third person? Once you’ve made that choice, be consistent
Choice of words
It is much more powerful to show than to say. Anton Chekhov said: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the shine of light on the broken glass.
The low word count in picture books forces the author to be scrupulous in his word selection. Don’t dilute the impact of your writing with weak words and edit yourself wisely.
Consider “the sun was almost down” with “the sun kissing the horizon.” The characters must act, not prepare to act. Use strong, descriptive verbs. Contrast “Josh started to stand up” with “Josh jumped.”
Does the story feature a love or friendship that resonates on an emotional level? Is there a strong connection between the characters (“Frog and toad”) or a lasting message (“The little engine that could”)? Will readers laugh (“Rabat Your Wings “) or have a plug in the throat (“The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”)?
Love and friendship help bond the reader to the story.
A satisfying ending is the unexpected surprise that completes the child’s reading experience. It’s the icing on the cake of a good story.
Proofreading cannot be added to the recipe like any other ingredient. Rather, it is the result of examining all of the above.
Is the tapestry you have woven rich enough to warrant several readings? The ultimate proof that you have written an engaging and entertaining story is that children read it over and over again.
Although at first glance this may not appear to be the case, a great deal of thought goes into the few words that make up a picture book. Every word counts. Shakespeare was right to say: “Brevity is the soul of the spirit”. And as far as we know, he never even wrote a picture book.
Have you written or considered writing a picture book?
This is an updated version of a story that was posted previously. We update our articles as often as possible to make sure that they are useful for our readers.
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