The Low Down on Writing Picture Books

children-s-book-clipart-booksDon’t kid yourself thinking that writing a picture book is easy. In my opinion, writing a picture book takes more skill and craft than writing a novel. Well, perhaps that’s not true, but it takes a very specific kind of skill and craft, that not everyone has. Here are some of the things you need to think about if you’re going to write picture books.

  • The current market for picture books supports very low word counts. When I started in the business 6 years ago, we were looking for word counts of <1000. Now, it’s not unusual for word counts to be <500. Keep this in mind when you’re writing.
  • Some of the things that make a picture book manuscript work are interesting word choices, repetition, assonance, internal rhyme, meter. Pay attention to this. It’s not only about the content of your story, it’s about how you tell your story even on the sentence level.
  • If you’re going to write a rhyming picture book text, have the rhyme serve the story, don’t jam a story into a rhyme.
  • Picture books can’t be too teachy-preachy or didactic, or kids aren’t going to want to read them. If you have a “message,” don’t slam your reader over the head with it.
  • Don’t talk down to the miniature humans you’re writing for. Kids are astute and will pick up on a condescending tone.
  • The world that you build in your story usually has rules to it, even though it may only be 467 words long. Don’t break those rules, or the story won’t work.
  • If you’re not an illustrator, you just send your manuscript text when you’re submitting to agents or editors. You don’t need to find an illustrator. The publisher will want to do that if/when they buy your manuscript.
  • Only include illustration notes if you need something in particular in the illustration to tell your story. Otherwise, it just feels like you’re micro managing the illustrator’s job. (Plus it’s unprofessional and will peg you as a novice.)
  • Picture books are usually 32 pages long. If this is new information for you, read this blog post to familiarize yourself with just how picture books are laid out.
  • There are all types of story structures: cumulative, circular, increasing/decreasing, parallel, linear, etc… As with rhyme, have your story structure serve your story, don’t jam a story into a particular structure.
  • Remember that the game is to write a book that kids are going to want to read again and again and again and again.

This is not a comprehensive list. What other things do you think picture book writers need to keep in mind? 


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13 responses to “The Low Down on Writing Picture Books

  1. Hi there. This is a great article on picture books. Do you mind if I feature it on my blog, A Writer’s Path (6,100 followers)? I have on guest posts 1-2 times a week. I would, of course, give you credit by name and provide a link for my followers to check out your blog. Before even considering, I wanted to ask you first.


  2. Giora

    Thanks very much, Linda, and I just cut the my PB by 15% to 610 words and eliminated my suggestions for illustrations (unprofessional). Also the responses are very useful and helpful.

  3. Words are great and illustrations are wonderful but even more so I find great value in imagery which allows the reader to layer their imaginations on top of both of those or in conjunction with both. This can create the repeat customer because with every reading both adult and child can experience something new and fresh through wonder and imagination.

  4. Read TONS of current picture books! Mentor texts will not only show you what is selling in the current market, but model every aspect of the picture book form. If you have not yet read at least 100 current picture books, now is the time to snap them up. Then, keep reading.

  5. Page turns. If the child can’t wait for the page to turn to find out what happens next, good things are happening. On the other hand, if the illustrations are so enthralling that the child wants to wallow in each one before the page is turned, this is also good.

  6. The goal isn’t just to write a story kids will want to read again and again and again. It’s also to write a story adults will want — or at the very least won’t mind — reading aloud again and again and again. And again.

    • Yes, true! Another thing that can make pbs appealing to adults is when the humor works on multiple levels. That is to say, there’s something that kids find funny but there might be something different that adults would find funny, too. Like Sesame Street.

      • The importance of PBs also appealing to adults made me think of a particular line that still brings a smile to my face whenever I read CLICK, CLACK, MOO COWS THAT TYPE: “Duck was a neutral party, so he brought the ultimatum to the cows.” The adult-level vocabulary pitched into the middle of the story adds a layer of humor that would go unnoticed by a child listening to the story, but it sure makes it fun for the adult doing the reading!

  7. I think it’s important for the writer to think about what she “must” say with words versus what the illustrator would “say” for her. (Think show versus tell–per usual!) For example, there’s no need to waste precious words describing every nook and cranny of a barnyard or a rocket ship when the illustrator will do beautiful job of showing it. Remembering picture books are a marriage of words and images as you write really helps (well, most of the time anyway).

    • That would be my addition to the list; leave some meat on the bone for the illustrator. Not just that but use words that invite an illustration. Munsch and Martchenko are a great team to illustrate this (no pun intended). At the end of Alligator Baby for instance, Munsch writes “Oh, I don’t think we’ll have to do anything at all.” (referring to how they will return all these animal babies to their mothers). The next page shows all the angry animal moms at their doorstep. No text required. Munsch dangled a carrot for Martchenko and he responded. I doubt an illustration note was even necessary.