Picture Books: Disabusing Aspiring Authors of Some Misconceptions

image003Let’s talk about picture books, ok? I made a little quiz for you all. Check off all the reasons why you might want to write a picture book:

☐I like kids! I even have a few of my own.

☐It would take too long to write a novel.

☐Writing a picture book is easier than writing a novel.

☐I just got a silly idea and it would make a great book.

☐I want to teach kids that <fill something in here>.

☐I wrote something for my kids and I think every kid would love it.

☐I want to be rich and famous like Dr. Seuss or Jane Yolen or Eric Carle or Patricia Polacco, etc…

Let me set the record straight, right here and now: picture books are really hard to write. I want you to understand, on a visceral level, that being a writer of picture books isn’t easier, simpler, or in any way less than being a writer of longer form work. And having or teaching kids doesn’t necessarily give you the authority to write picture books. In some ways, it’s just irrelevant. Some of the greatest children’s book authors didn’t even have kids (like Theodore Geisel and Maurice Sendak). What’s more helpful than having some kids is being able to experience the world like a child, remembering how to see and hear and think like a kid.

It might not take as long to write a picture book as it would to write a novel, but the game isn’t just to write the book. The game is to write something interesting, unique, perhaps funny or poignant or informative… and you want it readable, sellable, marketable… and well written! So, if you can do that in the flash of a hat, congratulations! For most people though, writing a picture book takes a while. You need to be thoughtful. You need to mold and craft and hone the language to work in every single sentence and on every single page. The overarching story needs to work, too. Your characters need to pop off the pages and into the minds and hearts of your readers. Plus, there’s the pacing, of course. Doing all of this, getting it right, takes time.

Picture books that are overly didactic and teachy-preachy aren’t so much fun for kids to read. When you write a picture book, get out of your own point of view as the author and jump into the shoes of one of the kids who you hope will be your reader. Would they like what you’re writing? Check in on that. Not on what you think (because you’re a grownup), but on how it will land for a kid.

Also remember (and this is not just for picture books!) that just because your family, and others who love you, are interested in something you’ve written, does not mean it will have universal appeal. Ask yourself why what you’re writing will be interesting to people who don’t know you. But remember to be honest when you answer yourself.

Lastly, anyone who’s going into writing because of the money, my advice is “don’t quit your day job just yet.” Write books because it’s what you love, what you have to do, what lights you up. If you end up getting paid for it? Bonus! It’s the rare lucky author who is able to pay their bills from the money they make writing picture books.

Any questions?



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5 responses to “Picture Books: Disabusing Aspiring Authors of Some Misconceptions

  1. What I learn from designing my picture books:
    individual tastes
    my grandchildren critique (at 4 and 6 yrs old)
    my son and daughter in law set limits, priorities, permissions
    my editing needs a team
    comments welcome:

  2. I’ve written quite a few picture books. I’ve also read quite a few novelists’ accounts of their own writing experiences. And I’ve come to the conclusion that writing a picture book can take even LONGER than writing a novel.

  3. As a children’s book publicist in a very small town, I get approached with manuscripts and “comments” about writing picture books all the time. I am going to print this post out and carry multiple copies in my bag so I can hand them out. Checklist is spot on. Writing is hard…. not just an afterthought.

  4. Cordelia Dinsmore

    Writing pictures books is HARD!!! We not only have to tell an interesting story in few words, we have to remember to leave room for the illustrator, because it’s his/her book, too. I love doing it, but it is certainly more challenging for me than writing a novel.

  5. Oh, so true! I would indeed be a wealthy author if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard someone utter one of the above declarations. And it doesn’t matter if you write longer children’s books…I once had somebody sum up their impression of writing nonfiction for kids as “so you steal everybody else’s research and just dumb it down?” Oy :/