Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Picture Books: An Overview

I don't talk about picture books (PBs) much on this blog because I focus on novels--middle grade or young adult. But when I first started writing in the 1990s, my daughters were young and I thought I'd like to write and illustrate my own PBs. I worked up some dummies, did a few watercolor paintings, etc. I lived near one of the largest libraries in the Portland, Oregon, area; it was wonderful! I have fond memories of doing PB "research" with my daughters, reading books to them every night before bedtime.

After a while I decided novels were my "thing," and moved on to more verbose pastures. However, here are some things I've learned about picture books over the years:

THIRTEEN Picture Book Tips
1. Picture books are for children ages 2-8. PBs are a great intro to art and books for kids!
2. It is NOT necessary--or even advisable--to work up your own illustrations. Only do so if you are a professional artist, and be sure to say the text can be considered separately.
3. Editors keep artists' samples on file; they enjoy creatively matching text to art styles.
4. Often publishers pair a debut PB writer with an established illustrator for better sales.
5. Nowadays editors like their PBs to be 600-700 words long. Some even say 500.
6. Needless to say, if you want a satisfying beginning, middle, and end in less than 700 words, you need to write tight, clean, and concise stories.
7. Be spare with adjectives. In most instances, it's not advisable to describe colors, sizes, styles, etc. This will needlessly restrict the illustrator. Only include if crucial to the plot.
8. A writer's/illustrator's conference is a great place to connect with agents or editors. Check your local SCBWI for event dates; attending can be a worthwhile investment.
9. An agent is helpful to have, though not as many of them handle PBs. (Mine does.)
10. Most editors say not to include art or illustration notes with submissions.
11. Research. Read to see what works and what is being sold. Focus on the more recently published books, as they are more indicative of the current market.
12. Just because PBs are short, doesn't mean they are easy/easier to write!
13. As with novels, VOICE is very important. Don't be dull, even with nonfiction PBs. Be fun and imaginative. Use lively verbs. Feel free to use onomatopoeia words like clank, boom, and boingggg! Engage your young reader.

Have you ever written a picture book?
Can you add anything that would be helpful for aspiring picture books writers?
What's your favorite picture book? I love Kevin Henkes, like his Sheila Rae the Brave.


  1. When I used to write books for classroom use for grades K-2, in my days as a textbook editor, I loved working with the art. Some of my favorite picture books include Go Dogs Go and The Little Engine That Could (nostalgia), The Velveteen Bunny (illustrated by Michael Hague), Click, Clack, Moo, and Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. But these are only a few. I write novels, but I adore picture books. : )

  2. I've never written a picture book; packing a story into 500 words would be an interesting challenge, though!

    One of my favorite picture books is Nicolo's Unicorn. The illustrations are gorgeous, and it's a great story.

  3. Having three sons, I spent many hours reading picture books to them. It used to be a PB had a higher word count. (Example: Velveteen Rabbit has 3500+ words!) My artist husband & I have collaborated on what I call a "storybook" - it has a higher word count. If it is ever published it will probably have to be self-published! ^_^

  4. Lovely post! Sometimes I have an itch to write a picture book, but no idea actually comes, and I can't draw for beans. Have you ever seen Susan Mitchell's illustrations? She's brilliant!

  5. I've written picture books, and it is not easy writing. I'm in awe of the PB writers in my writing group.

    Great list, Carol.

  6. Those are great tips! I have two published picture books. I've written several more manuscripts. My favorite two picture books are Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen, and When the Sky is Like Lace. My advice for aspiring picture book writers? Read a lot of them!

  7. You're absolutely right, writing pbs is not easy. It took me nearly two years to get my pb exactly right. (Fortunately, I got it published too.) I love Go Dog Go!

  8. I dream of being a picture book writer. I have to work on submitting. I tend to get bogged down with the research of who to submit them too.

    Have a wonderful New Year, Carol!

  9. I think PB's would be very hard to write. I read something once that stuck with me that was along the lines of: PB's are meant to be read to children by adults so word choice need not be as simplistic as a new writer might think.

    Thinking back on books I've read to my children when they were small, I found that statement to be true, though PB's meant for early readers will use smaller words as kids will be reading them on their own. I found that very interesting.


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