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How To Write Children’s Picture Books

picture of girl holding picture book

“Anyone can write a children’s book!”

Yep, that’s the response I get when I tell people I write for kids.

“After all, they’re just kids,” they say with a flick of the wrist.

As if kids are simpletons. As if kids don’t care what they read. As if kidlit publishers will buy any drivel.

We know this is not true.

Kids are smart, and picky about what they read. Publishers are inundated with so many children’s book manuscripts (because ‘anyone’ can write for kids, ‘everyone’ does) that they have to be extremely discerning.

As a child, I adored Roald Dahl’s fantastical tales, devoured the “Fudge” series by Judy Blume, and discovered a bookish best friend forever in Ramona. So I decided to write a book.

I wrote my first fractured fairy tale at age 8, and boasted that a publisher would snatch it up soon. My grandparents, misunderstanding, revved up the Chrysler and high-tailed it to Walden’s, searching in vain for my book.

Fast forward 30 years. I now have one picture book in print and four more on the way. Grandma and Grandpa would be proud (and would find my book on the store shelves).

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about how to write children’s picture books that I wish I’d known early on. Here are my six top tips.

 

#1. Concept sells.

 

Write about a subject that excites kids—robots, ballerinas, dump trucks, aliens, princesses, super heroes, and so on.

Imagine your cover on bookstore shelves. Ask yourself: will kids make a beeline for that image?

Stay away from overdone topics like getting a pet, having a new baby in the family, moving to a new home, or meeting the tooth fairy.

Holiday books have a limited sales window and a lot of competition, so it’s wise to avoid Christmas stories, too. Break in with something unique.

 

#2. Be aware of page breaks.

 

Most picture books have 32 pages, but not all pages are for story; some are used for end papers, the title page and copyright details.

Typically, there are 24 pages for story, which works out to twelve double-page spreads.

selfends

Take advantage of page turns – make them surprising and fun. Change your scene.

It helps to plug your story into a dummy when revising. Does your story fit the format?

 

#3. Rhyme only if you can rhyme well.

 

Editors see a lot of bad rhyme, mostly in the form of common rhyme, forced rhyme and inconsistent meter.

Couplets like fun / run / sun and do / too / you are not original. It’s obvious when a writer gets locked into a rhyme scheme that dictates the story and sends it on an unbelievable path.

Examine the work of rhyming masters like Jane Yolen, Jack Prelutsky, Karma Wilson, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Corey Rosen Schwartz.

bearsnoreson

(Image credit: interior of “Bear Snores On” by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Jane Chapman.)

 

#4. Keep it under 500 words.

 

The current “sweet spot” for picture book manuscripts is 500 words. Sometimes even fewer words are preferred. (My friend’s new book is only 20 words!)

Manuscripts with 800-1000 words don’t sell as well, so write tight to improve your odds of being published.

Remember that illustrations will tell half your tale, so you don’t need to be overly descriptive.

 

#5. Don’t be preachy.

 

Many children’s writers feel the need to teach kids a lesson.

“Message-driven” stories aren’t popular with children (or editors). It’s not fun to be lectured.

While every picture book should have an underlying emotional theme – like the love of family, friendship, or fitting in – it should avoid being didactic.

 

These five tips will give you a head start on how to write picture books. A great way to begin is my November writing challenge, PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month).

For a picture book, writing well is not enough – you must have a unique hook that jumps out and grabs the reader. They say that for every twenty ideas you have, you get one great idea, which is why I created PiBoIdMo.

The challenge is to jot down one picture book concept daily through November.  At the end of the month, you should have thirty or more bright and shiny ideas from which to choose. At least one is sure to be a winner.

I promised six tips, so I owe you one.

 

#6. Read picture books.

 

Read a lot of them. Picture books have a unique rhythm and cadence, a certain subtlety that can only be understood by reading and absorbing them.

Examine how the art and text work together to form the whole. Don’t just look at what’s being said – see what’s left unsaid.

I suggest reading 500 picture books before you sit down to write your first manuscript. You’ll be far ahead of the competition.

 

So are you ready? Start writing!

If you’re seeking a literary agent, have 3-5 manuscripts ready to go. Agents rarely sign picture book authors on one book alone, because it’s not lucrative enough.

I assure you that with every picture book manuscript you write, your ability to write tight and clever will improve.

Have any questions about writing picture books? Leave a comment below.

About the author:

Tara Lazar writes picture books and witty blog posts. Her debut book, The Monstore, is available now from Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, with several more titles forthcoming. If you want to write for kids, join the kidlit party at taralazar.com.

Thanks to Bigstockphoto.com for image: Reading a picture book

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44 thoughts on “How To Write Children’s Picture Books”

  • Tara, thanks for sharing these tips and visuals!
    Patricia McGoldrick recently posted..FROM WHITEOUTS TO OLYMPIC GOLD!My Profile

  • Hi Mary, I recently discovered your blog and it has already helped me in terms of improving my writing, so thank you!

  • Carnie says:

    I have an idea for a children’s book – well it’s a rhyme my mom made up as a child that I think would be a great base for a story.

    Anyway, do I need an illustrator? I don’t even want to attempt to draw for the book myself. Or do I just write the stories, and worry about illustrations if I manage to get an agent? It’s just because when I think of children’s book, pictures are a big part of it.
    Carnie recently posted..Weekly Writing Challenge: The Sound of SilenceMy Profile

  • Sue says:

    Perfect timing. I finally decided last night to commit to writing a picture book and I had questions about layout and number of words that have been answered here.

  • Debbie says:

    Mary, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your useful posts. I’m also a children’s writer still revising my first fantasy story, and I’ve gained a lot of helpful insight with your posts. Thank you.

  • Dave Cearley says:

    Thanks Tara. Tips on finding an illustrator to partner with would be great.

  • I LOVE children’s picture books. As a former teacher, I would spend hours at the library trying to find the perfect book for my students. I checked out books that had great stories or even had a topic that I could relate to what we were learning in class.

    One of the dreams that I keep thinking about is writing a picture book about lesser known African American individuals who made a difference in the U.S. Perhaps, one day I will follow up on that!

    Thanks for the pointers!
    Jennifer Kennedy recently posted..Connect the Dots: How Not to Leave Learners Scratching Their HeadsMy Profile

  • Jon Bard says:

    Great piece Tara! #6 is especially important — reading lots of *today’s* picture books is really vital. Too many writers simply work from the memory of what was read to them as children, and the result is the kind of old-fashioned manuscript that editors typically reject out of hand.

    Carnie – if you’re planning to self-publish a book then, yes, you do need to hire an illustrator. Check elance.com or your local SCBWI chapter to connect with illustrators. If your goal is to submit your story to publishers, then don’t worry about it. if they buy your story, they will find an illustrator for your work.

    All the best,

    Jon Bard
    Managing Editor, Children’s Book Insider, the Children’s Writing Monthly
    .
    Jon Bard recently posted..Literacy Crisis: 40% of the World’s School Age Children Cannot ReadMy Profile

  • Leanne Dyck says:

    Thank you, Tara. I’ve written three picture book manuscripts and found your article very helpful.
    Leanne Dyck recently posted..Reviewing The Help by Kathryn StockettMy Profile

  • What an informative post! Somehow you have managed to hit all the main points in as few words as possible, you MUST be a picture book writer! Thanks, Tara! Sharing! :)

  • Michael Hall says:

    Ms. Lazar,

    I have written a book and have sent it to an editor who gave me the run have written another one but I am stymied as to what to do now. What do you recommend? I am not naive but its like taking a car to 5 mechanics and getting 5 different diagnosis` if you know what I mean.
    Thank you very much,

    Michael Hall

    • Tara Lazar says:

      Michael, that’s exactly what it’s like! Taste in stories is very subjective. One editor may love your work and another may dislike it. You have to research which editors like the kind of stories you are producing. Look at what kinds of books various imprints are releasing. Which are similar to your style? (But you also don’t want to be TOO similar, because editors won’t purchase manuscripts that compete too directly with books they already have out or under contract.) Finding the right editor may take some time. That’s why I chose to go with an agent–it’s her job to know editors’ taste and what they’re searching for.
      Tara Lazar recently posted..More “Mean Reviews”: Children’s Authors Read Bad Online Reviews of Their BooksMy Profile

  • Kath says:

    Tara I love your website and this post, all good reminders and what a journey it is. Thank you I am writing and illustrating mine, (yes I am an artist) I hear so many people tell me NOT to do my own artwork but I trust in my style and the images have had such great feedback. The one thing I am learning is…it is a very long hard process especially the illustrations which have evolved over time and I will not be happy until they are perfect. That might mean doing each page ten times over but like you say children know what they like. I watched Miss Potter the other night, I like to collect sketches too and talk to my characters. Thank you have a wonderful day.
    Kath recently posted..If OnlyMy Profile

  • Marcie says:

    Hi Tara, it’s amazing that I received this post at this time. I was hit with a couple ideas for children’s books and I have NO idea about the journey. I actually have a draft of one. So, thanks for this and I’ll start reading these books.

  • Beth Coulton says:

    As I work on a second manuscript – this advice is well timed! I’ve recently edited an MS down from 1100 words to 625- something I never thought I could do. It’s a challenge, for sure. Thanks for the points- actually, I heard a few of them in my conversation with Corey just earlier today!
    Beth Coulton recently posted..easy trustMy Profile

  • Abigail says:

    Thanks for the great, succinct summary on PB writing! I will refer those who ask me about the process to this post!

  • Sylvia Liu says:

    Thanks, Tara. Great post and tips! The one thing I would say though, is that self-ended PBs are very rare these days. I looked through 7 PBs I checked out from the library (all published within the last year) and they all use separate end pages. Publishers also seem to be quite stingy with the pages used for front matter, so 5 of the books had 15 double page spreads, and 2 of the books had 14 double page spreads.
    Sylvia Liu recently posted..New Work: Logos and BannersMy Profile

  • Rosie says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these awesome tips! Good info in the comments, too!

  • Thanks for these tips. I’ve checked your site out on SCBWI site, too. Your blog is great. I love your November writing challenge and look forward to trying it.
    Marcia Fowler recently posted..My Article in Writer’s DigestMy Profile

  • Tara, Thanks for sharing how most folks think writing for kids is a breeze! Many of these same jovial people think that writing in rhyme is equally breezy! The breezy part is really how quickly the rejection letters fly into the mailboxes of those blissful writers.

    Being a wonderful, professional, well-read writer must come first. And then…if you can stand on one foot, rub your tummy, pat your head and whistle Dixie backwards…only then should you consider writing in rhyme. Because a rhyming picture book, when well written, is done with hours of dedication to rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, scansion, and magic…all after the PERFECT story arc is complete.

    So, first follow Tara’s tips 1, 2, 4, 5 & 6. Then, if you are confident in your balancing ability on one foot…go for the rhyme and make it sing!

    Angie

    Join RhyPiBoMo in April!
    Angiekarcher.wordpress.com/

  • Thank you for these useful tips.I too am an author and an artist and have successfully published 3 books for children in the 8-12 age group ( around 25,000 words). Even though my editor said leave the illustrations out for this age group,my publisher then said they made the book ‘come to life’! So I illustrated each chapter…and it really does work.I would now like to write a series of books for the younger age group and your tips are very useful.Thanks.

  • Kirsti Call says:

    Great post Tara! I started reading this post without realizing you were the author! This is a great blog for writers!

  • :Donna Marie says:

    Tara, so glad I caught this! What a wonderful post, and OH, SO TRUE! And I have to tell you, I actually got heated when I read that people actually dismiss you writing picture books as though it’s almost a meaningless accomplishment! HOW DARE THEY? Anyway, you always put great stuff out there :D
    :Donna Marie recently posted..W.S. “UP” goes LIVE soon! “FOLLOW” Pre-Launch & don’t miss GIVEAWAYS! (scroll down to see what you can win…)My Profile

  • Sarah Duncan says:

    Great advice for this hopeful children’s book author.
    Sarah Duncan recently posted..Foodie Fridays: Simple Spanish foodMy Profile

  • Newton says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve been thinking about writing children’s books and found this post and the comments informative. I had also wondered how it works with getting the illustrations done. On one hand it sounds like a relief that you don’t have to worry about getting the illustrations done, but I have a question about that.

    You said to have 3-5 manuscripts if you’re looking for an agent. If you’re looking to create a series / universe would it make sense to have 3-5 manuscripts from the same series? If you’re going sans agent, is 1 manuscript sufficient?

    If you’re planning a series (set in the same universe with the same characters), what are the implications of allowing the publisher to handle production of the illustrations? If you like the likenesses that are created, do you have any rights to use them in the future independent of that publisher? What about hiring the same illustrator but not working with that publisher? What if you don’t like how the illustrations come out or you have to change the likenesses later, how detrimental is that to getting a series off the ground?

    • Tara Lazar says:

      Lots of good questions, Newton.

      In regards to having multiple manuscripts ready, I would not recommend them being all in the same series. What if the agent doesn’t like the series concept but likes your writing and wants to see something else? You’d have nothing else to catch their attention. (Then again, if they don’t like your series and you’ve invested so much in it, you might not want that agent if they are interested in other stories.) The idea behind having many stories ready is to have OPTIONS. To show your talent for writing diverse stories, not just one story. An agent wants to feel connected to your style, your BODY of work. One picture book manuscript doesn’t tell them YOUR whole story.

      The same goes with an editor. And this just happened to me this week–an editor can like a manuscript but not want to publish it (for instance, it may compete too closely with something else on their list). They may then ask for other material. Have more stories ready to go!

      I also think it’s not a good idea to write so many books in a series before you know if the series is viable. Yes, sometimes a publisher will sign a 2- or 3-book deal, but that’s rare in picture books. When it does happen these days, it’s for character-driven stories.

      As for illustrations, you will find that the experience of the publisher means that they are hiring the best possible artist for your story. The images always turn out far better than you ever imagined, trust me on this. As for being able to reuse the images, that’s something to negotiate in your contract when the time comes. And I don’t recall there ever being a series where the character likeness was changed significantly (I’m not talking about modernization of characters that happen slowly over time). A drastic change would be upsetting to fans already invested in the character.

      Hope that helps and good luck!
      Tara Lazar recently posted..SCBWI FL Conference Recap #1: Agent PanelMy Profile

  • Newton says:

    Thanks so much for your reply, Tara.

    The reason I asked about multiple manuscripts from the same series is that most of my ideas so far about writing children’s books have revolved around a particular setting and characters. I haven’t given much consideration yet to other stories.

    Thanks for those insights. I haven’t looked into the mechanics of this much yet, so I didn’t know about the considerations you explained for interacting with agents and editors. That’s an interesting point that any given story might get shot down with a certain editor at a certain time for reasons unrelated to how good the editor thinks it is. I’ve actually been thinking over whether I should attempt to turn my story idea into picture books or a novel, and I found the information you posted about picture book length interesting. Since you stress that the length should be restrained, perhaps it would be more feasible (I’m not going to say easy) than I would’ve thought to come up with several manuscripts for unrelated picture book stories.

    The idea I have for a series is character-driven, but perhaps trying to get one story published first, then considering a series, has the best prospects. I guess it’s possible though that an editor or agent could be interested in the characters and other elements, but not like / want a specific story. So maybe having several manuscripts that are part of the same series could be helpful for just getting one published? I’m just wondering out loud, I obviously don’t know if it ever happens that way.

    Thanks for the thoughts on the illustrations — I take your word for it. That’s good to hear. Regarding the other issue, that’s what I was worried about: getting the series off the ground with people actually liking it, and then upsetting them by the look changing too much later. Based on your experience it sounds like I shouldn’t worry about that and should worry about writing manuscripts that someone would want to publish.

    Thank you!

  • Rosie says:

    Thanks for the tips! I have the concept, just pondering format etc, and his is really helpful! Thanks

  • kylie Foley says:

    Loving your 6 tips for a picture book. I read one comment where you mention illustrators are contracted for the book by the publishing house.
    Does this also work in reverse?
    I have a fabulous and very unique set of themed photographic images with an intended/ proposed story
    line. I loved to see this develop into a picture book for children.
    Thank you
    Kylie

    • Tara Lazar says:

      Hi Kylie.

      Occasionally an editor does fall in love with an image, typically of a character, and want a story to go with it. I know a few instances where a writer with whom an editor has already worked has been asked to write a story to accompany a character image. Illustrators typically send regular postcards to art directors and editors to show samples of their work. If a postcard illustration grabs an editor’s or AD’s attention, they may ask for a manuscript, and if you don’t have one, they may ask a writer they know to write it. But again, this happens rarely.
      Tara Lazar recently posted..Character-Driven: Extraordinary Warren by the Extraordinary Sarah Dillard (plus a giveaway!)My Profile

  • pikavippi says:

    How to rotate my blog posts over and over with a preset time interval with PHP code?

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