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How to write the best picture book

A woman sitting at a desk writing in a notebook

What characterises a typical picture book? It’s short. It has most likely been created with small children in mind, many of whom may not be able to read yet. It has a simple storyline and few characters. And, of course, it relies heavily on pictures for appeal.


Couldn’t be that difficult to write … right?


Hmm. Despite their simple appearance, great picture books – the ones children love to read over and over – are skilfully crafted works of literature. Here are some things you need to consider if you want to write the best picture book.


Make careful word choices

Think about it—you only have (typically) around 30 pages of scant text to tell an engaging story. It’s like decorating your house on a tiny budget and making it look like a Hollywood mansion. Every single word must earn its place and be fabulous. Your story will use simple words most of the time, but you might choose to throw in some well-chosen, challenging words too. The English language is rich and colourful, and it’s a wonderful privilege to introduce children to that world.


Learn about modern publishing trends

Picture book content and themes have changed over time—and will keep on changing. Some of the modern trends are for shorter books (fewer than 500 words) and stories that are simple on the surface while subtly teaching children about bigger issues and ideas. The characters should also dig deep to solve their own problems.


Get out of the way

… of the illustrator, that is. It can be tricky for authors to think visually, but that’s precisely what good picture book writers need to do. They must resist the temptation to tell the reader everything—the illustrator must be given space to show details about the story, setting and characters in their pictures. After all, part of the joy of reading a picture book is getting lost in the illustrations.


Create strong characters

Readers of fiction always identify with well-crafted, empathetic characters, and those represented in picture books are no exception. With so few words at their disposal, picture book authors need to make characters come alive on the page almost instantly. It’s important to craft your characters carefully so they have an impact on readers and, hopefully, become memorable favourites.


Make it suitable for reading aloud

Picture book writers need to be mindful of the classic picture book experience—an adult reading to a child. A good picture book is easy and interesting to read aloud, with words that weave pleasing rhythms and don’t cause stumbles and stutters for tired parents who are embarking on reading the fourth picture book in a row to a demanding toddler (yep, I’ve certainly been there).


Keeping all these things in mind (remember, I can help!) will ensure your picture book is the best it can be.


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