So you want to write a children’s picture book. Here are some things that might help you.
Think in pages. A typical picture book runs 24 story pages, although some publishers want or will accept 28 pages. Pages in a book are added in groups of four only, so don’t try to write a 26-page book. That will make life hard for a publisher and they don’t like writers who make life hard.
Shoot for 400-1000 words, the low end being for the youngest readers. Six to eight hundred is a happy medium for older picture book readers. “Where the Wild Things Are,” one of the best-known children’s books that also became a movie, had only 336 words. “Green Eggs and Ham” contains 641 words but it has a fantastic twist. Dr. Seuss, Theodore Geisel, had a bet with his publisher that he couldn’t write a complete, interesting story using only 50 unique words. He won that bet, and the book became one of the 5 most popular children’s picture books ever written.
If it sounds easy to write a 600-word story, think again.
With only 600 words in the story, each one must count. In an 80,000-word novel, you can get by some poorly chosen words. If, say, only 5% of your words are weak, the story contains 4000 bad words. Using that same metric, your 600-word book contains 30, and that breaks down to one or two per page. With each page containing on average 12-13 words, one weak or useless word stands out like a sore thumb.
Kids who read picture books take things literally and they want those stories to move along. Using passive verbs is the best way to kill that story movement. Passive verbs don’t show action. Here’s a list of passive verbs to avoid when possible: be, being, been, am, is, are, was, were, been, has, have, had, do, did, does, can, could, shall, should, will, would, might, must, may. Write and rewrite every sentence you create to avoid using them. It’s particularly weak writing to use the verb phrase ‘had + verb.’ Instead of writing “She had started to read the book” say “She read the book every chance she got.” Other words to avoid adverbs like seem(-s, -ed), really, just, very. In general, try to find active verbs that don’t require adverbs to describe them. All this is true of writing in any genre.
Whether you illustrate it yourself or not, and you won’t if you plan on submitting it to a traditional publisher because they’ll provide one who meets their preferred style, every single page needs to be uniquely illustratable. The story must create pictures that can be added and each illustration must be sufficiently different from all the others or the reader gets bored. The illustrator may not create the pictures you imagine. Mine usually don’t, but the readers likely won’t either, so the illustrator uses her own experience in creating the images like you did in stringing the words together.
As you contemplate writing a picture book, think action story, one that makes sense to the age you are writing for. The young reader must be able to identify with the main character and her problem must be one the reader can identify with, even if your main character is an animal or an inanimate object, although you better know what you’re doing to try and anthropomorphize, say, a bed. Kids love the rhythm and sound of a rhyming picture book story. But if you aren’t good at poetry, your book will sound and feel forced to the reader and, more importantly, to the editor. As a beginning picture book writer, write it out in narrative form, not poetry. You still want to think of stanzas, as in the words on each page, and rhythm, but don’t force rhymes.
My now 9-year-old daughter is my first reader, since my first picture book 5 years ago. If you can find a captive picture book reader, let them read it or read it to them. They’ll let you know if it’s any good.
These represent just a few of the basics of picture book writing. More to come in this space in the future.