Picture books—don’t they conjure up happy memories? Maybe you have read them to your kids. Maybe you recall them being read to YOU. Remember having favorites that you wanted to read over and over? Goodnight Moon, The Cat in the Hat, The Story of Ferdinand? Perhaps as an adult, you still love picture books, and read them often, with or without kids present. Maybe you have an idea—and you’ve thought about writing a children’s picture book!
But where to begin? The world of picture books can be inviting, appealing, magical, and for some aspiring authors—intimidating!
How does one go about writing a children’s picture book, anyway? Is there any special way to do this? What about art: do I have to come up with the pictures before I send it off? How many words should it be? Where can I learn how to write a children’s picture book? Do I need an agent? Help!
First: I invite all of you to check out my class: Creating The Picture Book! We go over lots of information about how to write a picture book. We draft, revise, and learn the fundamentals of the craft along the way! If this sounds like fun, please join us!
In the meantime, if you want to dive into writing a children’s picture book, here are the top 10 things to know.
Kelly's Upcoming Courses:
Crafting the Poetry Novel for Young Adults
June 21st, 2023
Even if you’ve never written poetry before, you can begin the rewarding process of crafting a poetry novel for Young Adults. Is there a market for novels written in verse? Are they well received? Yes, there is, and yes, they are!
Write Your Picture Book!
July 19th, 2023
Picture books have changed greatly over the last few decades, and the market is wide open for fresh ideas. Join us in this six-week intensive where we’ll take that idea of yours and turn it into a manuscript!
10 Tips for Writing a Children’s Picture Book
1. These are Not Your Parent’s Picture Books. (Or Yours, Either!)
Remember when picture books were all about bunnies and bears and going to bed? Cats in hats, green eggs and ham? Well, things have changed.
Fortunately, there is still plenty of room for wacky animals, funny adventures, and soothing bedtime books. However, children’s picture books now cover additional ground—including many difficult topics. These include war, homelessness, slavery, grave illness, racism, emotional health, surviving natural disasters, bullying, and grief.
Children’s picture books now cover additional ground—including many difficult topics.
If you have a heart to write for the young, rest assured that your unique idea has a place here, if written sensitively and properly for the right age group.
2. Inspiration is Everywhere You Look!
The great thing about writing for kids? Ideas are everywhere! Begin at home—pets and kids are often sources of fun stories. Maybe you have a gem of a rollicking tale in your family tree? Explore nature—you’ll find warm, simple stories in seasons, blooms, caterpillars and clouds. Explore poetry—some picture books are written in haikus, or rhyme. Sketch, meditate, listen to music, and listen to kids talk—creative inspiration is close at hand.
3. You Don’t Have to be an Artist to Create a Children’s Picture Book.
Many writers hesitate to create picture books because they are not artists. That’s okay! You’re a writer. Your job is to WRITE. Picture books are made by teams: A writer, an illustrator, and an editor—with an art director and designer often thrown in as well. These people are put together by the publisher, not you.
No one expects you to provide any artistic guidance, sketches, or work from an artist that you hire privately. Focus on crafting your words into a beautiful manuscript and send off your pages—that’s truly all you need to do.
4. Writing a Children’s Picture Book is Harder Than it Looks.
Because picture books are short, people often think they can be written in a weekend or two. Nope. Think about it. If that were the case, wouldn’t we all be authors by now?
Picture books are some of the toughest forms of books to write. You need to tell a fresh, well-composed story—one that is not like any other book out there, or any other manuscript already on an editor’s desk. It will need a beginning, middle, and end, and you need to do it with as few words as possible. You’ll need more than a cute idea and a few hours. You’ll need the willingness to write, revise, and start fresh, again and again.
You need to tell a fresh, well-composed story—one that is not like any other book out there, or any other manuscript already on an editor’s desk.
Is it worth it? Well… imagine your book in the hands of little readers around the world—in homes, libraries, and schools. Imagine creating a story for the child who needs your book, right now. How does that sound? Is it worth the hard work? Absolutely!
5. The Slush Pile No Longer Exists.
Back in the day, you could send a manuscript to any publisher you wanted, and it would end up in a “slush pile” on the desk of an editor somewhere. They’d sift through that pile, reading manuscript after manuscript, searching for one worthy of buying. Most were rejected, but some would be chosen.
Those days are over.
Nowadays, most publishers won’t accept unsolicited submissions. They want, instead, agented material.
Nowadays, most publishers won’t accept unsolicited submissions. They want, instead, agented material. This means you may need an agent if you plan to pursue publishing. Again—some authors do just fine without an agent. But realistically, just to get your book read, you may need to add “get an agent” to your list of things-to-do. Naturally, this part of the process comes after you have crafted a terrific manuscript—and possibly another, and another.
6. You’ll Need to Master the Art of Not ‘Over-writing.’
Say good-bye to most of those adverbs or adjectives you may be attached to: you must omit needless words. Writing a children’s picture book involves writing visually—leaving lots of room for the illustrator to tell the story through their pictures. You won’t spell out every last thing in your text… such as what color hat a person wears, how big or small their house is, the expression on a friend’s face of the texture of a pet’s fur.
For example, you might simply write, “And the apple tree bloomed.” The artist will show the reader just how lush, full, and amazing the apple tree is, covered up in shiny red apples, under a sunny sky full of butterflies, while the main character stares up at it in awe.
This is why picture books are so unique and wonderful. The pictures and text are married to tell a complete story. Ideally, neither one can stand on their own, if separated. Some of the story telling must be discovered in the art. Remember, picture books are meant to be read to children who can’t yet read for themselves. Allowing them to discover some of the story in the art allows them to participate in the story experience—rather than to simply listen passively.
Picture books are meant to be read to children who can’t yet read for themselves.
Learning to write visually takes a little practice, but it’s well worth the effort.
7. Children’s Authors are Some of the Nicest People on the Planet
We are! Quite simply, this is a field where people are supportive, warm, and encouraging. No catty, competitive behavior here. We want great books created and put into the hands of children. It might be my book. It might be yours. Doesn’t matter—we just want those kids to have a lot of choices of wonderful stories.
We are on social media and in critique groups and writer-classrooms everywhere. You’ll find children’s writers are quick to offer helpful advice or share a resource, read your work or point you in the right direction. We give back. We pay it forward. Most of all, we cheer each other on!
8. It’s Critical To Read Books In Your Field
One of the best ways to learn how to write picture books is to read them! We learn a lot through osmosis. If you don’t already, then read, read, read. Peruse best sellers. Read classics. Choose books recently released, ones that win awards, and ones that you have never heard of. Read books constantly and expose yourself to different subjects, styles, authors and illustrators. Read wordless picture books, too!
Learn what works and what doesn’t—what you like and why, what you don’t like and why. Apply those lessons to your writing.
9. Revision Will be Part of the Process.
Even though your children’s picture book will be short in word count, it will take multiple passes to make it just right. Learn lots of tricks and tips on how to revise. Revision doesn’t always mean ‘start over,’ it just means your story needs a little work. Much like a house might need furniture rearranged or a new coat of paint, your story will benefit greatly from judicious editing, revising, trimming, and rethinking as you craft your way to a masterpiece.
10. It’s Never Too Late to Start Working on a Picture Book.
Maybe you’re young. Maybe you’re not. You may have kids at home or be well into your eighties by now. Maybe you still work or maybe you retired. It doesn’t matter. Any age is the perfect age to pursue your creative dreams.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was 65 when she began writing for kids! Never turn away from the impulse to create or write. Just jump in and see where it goes! The world is waiting for your story—the one that has not yet been written.
Learn How to Write a Children’s Picture Book at Writers.com
If you’ve got a story to tell and need guidance to write it, take a look at my courses Writing for Children: Create A Picture Book! and Finish Your Manuscript: Next Level Picture Book Mentorship. We cover everything, from the writing and design process to querying an agent, with lots of fun promised along the way.
What are your favorite picture books? Share in the comments below! I hope to see you in class!
I like children’s books now of days cover more difficult topics. That would help me teach my son about those things. Maybe I can get a couple of books like that for us to read together.