Creating and Writing The Best Picture Books For Children
Written by Reba Hilbert
“Sure, it’s simple, writing for kids… Just as simple as bringing them up.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, author
When it comes to creating a picture book for children, it’s important to remember that kids are a smart, discerning audience. They are very picky about what they read—and what is read to them—and they can sniff out a whiff of condescension from a mile away, so a children’s book with a tired plot, uninspiring illustrations, vocabulary that is either dumbed down or too sophisticated, or a preachy moral lecture just won’t do.
If you’re excited by children’s literature and want to write your own picture book, the following plan may help you create a book that this young readership—and their parents—will enjoy!
- Go straight to the library and read as many contemporary picture books as possible. Seriously. This is crucial. Get a good sense of what is popular today and what makes these books appealing.
- Get out of your adult head and tap into your inner child. When it comes to subject matter, characters’ reactions, imagery, and dialogue, try to see the world through a child’s eyes and write with a childlike sense of wonder.
- Choose your theme carefully. There are hundreds of books about moving to a new town, adjusting to a new sibling, waiting for Santa, dealing with a bully, losing a tooth… The more unique and interesting your topic, the more your young audience will request the book.
- Choose your characters carefully. Kids get tired of talking puppies and fairies. Sometimes they want aliens or a superhero bus driver or a teeny-tiny prima ballerina who dances on a dime. Eavesdrop on a preschool class sometime and find out what makes kids excited! What are their concerns? What makes them giggle?
- Let your illustrations bring your characters to life, rather than describing their physical characteristics in text.
Create a story based on the following formula:
- A character is introduced in a particular place and with a problem. Joe the Juggler lives in a town where everyone is afraid of the circus. Joe is sad because no one enjoys watching him juggle.
- Something changes, creating tension. One day, a stranger comes to town in need of help.
- A complication, or crisis, arises. It soon becomes clear that only a skillful juggler can save the day, and Joe is recruited to solve the problem.
- The crisis/conflict is resolved. Joe helps the stranger by using his talent, and the townspeople are so impressed, they forget their fears and host an annual circus, starring Joe the Juggler.
- Lay out a storyboard to help you visualize the story. Using one piece of paper for each page of the book lets you see the text with the corresponding images. The pages don’t have to be finished; you can use notes or rough sketches. (To avoid crowding, keep the text per page to a minimum.)
- Have your text professionally edited. Children learn to sight-read with picture books, so don’t teach them misspelled words or bad grammar! With only a few words per page, it’s crucial that each and every one is perfect.
Here are some more tips to help make your children’s picture book a grand success!
- Make page turns more exciting with changes in scenery or other surprises. You could even end a page with a question that makes the reader eager to turn to the next page.
- Do not use rhymes unless you are very, very good at it. (Check out any Dr. Seuss book for examples of good rhyming.) Rhyming can be constraining and can cause unnatural dialogue or plot turns as you try to force the story to stick to the rhyme pattern.
- Read your work out loud. A picture book must be pleasing to the eye but also to the ear. Have someone read it aloud to you. Do the words flow? Does the story stand strong on its own without the illustrations? Have you included some fun vocabulary words like sizzle or splat?
- Not every book must teach kids a lesson. No one enjoys being lectured, and children are especially sensitive to message-driven stories. Feel free to weave a theme throughout the story, but keep it subtle.
- Let your young characters solve their own problems. If your book features a shy little mouse who is scared to go to school, don’t have her parents step in and resolve things. Authority figures should be kept in the background, even when you’re writing for really young kids.
- A typical children’s picture book is around 30 pages, with approximately 500 words. This means that writers must move the plot forward efficiently, concisely, and precisely while throwing in some conflict, a little drama, and a satisfying resolution. The character must solve a problem, with the reader as a witness to the emotions during that process.
- And the number one tip for writing children’s picture books? Make every single word count. Space is limited! The illustrations will be telling a large part of the story, so keep your text clear and crisp. Write in the active voice and choose strong action verbs rather than strings of adjectives. Children’s authors should constantly ask themselves, “Is there a more concise way to say this?”
Just because a book only has a few pages doesn’t mean those pages can be substandard. Children’s picture book writers must deliver a solid narrative, strong characters, and lovely language, along with illustrations that complement and enhance the story. It’s not easy, but by following these tips, you can create a great book that will have your little audience begging, “Read it again!”
For more information, check out our article on Writing Children’s Books.