How to Write a Picture Book Agents and Children Will Love
Picture books. They are one of the most popular forms of creative expression for new authors. It is no wonder. Designed to be read and re-read, they are gateways to the literary world for children and can come to hold the same status as a beloved toy or blanket.
Most are no longer than 32 pages; many have less than 500 words of actual text. Particularly for writers who do not intend to illustrate their own work, crafting one might seem a rather easy endeavor—a way to dip one’s toe in the shallow end of the publishing pool.
This perspective, however, is a mistake. Picture book text is deceptively simple.
Because there are so few words, each one counts a great deal. Because people think it is easy, you are competing with a veritable horde of submissions.
So how do you write a text that grabs an agent’s eye, draws children in, and delights parents?
Here are a few pieces of advice on how to write a picture book manuscript that I’ve picked up over the years.
Don’t tell the illustrator what to do.
You’ve written your picture book. You have a clear idea what the main character looks like, what she is doing on page seven, and where each page break should be—and you’ve generously annotated your text so that the illustrator will understand all of this perfectly.
Now let it go. Delete everything that describes a visual—whether in your actual text or in your annotations. This includes:
- Character descriptions
- Specific actions
Show, don’t tell. I once heard agent Susan Rich say that writing picture books is like reducing a fraction. She is right. Part of your job as the writer is to say as little as you can and to give as much breathing room as possible to your illustrator.
Breathing room. This means you don’t tell her how to do her job.
This is hard for writers. Regardless of the above advice, many insert suggestions anyway because they believe their illustrative insights will make the book better. Unfortunately, it marks you as an amateur, and makes it harder to get your book published.
There is an upside.
Illustrators are amazing, talented, creative people and you might very well be delighted with what they come up with for your book . . . things you never thought of. It is exciting!
Remember, the more you let the illustrator show, the less you need to tell the reader. This makes your book more interactive! Let the readers figure out how a character feels, what he is doing, where he is going. The more you tell, the less you involve their imaginations.
Let’s look at an example:
Too much text: Sarah ran home clutching the apple.
Better: She ran home. (illustration can show her holding the apple)
Best: Home she went (illustration can show her running and holding an apple)
Think about visual/textual counterpoint.
There are instances in which annotating your text is appropriate—but only when something must be happening in the illustrations so that your text makes sense.
An example of this is Mac Barnett’s Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. Throughout the book the text asserts that Sam and Dave, despite their efforts digging never discover anything interesting. Visually, however, Jon Klassen’s remarkable art indicates that the two boys are always inches from beautiful treasure. The result is a book in which the reader knows more than the characters. They are in on the joke—and they love it!
Not all picture books need be this way, but it is certainly a fun style to play with. How can you write text in which the pictures contradict what you are saying—or fill it in in new ways?
- Sam and Dave Dig a Hole ~ Mac Barnett, Jon Klassen
- This is Not my Hat ~Jon Klassen
Create suspense with page turns.
While in most situations you do not want to instruct the illustrator, it is still worth considering page turns when you are writing. Ultimately, the artist and editor will determine where these land (although you might be able to offer input); but thinking in these terms yourself can help you craft copy that builds suspense and engages the reader.
Think of each spread as a cliffhanger. Make the reader want to turn the page. What is going to happen next? We don’t know! It’s on the next page!
For example, let’s say your character is running home from school and encounters a green monster in her front yard. If you weren’t thinking about page turns, you might write:
She arrived in time to see the creature devour her mailbox.
Thinking in terms of page turns, however, you might write:
She ran home. Then she saw it . . .
Note how the first example puts all the information into one longer sentence. Too many words, too little suspense. The second reduces the word count and makes us ask, “What did she see?”
What if? What then? So what?
These are three central questions to writing a picture book. Let’s look at each in turn.
Start your book with a question. Not literally on the page, but in your mind. This is your premise. What if two boys dig a hole looking for treasure and keep barely missing the mark? What if a small fish stole a big fish’s hat? What if a friendly cat ignores her friend’s requests and doesn’t want to play anything but ballet? (Ballet Cat: The Totally Secret Secret—just buy this book. I don’t care if you have kids or not, or if you are five, fifteen, or fifty. You need this book in your life).
The premise is the imaginative spark that sets the story in motion. It should be easily stated in one line. It is your sales pitch, your agent’s sales pitch, and your editor’s sales pitch. Remember, publishers need to sell books. Agents and editors read things all the time that they like but won’t represent or publish because they think they cannot sell it. Make sure your story’s premise is engaging, unique, and easily stated.
This seems obvious, but this is the meat of the story. Now that you have the premise, set your characters in action. Remember, each action needs to have a result that leads to another action. Think about your events like cars on a train strung together—each affects the one before it and after it. If an action does not have a specific impact on the story’s events, get rid of it. Especially in picture books, you do not have room for extraneous detail or events.
Always think in terms of the takeaway, experience, or feeling you want the reader to have when they close the book. The best picture books are read again and again. They offer lessons or emotional resonance that makes them timeless. Your book should have a lesson (crime doesn’t pay, honesty is the best policy.) or an experience (the excitement of Christmastime) that impacts the reader even after the book is over.
Lessons shape readers into better people. Experiences let readers engage in emotions like fear (in a safe space) or relive happy feelings. The Night Before Christmas, for example, doesn’t have a traditional story arc in which there is a problem to be solved. It is simply a description of St. Nicholas visiting a home; yet it ignites in us all the magic of the holidays—the reindeer, the decorations, the winter weather.
The ”so what?” is why the story matters. Why are you bothering to tell me this? If you said, “I lost my keys yesterday.” then I will think “ . . .and?” I don’t see the point.
But if you say, “I did not patch the hole in my trousers, and my keys fell right through it, and I lost them,” Now we have a “so what?”! Lesson: patch your trousers or you will lose things.
Having a strong “so what” keeps the book memorable and the reader coming back.
Put an emotional arc in nonfiction.
Nonfiction picture books are great ways to introduce children to topics such as science, history, and math. However, don’t limit yourself to fact bubbles and bullet points. Make a story out of it. You want to apply the same storytelling skills you employ for fiction to all of your nonfiction works. A great example of this is Sophie Blackall’s Finding Winnie, which describes the origins of the Winnie the Pooh tales. Blackall takes the readers into the World War I camps with specific characters and events. It reads like fiction.
Don’t be preachy
While lessons can be an important part of your book’s takeaway, do not be preachy. Children know when they are being talked down to. They can sense a moral being pressed on them, and they do not like it. Moralistic books were much more common in the early days of picture books, but they are mostly avoided by agents and editors now.
This does not mean there isn’t a place for values and lessons—but you need to be subtle and trust that the reader can draw her own conclusions.
Rules are meant to be broken
Finally, remember that rules are meant to be broken. Every piece of advice in this article has exceptions in the literary world but, on the whole, in the current publishing climate these are recommended practices.
Children’s book publishing is highly competitive. Most well-known authors will attest to how hard it can be to get your book published; they will also tell you to persist. They will point to drawers full of unpublished manuscripts, so take heart.
Picture book writing is challenging and fun. The more you recognize its unique difficulties, the better your works will be!