A children’s picture book may seem simple, but creating a brilliant one is no easy task. How do you make yours smart, engaging, and fun — rather than clichéd, saccharine, and didactic?
If you’re looking for charm, education, inspiration, and that unmistakable warm-and-fuzzy feeling, there’s nothing quite like a well-crafted children’s picture book. Classics like Corduroy, The Lorax, or Goodnight Moon continue to engage new young readers and delight older ones — while many intrepid picture book fans strive to add their own creative works to the canon.
While picture books may seem simple, creating an effective one is no easy task. How do you make your own book smart, engaging, and fun — rather than clichéd, saccharine, and didactic?
Jill Santopolo is the Executive Editor at Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group; she is also the author of the Alec Flint mystery series, and an adjunct writing professor at McDaniel College. Here are some of her thoughts on how to conceive and craft your first children’s picture book.
Know the field
Before you dive into writing your own picture book, take some time to peruse what’s already out there, suggests Santopolo. “Once you read through a lot of stories, you’ll be able to see the type of story you want to write yourself,” she says. “The more you read, the more easily you’ll be able to internalize the sorts of rhythms and story arcs that other authors have used successfully. Then you can move forward and make that knowledge work for you when you’re writing your own story.”
Spending a few hours in the children’s sections of local bookstores and libraries will help you get much of the background you need. And if you happen to speak more than one language, don’t limit yourself to stories written in English; children’s picture books from France, Nigeria, Chile, or beyond can tell stories in inspiring ways that you may have never otherwise thought of.
Keep length in mind
As you read more and more picture books, you may notice a pattern when it comes to book length. “Nearly all new picture books are less than 1,000 words, and most run from 250 to 750,” says Santopolo. “In general, shorter is better. If you look at published picture books, they’re usually 32 pages long, which means just 16 spreads.” When you’re paging out your own story, she recommends, keep those numbers in mind, while remembering that you also need space within your page real estate for title, dedication, and copyright.
If you’re planning on publishing purely in the eBook realm, considerations like spreads matter less, so feel free to experiment with length and format. Just remember to be aware of the patterns and standards that have proven successful in the world of physical children’s books as you make your choices.
Choose a fresh topic
While it can be quite helpful to absorb as many children’s stories as possible before writing your own, Santopolo warns against imitating any existing work too closely. “Try to avoid writing books on topics that already have successful books written about them,” she says. “If you’re putting together a bedtime story, remember that you’re competing against Goodnight Moon and every other successful bedtime book that’s been around for decades.”
If you’re writing purely for personal reasons, the point is moot — but if you hope to sell copies far and wide, search for something original. “Unless you have a completely new twist on a topic that’s already out there and selling well, it’s hard to get your book to grab a piece of that market,” says Santopolo.
See your book as a Haiku
Santopolo likens writing a picture book to writing good poetry. “It’s incredibly difficult,” she says. “You have to get the exact right words to say the exact right things, since you don’t have the luxury of talking around a topic.”
A poignant haiku is difficult to write, she continues, because of the highly limited amount of words and syllables you’re able to work with. “It’s the same with a picture book. Writing something that’s really touching, powerful, and engaging — and keeping things within a word count that’s appropriate for a picture book — makes it even harder than writing a longer form story.”
If you find yourself with too many words, try stepping away from the story for a bit and returning with your editor’s hat on. Read through your work and remove any words that don’t feel absolutely essential. Could a certain phrase be written in a simpler, shorter way? Do it and see how the story flows afterwards. Chances are that, the more you hone your picture-book haiku, the more focused and effective it will be — but just in case, save all of your drafts separately as backups.
Don’t dumb it down – and think like a storyteller
Children’s books are a simple, right? All you have to do is make up a silly series of events about a lima bean and a piece of tin foil and you’re done. E. Z.
Not so, says Santopolo. “First off, children aren’t dumb, so don’t write as if you’re writing for someone who is,” she says. “And you could probably create a very successful book about a lima bean and a piece of tin foil if it had a good plot arc and emotional arc, and if the lima bean was a cool character who did interesting things with his buddy Tin Foil.”
People write successful books about all kinds of interesting objects, she continues, but the core elements of storytelling are still key. “The most successful books have an external plot, an internal plot, and a relatable character,” she describes. “With Where the Wild Things Are, the external plot is Max getting in trouble and going to visit the wild things, being part of the rumpus, and coming home. The internal plot is how he feels, the emotional changes that he experiences through that journey.”
When it comes to constructing your own internal and external stories, Santopolo advises that writers can start at pretty much any point and fill in the blanks. “There are two sorts of writers,” she says. “Some prefer to start and say, ‘here are my plot points, this is what I want to get across emotionally, and now I’m going to put this together with a story.’
“Then, other writers say, ‘this is my story, and now that I have a first draft, let me check for plot, emotional connections, and how I can enhance everything.’ It works both ways. Just at some point, writers have to think about all of these things.”
Don’t force rhyme
Just as great songs often avoid conforming to the same beat, so should every picture book follow its own proverbial drummer — especially when it comes to rhyme schemes, or lack thereof.
“Trying to force a book into rhyme, when there isn’t any particular reason for it to rhyme, isn’t usually a good idea,” says Santopolio. “Rhyme is phenomenal when it’s done well, but it’s also difficult to do well, and it’s just not a necessary thing in a children’s book.”
As you’re putting your book together, remember that it all comes back to the story. If you feel like rhyming your words elevates your tale and gives it a powerful flow and tone, go with it; if you find yourself turning to the thesaurus or rhyming dictionary with frustration for every other word, chances are the story will be better off without it.
Don’t force a moral
“One mistake I see a lot is that many people feel like picture books have to teach lessons,” says Santopolo. “The most successful picture books don’t do that. But they do subtly and slyly convey their message to children.”
A good example? “There’s a book called Diary of a Worm that basically talks about the fact that you can be important even if you’re very small,” she continues. “That’s not what the book comes out and says, but it’s what you can take away from the book when you read it.”
Illustrate (or outsource) with care
“A picture book is a marriage of words and pictures,” describes Santopolo. “The most successful illustrations are the ones that take a story to another level. They don’t just illustrate the words. They add something else to them.”
Santopolo cites a picture book called Two Eggs, Please as a prime example. “The entire text is just ‘two eggs, please’ until you get to the very end. The art tells the story. That’s an incredibly extreme example, but I think in the most successful picture books, the art does a lot of the work.”
Unless you’re a professional-level artist yourself, you may want to turn to a talented collaborator, rather than trying to draw the art yourself. Teaming up with a friend who has skill and experience, but who isn’t quite working as a professional artist yet, could be a good way to go; another option is to look through some of your favorite children’s books, note the illustrators who have a style that fits with the vibe of your own work, and reach out to them directly. While some professional illustrators will likely be expensive to work with or too busy to collaborate, you never know when your story will resonate and you’ll receive a “yes” when you expected a “no.” Also, even if the artist of your dreams isn’t available, he or she might know of a talented student or colleague who could do an equally outstanding job bringing your picture book to life.
Test your story out
“When you’re the author, it can be hard to tell if your story is interesting or not, since you’re so deeply involved with it,” says Santopolo. “That’s why it’s good to get it in front of a group of kids, preferably ones you don’t know, and observe their reactions to your story.”
Once you have a dummy of the book mocked up, with the words and layout basically done, find a preschool for your target age range and ask if the teacher might be open to reading your book for the kids. While it may be tempting to read your own story, Santopolo recommends letting a teacher do it, so you can sit back and observe.
“Pay careful attention to when the kids are spacing out, paying attention, laughing, or getting so bored that they start poking each other,” she says. “Take notes and adjust the story or the art accordingly.”
Don’t give up
When your book is read in front of a room full of children, do they all fall asleep or start crying? Even if your first trial run is less than a total success, try to learn from such experiences and not let them shake your confidence. Like any artistic endeavor, writing solid picture books is a skill that can be practiced and cultivated. Also, remember that even the most minor of tweaks can often reframe a story, giving it a fresh outlook, flavor, and level of appeal to your single-digit audience.