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Picture Books: Best Practices

Children's Picture Books: Best Practices

If you have young children you've probably considered writing a picture book. Reading them to your children every night you think, "how hard can this be?" The truth is that there is a science behind these simple books and writing one can be difficult if you don't understand the mechanics of how they work.

How Many Words?
Look it up online and you will find recommendations that your picture book should be between 150 and 500 words… or 300 to 600 words… or right around 500 or so but not any more than 1,000. No two experts (or agents) agree. So how do you know when to stop writing? Let's look at some real world examples:

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown has approximately 130 words.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is 336 words long.
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss is 1,621 words in length.

Our conclusion? It's the quality of the writing that matters more than the number of words. That said; keep it under 500 words if you can.

How Should the Story Be Structured?
Stay away from long or complex sentences. Short simple sentences are easy to understand and work best with toddlers.

To use a famous example, "I do not like green eggs and ham." works much better than "Green eggs and ham are not what I want to eat for breakfast because I don't like how they taste." If you find that you are going over the recommended number of words you probably need to see how you can simplify your sentence structures.

Rhythm is a major concern in many picture books as well. Your text should establish a pattern early and at least somewhat follow that pattern throughout. If you define and follow a pattern that matches the tone of the story your text will be strong enough to stand on it's own, without pictures.

What is the Right Topic?
When you are writing a book for toddlers, which is the target for most picture books, keep in mind what toddlers are learning. They're learning colors, they're learning shapes, counting and some other very basic words. You may want to work these themes into your story, even if it's not the main point. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle is a perfect example. The pictures and story of the caterpillar changing into a butterfly fascinate, all while the child is learning counting, days of the week and even food identification to some extent.

Remember that, while the book you are writing is for children, it will most likely be purchased by the parents of those children. Parents want to read their child a story that he or she enjoys without having to answer any tough questions. This means (unless your book is specifically trying to help a child going through a tough situation) staying away from complex themes like death, divorce, political issues… we know you're laughing but it happens. One example we recently came across showed a very scary t-rex whose head was subsequently chopped off and cooked by a chef… we are of the opinion, as are most parents, that those themes are not really toddler level material. Happy dinosaurs usually work much better at bed time.

No amount of research can replace spending time with children of the age which you are targeting. Find out what they like and run with it.

How Do I Find an Illustrator?
This may be the hardest part of the picture book process for any author. Not finding the artist, but accepting the fact that you don't have to find one, and in reality you are better off without one.

It's counterintuitive, but publishers of picture books want great manuscripts without pictures. That way they can give them to extremely professional, proven and trusted artists. As the author you will likely have little input about the pictures that go along with the story. If you've written a great picture book it will be simple for one of these artist to grasp what you intended.

If you include your own pictures with your manuscript you actually lessen the chances of it being published. Publishers or agents may assume that you are set on using that art, so if they don't like it they will pass. It also tells them that you're not really sure how the process normally works and therefor may be harder to work with as it progresses.

We know, it hurts a little thinking that your story will be taken and completed by someone else, however that is how the industry works and how it is going to work. When you've won a Caldecott Medal you may be able to pick your own illustrator, but even then it's a maybe.

Now that you know the rules, you're ready to either write the perfect classic children's book, or re-write the rules altogether!



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Reader Comments

AuthorStand Editors @ Wednesday, September 26 2012 9:32 AM Flag Inappropriate
@Linnea... You could also keep on the same path of trying to find an agent for the longer version. Keep in mind though that it will be difficult if this is the first picture book you are trying to publish. Once you've established yourself as a published author it will be easier to break the rules.

AuthorStand Editors @ Wednesday, September 26 2012 9:29 AM Flag Inappropriate
Great question Linnea. You do have options. Easiest would be to do some editing and cut your story down to fit into what agents will read. Once they read it and like the concept you can pitch the longer one if you really believe it's better than the shorter version.

Mary Roder @ Tuesday, September 25 2012 8:41 PM Flag Inappropriate
I have found some very good illustrators for my children's stories. I write stories for my grandchildren and they star in the story. It is based on some truths and some "almost" truths. I print it out leaving a lot of white space. Their illustrations are delightful.

Linnea Dayton @ Tuesday, September 25 2012 7:05 PM Flag Inappropriate
I really like your advice about number of words. It makes so much sense. Except that every agent I've talked to won't take a book longer than 1000 words, or 900, or 800, depending on the day you ask. And many publishers won't look at an unagented ms. Any advice on a 1200-word story? Self-publish?

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