The question I get the most from other KidLit writers is how do you write a children’s picture book. Because this is the type of book that most children’s writers want at least start out writing.
Why do you think that is?
Because by appearances, a children’s picture book seems to be the easiest book to write. However, looks can be deceiving. Let’s look at what it really takes to write a children’s picture book and if it’s as easy as it seems…
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The Ultimate Guide on How to Write a Children’s Picture Book:
Before I can tell you HOW to write a children’s a picture book, we have to start with the basics.
What is a Picture Book?
A picture book is defined as a book containing illustrations, and is particularly designed for children. This means that the pictures, along with the words, will work together to tell your story.
And you don’t have to be an illustrator to write and publish picture books. You only need to craft a story and use notes for the agent & editor to visualize what is happening while they read.
What’s the difference between Board Books and Picture Books?
- Age: 0-3
- Wordcount: None-100
These are books that we call baby’s first books (Although they should really be called baby’s first chew toy!). Thank goodness publishers make these durable for the lil’ chompers.
If you have a story about lullabies or basic concepts, like shapes or colors, then you may be writing a board book. At this age level, the main character is very young or even an animal but there normally isn’t a plot. For instance, Baby Billy could be understanding body parts and words/pictures would go “Billy’s Belly”, “Billy’s Toes”, etc. These can even be fun, novelty books like finger plays and pop-ups.
Great Examples of Board Books:
All of these books will use VERY simple language if there’s any language at all. If you’re not illustrating your book, be sure that your manuscript is illustrator note heavy so the editor can visualize your book when they read your manuscript.
**Warning: There is a difference between these and picture books when it comes to marketing. If you want your story to be sold in schools, you do NOT want a board book.
- Age: 3-8
- Wordcount: 250-1,000 (Although the sweet spot currently is 500 words or less and some picture books may have less than 100 words or even none!)
These gems are typically a 32-page layout that use illustrations to help tell a story. The main character is in preschool or kindergarten (But can be an animal) and it’s normally told in 3rd person. The plot is a simple arc where the main character MUST solve a problem themselves– no matter HOW tempted you are to have Mom/Dad/Crazy Uncle Larry/Mrs. Teacher Helperton assist the character in solving their problem. Don’t. Agents and editors will not like it.
These books are made to be read aloud, so have fun with word choice, including the use of bigger words. If the word helps move the story along, and makes it enjoyable for the reader, then it’s perfect to use! The wackier the better, in my opinion 😄
Great Examples of Picture Books:
- The Bad Seed by Jory John
- We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins
- The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld
If you are a non-illustrating author (Like me), you DO NOT have to have an illustrator to get published. If a publisher wants to buy your book, they will find the illustrator for you. Simply incorporate illustrator notes to help the agent/editor understand specific parts of the story you’re trying to tell.
**Warning: Older market picture books are SUPER hard to sell. If this is your jam, make sure the complex topic you choose is well researched and that you have a stellar pitch to hook agents and editors.
Right. Now that we know WHAT we’re writing. We need to learn HOW to write a children’s picture book. And the first place to start is with our characters.
How to Write Characters that Kids Love:
The only way to create characters that kids love is to truly know
In order to get to know your characters on an intimate level, you should ask yourself five questions. Your answers will shape the person your character is meant to be.
1. What is their basic information?
No matter what kind of story you’re writing, you need to have a basis of who your character is. Know the answer to these 5 points:
- Grade Level
2. What do they look like?
It’s easiest to write about someone when you know what they look like. Also, appearance can help drive the story. Like in Jory John’s Giraffe Problems, the main character has issues with his long neck.
3. What’s their family dynamic?
I’m the second oldest of seven children. How I act is
The way a person’s family is built can drastically affect how they act in your story. Think about who their parents are, and whether they all live together. Consider doing research on characteristic traits based
4. How are their relationships with others? Either in the story or outside of it.
I recently took an assessment and learned that I’m a people pleaser. This affects all my relationships and how I interact with other humans on a daily basis! And it’s also something that I have to mindfully try to curb, in order to not say yes to everything under the sun.
The same situations apply to our characters.
They may not all be people pleasers, but they all interact with others. Think about how they are with their friends versus adults. Is there anything that causes this change? Make sure that rings true in your manuscript.
5. What is their personality like?
When you think of characters that kids love already, most have a similar thing in common. They have BIG personalities. For instance, they can be stubborn, selfish, quiet, overly kind, etc. depending on who they’re talking to.
Use that information to bring out your character’s personality through the use of dialogue and actions in
In order to make the character shine through, focus on showing not telling.
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the words and plot, that we forget our characters are people. Instead, they act as stand-ins or props, rather than the humans we intended them to be. (In our defense, writing picture books is harder than it seems!)
Now that you know who your story is about, make sure to incorporate their personality throughout the book. Key areas to show this:
- Action: The types of things they do and the way they do them
- Dialogue: What they say if they say anything
- Monologue: How they think and process the problem before them
It’s very easy in our writing to say Spot was a loveable dog who always got into trouble. However, if we show the dog tearing into the trash while the family’s away and then licking their faces when they get home, it will have a greater impact on the story.
Thumb through your manuscript and see if there are spots where you can show the readers MORE of who your character is. Get them to really feel the connection. And print out the picture book plotting worksheet. This will ensure you’ve made your character’s personality stand-out in your story.
Remember, this is supposed to be fun! So get on the ground or hang upside down if it will help you become one of the characters that kids love. And once you’ve decided on your character, it’s time to create your plot.
The Questions You Must Ask Yourself to Build Your Plot:
Who’s the main character of your book?
A picture book is normally about a preschooler or kindergartener, unless you’re telling a story with an animal protagonist (Check out the different age levels you should know here).
What problem are they going to need to solve?
In a picture book, there’s always one problem. Unlike a novel, where you have quite a bit of problems that intertwine throughout the story. Examples might be, running out of tacos before the big fiesta, needing to find the perfect dress to wear to the make-believe tea party, or having to build the most gigantic sandcastle far enough away from the tide.
**Check this out when you’re looking for your problem. It will help you do your research and brainstorm your plot before you write your first word.
How can you incorporate the rule of 3?
When you plot your picture book, you can’t state the problem, then solve it on the next page. There has to be some tension and build-up to the climax before reaching a conclusion. And a suggested, practical rule is to use the number three.
Meaning, repeat words three times in a row and have three slip-ups before the main character finally solves the problem. Maybe they stop to talk to three animals along the way before finding the right one or maybe there are three dresses that are all wrong for the party before they get the perfect one. Something that will make it fun for the reader and build up your conclusion.
How will the main character solve the problem?
The biggest emphasis here is how with the main character solves the problem, NOT someone else. In a picture book, educators and publishers want to see the child solve the problem so that the readers learn to solve things themselves. Otherwise, we’d be encouraging dependency well into elementary school that could be damaging to our children’s futures. (And nobody wants that!)
When you’re plotting your conclusion, be sure to think of clever ways for the character to find the answer. Getting creative and choosing a different angle or unexpected solution is a fun way to catch the reader off guard, and bring a fresh story into the marketplace–Just don’t make it too crazy. You still want it to be marketable.😉
The plot of your picture book has the simplest structure but can take a while to get used to. Try creating an outline that includes your hook, the problem, three points along the way, and a strong conclusion.
The Best Way to Learn How to Write a Picture Book:
It’s surprising that a 500-word, or less, story is so difficult to write. However, learning how to write a children’s picture book that will sell is a craft! If you haven’t picked up Ann Whitford’s book on how to write picture books, then you should definitely do that!
The best way I have learned about picture book writing is through the published books themselves. What is currently selling or being picked up by publishers is important to know. And it is your best tool to learn from!
There are certain things to look for in current picture books:
1. The Story Type-
Every kind of picture book has a theme–even those without words. We know we need to have comp books to know if our story already exists and to potentially add to a query letter. However, understanding the theme can help you write a picture book better.
Here are the things you should look for when trying to determine the theme:
Is it a…
- Concept Book?
- Journey Book?
- Comparison Book?
Is the conflict with…
- Others in the story?
Read 3-5 newly published picture books and look for their theme. Compare those that have similar themes to your story idea, as well as, read those that are on the bestseller list.
Knowing the kind of book you’re writing versus the published book will give you an idea for how to tell a story in a picture book.
2. The Character Arc-
This is the most important thing to me whenever I’m practicing how to write a children’s picture book. My critique girls always ask for my character to change MORE. Which always has me wondering how can I do that for a specific story idea.
These are some common character traits to look for:
- Does the character change? How?
- Does the Main Character ultimately solve the problem?
Even though this is only a 500-word manuscript, your character needs to undergo a bit of change. Whether that’s simply learning how to share better or learn that one bad thing doesn’t make an entire day bad.
3. Common Writing Techniques-
We’ve all heard of the rule of 3 for picture books. But there are other common writing techniques that occur, as well.
Look for these things when you’re reading:
- Do they use the rule of 3 or 7?
- Is there a repetitive phrase? Is it used as a page turn?
- Is the ending happy or at least hopeful?
Understanding the basic plot structure in picture books is a great way to get started. And if you can find a repetitive phrase or use a rule to your benefit, you will only make your story stronger!
4. The Story Rhythm-
Outside of the common rules, there is also a rhythm that you can find in picture books. Some are easy to spot, like a rhyming book. However, some can be hidden in the tiny details.
It will be easy for you to catch onto if you write poetry. But we can all learn a basic bit of rhythm to add interest to our story.
Here are some basic rhythms to look for:
- Does the story use rhyme?
- When you read, is there a specific beat or rhythm to the word choice?
- Are there any similar sounding words used to add rhythm?
Learning how published authors use these tricks in their picture books will help to strengthen your manuscripts. I especially like to look for a repetition of sounds, like clink, clank, clunk.
Grab 3-5 newly published picture books and look for their use in rhythm. I love to read books by Tammi Sauer to learn a lot about rhythm. Mary had a Little Glam and Wordy Birdy are two of my favorites!
5. Specific Word or Phrase Choices-
There are some powerful phrases you can use in your picture book manuscript that will make it MUCH more enjoyable to read. Plus, it will make it that much more fun to write!
Here are some fun things to incorporate in your story:
Read 3-5 newly published picture books and see if you can find any of the above in them. Then look back at your manuscript and see if you can add any of these to your story.
Now you know what you’re looking for when you write a children’s picture book, it’s time to put it into practice!
And for more picture book help, read these articles:
- How to Use Adjectives in Your Picture Book
- How to Think Outside the Picture Book Framework
- How to Find New Children’s Book Ideas
- How to Sell a Quiet Picture Book
- The Ultimate Guide to Illustrators for KidLit Writers