Mark Twain once said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” It was his way of saying that writing short is hard. I imagine, if he were alive today, he would not be writing picture books.
Many people, new to the world of children’s writing, decide to write picture books because they think it’s easy. After all, the stories are short and simple, and an illustrator will do half the work. But writing a picture book—a good picture book—is hard. Yes, there are always those who have the knack, but for most people, telling a story in five hundred words or less is difficult work. If you are up to the task and are contemplating writing a picture book, here are a few things to consider.
A picture book is almost always 32 pages. Several of those pages will be devoted to front matter and end papers, leaving even fewer pages for story. Word count will range between no words at all to about 1,000 words. 300 to 500 words seems to be the average.
The picture book’s main audience is obviously small children, but your story must also appeal to adults who will be reading the book to, or along with, the child. If you can grab the adults, too, they will have no problem reading your story over and over and over again to the children in their lives.
Do you have one? Is it kid friendly? Is there a beginning, middle, and end? A problem to solve? Is it fun, adventurous, scary or mysterious? If all you have is a lesson, reconsider. Kids want, and appreciate, a good story as much as adults. How often would you read if your choices were limited to things like eating properly, driving carefully, being a good employee, avoiding stress? Give kids a story. If there’s a lesson to be learned, let it be implied.
Illustrations are what make the picture book a picture book. Even if you aren’t the illustrator, you have to consider them. Does your story have enough illustration possibilities? Remember, you have 32 pages to fill, and not every page will be a double page spread. Will the possible illustrations all be different, (good) or will they all be pretty much the same? (not so good.) Be sure your story gives an illustrator plenty to work with.
Since your word count is limited, be sure the words you use do the job. Choose strong verbs and specific nouns. Omit adjectives and adverbs, and most descriptions. These are generally things an illustrator can convey in her illustrations. And a picture book is not an easy reader. Don’t be afraid to use big words if they are the rights words.
Consider how your manuscript will be laid out in book form. What words go on what pages? Is there an element of surprise with each page turn? Or a question raised before the turn? Do the tension and suspense rise? Does the plot move forward? Does the mere act of turning the page bring anticipation? Does it make the child wonder what will happen next?
Does it satisfy? Does it bring a smile, a laugh, a tear or sigh to the reader and listener? There’s really no way to know until it gets read by others. Consider showing it to a critique group. Your kids, family, friends and neighbors don’t count. They are too close to you to tell you the truth. Find some other writers, preferably some who know more than you, to get some impartial opinions.
The journey may be hard and/or challenging, or you may discover you’re one of those people to whom this comes easily, but regardless of where you fit, ending up with a book in your hand is a thrill. If it’s what you want to do, go for it!