The hard reality is, breaking into the traditionally published children’s book market –– particularly if you are writing a picture book –– takes an earnest, dedicated commitment. Writing a book, even for kids, takes time, research, practice, perseverance. And lots and lots of revision.
The first draft is just you telling yourself a story. – Terry Prachett
This article is meant to provide quality and trusted resources, as well as some step by step guidance on how to tackle picture book writing. We are brushing the surface while packing in all the best comprehensive guides, resources, recommendations, and tips available today. Let’s start with the basics:
What is a Picture Book anyway?
At standard, picture books are 32 pages long, including the title pages, introductions, back flaps, and copyright information. Though the standard is 32 pages, they can technically come in page lengths that are multiples of 8: 16, 24, 32, 40 or 48 pages. They are reliant on both text and illustration and text length can range from 100–1000 words, sometimes more –– shoot for 500 words or less. Writing nonfiction, allow yourself some wiggle room. However, the best picture books are short on text and rely equally or heavily on illustration. Sometimes picture books can cross over into board books and be published in both formats. Picture books are for children aged 2–10 years (at the high end), with an average target age of 4–7 years old.
Picture books talk about universal themes and offer intriguing or kid-relatable situations while challenging the reader’s or listener’s imagination. Themes are simple and there is usually one main character or one subject, one plot, and one story line. Picture books use rhythm and cadence to engage the young listener and they employ repetition. Picture books should offer a simple question and answer, or a simple story problem with one clear solution at the end.
Some other children’s book formats include chapter books, middle grade or young adult novels, board books, and easy readers.
Gather Information – Reading and Research
When you’re ready to write a children’s book, start by gathering information through research and reading. In order to write a marketable picture book, you have to be familiar with the format and the market today. Step One…
Read. A lot.
Start by reading. A lot. Though the classics like Where the Wild Things Are or Dr. Seuss are important, and absolutely worth your time, you do want to ensure you’re glancing through a wide variety of recently published picture books as well. This way you can start to glean an understanding of what book publishers are buying today. Go to the library and pull handfuls picture books off the shelves. Read books on different subjects, even ones you are not interested in. Read books by many different authors. Ask the librarian to show you picture books that have been published in the last five years.
When you’re done scouring the library, go to your local bookstore and see what picture books are displayed forward. Find a seat and read all the picture books on the new release table. Look around at what other children or shoppers are picking up. Buy them from your local bookseller or on bookshop. Check out booklists by editors, authors and bloggers. Study them.
“Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.”
― Lisa See
Explore Mentor Texts
If you are ready to start drafting, you will want to start picking up some mentor texts. You may find the Accelerated Reader Bookfinder useful. This online database allows users to search for books based on subject or reading level. You may be able to narrow down some great mentor texts in this way.
Participating in reading challenges, like Reading for Research Month (ReFoReMo) is another great way to familiarize yourself with the market. ReFoReMo takes place each year in March. It was founded in 2015 to help picture book writers reform their own writing by reading and researching mentor texts. The challenge is supported by top professionals in their fields: educators, authors, illustrators, editors, and literary agents. Each day during the month of March participants receive a formulated list of picture books to read which accompany a study in craft or market. ReFoReMo is a great way to expand your knowledge of the format while also gathering specialized information on specific picture book topics such as: concept books, rhyming books, or character driven books to name a few. Make sure you have a library card and prepare to read, read, read! It’s worth the commitment.
Get a Guide – Buy a “How to Write a Picture Book” book
A how to book on writing picture books can be a low cost/high return, valuable investment. Here is my top recommendation:
A recently revised and solid go-to manual is Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul. It is a MUST HAVE for anyone who plans to write a picture book, newbie or veteran. The book starts by explaining how and why each children’s picture book must have a story question and answer. With totally approachable exercises, readers are able to hone in this one idea/one story line format crucial to a successful picture book.
Paul goes on to explore and explain POV, tense, story arc, and other craft elements like plotting and characterization. She discusses rhyme and prose in detail. There are sections on how to build a book dummy, navigate the current market, and query. This is an all-in-one picture book writing course at a fraction of the cost. If you are writing a picture book, and take nothing else from this article, please take away the charge to read Writing Picture Books.
Join an Online Picture Book Writing or Critique Group
Once you’ve completed a couple of drafts, getting some outside encouragement and critique can prove invaluable in your growth as an author. There is a wealth of helpful and resourceful organizations you can find online to help you take this journey. Again, this list is not exhaustive, but it’s a great place to start.
Writing Groups and Top-Notch Online Resources
Kidlit411 is an online children’s literature network that offers extensive online resources, guides, classes, contests for authors and support for the industry at large. The closed facebook group is teeming with professionals willing to answer questions and provide additional resources to help you along the way. The organization offers a free-of-charge manuscript swap program accessible through facebook. This is a great way to receive valuable feedback on your manuscript and learn how to critique others’ work.
The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is one of the longest standing children’s book networks. They offer a plethora of online resources plus annual national, regional and local networking opportunities such as workshops and conference events. Local chapters offer online and in-person critique groups or manuscript-swap sessions. Some resources are available only to members and is reasonable annual fee to join. Scholarships are available. The conferences are worth it if you can attend since they are meeting grounds for authors, editors, agents, publishers, and industry experts. They are a wonderful way to get face-to-face information about the industry and craft of writing. Many of the workshops and conferences are offered online, live or through a recording.
The 12×12 Picture Book Challenge
The 12×12 Challenge is a fantastic paid resource for anyone serious about writing picture books. If you see yourself as a career author, investing the minimal fee to join 12×12 is an investment with a hundred fold in return. Scholarships are available. The challenge is designed to motivate writers to compose 12 picture book drafts in 12 consecutive months. Members participate in an exclusive forum and a very active Facebook group. They can ask questions, find critique partners and share their journeys –– from draft to publication. Included in your membership is a monthly online webinar and author book chat. The forum allows exchange and advice on writing synopses, queries, and pitches. Even if you choose not to submit 12 picture books over the course of the year, 12×12 is a wonderful place to network, find a lasting critique group, and generally focus on your craft.
Inked Voices is an online networking group for writers of all formats and genres. The kidlit community is large, and there are plenty of opportunities to connect with other authors who want to write a picture book. You can join monthly ‘pop-up’ critique groups or join a group long term. The founders of the organization also help to tailor your experience and connect you with writers working in similar genres and formats. “We are not a giant critique forum, but a collection of small workshopping communities.” This is a paid opportunity and memberships can be purchased quarterly or annually. Scholarships are not available, but they do offer referral, student, and group discounts.
After you’ve done your research, you’ve read a hundred (yes, I said hundred) picture books. After you’ve worked with a critique group, and exhausted your online resources, you may be ready to hire a professional. Working with an editor to provide editorial or consulting services is a worthy investment. Sometimes writers prefer to work one-on-one with an editor instead of with a critique group. This is a fantastic option if you are able and willing to invest in that specialized attention to your work. As with any investment, be sure to do your research.
Putting the (proverbial) Pen to Paper
Writing takes time, even if you’re only working with 300 words. Some may argue (myself included) that of all the children’s book formats, writing a picture book is the hardest. Every word matters, each word counts. You’ve got little wiggle room but a world of opportunity –– quite the paradox.
At the end of the day, and most of all, remember to enjoy yourself. Your joy in writing will shine through with each draft… and there will be many! Enjoy the process of gathering research and reading picture book after picture book after picture book. Revel in the ecstasy of getting that first draft on paper. Pause and appreciate the detail that goes into revising and rewriting. Reward yourself with each task you accomplish.
One of my favorite authors, Ursula Le Guin (who, by the way, wrote a FANTASTIC book on writing that I highly recommend: Steering the Craft) said in her classic novel, The Left Hand of Darkness:
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
Happy Writing folks!
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Need Help with your Book?
Picture book to middle grade, if you want to chat children’s literature, or just have general questions, feel free to reach out below. I look forward to reading your story!