Thursday, January 17, 2013

Part 1: What is a Picture Book?

“To say that most writers who want to write for children want to write picture books is only a slight over generalization.” ~Tracey E. Dils (You Can Write Children’s Books)

Most writers think of picture books when they hear children’s books. A good many writers think writing a picture book is easy because there are few words and the pictures tell most the story. However, as simple as it is to enjoy a picture book, it is one of the most difficult to write. 

The Market and Audience:
Many think the audience (readership) and market are the same, but truth be told, this is not the case with picture books. Even though picture books are written for preschool to elementary aged children, they are not the ones buying picture books. 

What does this mean to you as a writer? You need to know adults are your target market when it comes to promoting your picture book. This also means your story needs to not only appeal to children, but also to the adult buyer. It should appeal to the adult’s sensibility and emotions, as well as to the child’s literal understanding of basic story and the world around them.

Types of Picture Books:
Picture books cover a wide range of topics and subject matter. They can be written in both verse and prose, and can be illustrated with a variety of media. They can even be completely wordless.

Unlike other categories of books, there is no clear-cut kind of picture book. But they are grouped into sub-genres, however these are not meant to be prescriptive. There are picture books that don’t fall into any of these sub-genres.

Story Books: These are the most popular kind. They are always fiction and may even be a retelling of a folk or fairy tale. These types of picture books involve a series of events leading up to a climax, and then resolution, which involves some sort of character growth.

These picture books also have a typical pattern they follow, which involves the main character wanting to achieve or acquire something. Three episodes (scenes) of conflict follow building upon each other to raise the intensity. During the final episode, the character strives the hardest to reach his goal and succeeds. (The Rule of 3)

Concept Books: These types of picture books promote a child’s understand of the world around them. The can actually teach an educational concept—like counting, colors or sorting. Or they can offer suggestions for overcoming one of childhood’s many problems such as giving, moving to a new house, etc. These can be either fiction or nonfiction.

Novelty Books: These are also fiction or nonfiction and rely on some sort of gimmick to tell the story. Pop-up books, seek-and-find, and lift-the-flap are the most common. Some can even rely on a number of novelties to engage the reader.

Form and Length:
There is one thing all picture books have in common…they all have a very structured format. Picture books are probably the most structured of all the children’s genres. Simply stated, picture books are either 24 or 32 pages long.

Here’s how page count can affect your work. If you are writing an average picture book, which is 32 pages. As a writer you need to assume some of those pages will contain what the publisher calls “front matter”—your copyright page, title page, dedication, etc. These pages generally are not numbered and this means your story is actually only going to be 28 pages long.

The word count of your story can vary, but it probably should not exceed 2,000 words and most picture books are under 1,000 words. Also, if your story requires elaborate illustrations, you’ll need to adjust your word count accordingly.

With a limited page and word count, the pacing of your story is extremely important. The main reason why many beginning writers get rejections on their picture book manuscripts is because the story is often bogged down from lack of enough dialogue and action to move the story forward. If you have this problem, here’s a suggestion: Script your story! By thinking of your story primarily in terms of dialogue and action, you’ll not only move your story forward and keep the pacing you’ll need for a picture book, but kids are almost entirely focused on what characters do and say, keeping them engaged in your storyline.

Make a Dummy Book:
A dummy book is a sample book in which you actually place the text on the appropriate page, allowing for the front matter pages. This way you’ll be able to see how your story evolves through page spreads (two pages facing each other) and you’ll be able to see your story’s pacing.

One question I am asked all the time is, “Should I send my picture book dummy with my submission to the publisher?” The answer is NO, unless the pagination is essential to the story itself.

Also, while you might have some artistic talent, do not submit your artwork with the manuscript either.

Tune in next week when  I share Part 2: What is a Picture Book where I cover "plotting", "vocabulary" and "readability". 


  1. I agree, picture books are hard, but fun, to write.I've spent many, many hours upon hours tweaking one of mine, trying to get if from good to great.

  2. Great article, Virginia. I have pinned it to "WRITE Tight and Terrific" on my Pinterest board:

    Books for Kids - Manuscript Critiques

  3. Thanks Janet and Margot for stopping by and leaving a comment. I really enjoy writing and look forward to getting back to mine this year.