What makes an excellent picture book?

“A great picture book has elegance. It’s so tough to tell a story, in so few words, that has meaning and resonance and doesn’t feel borrowed and stale.  I love the brilliance and simplicity of GOODNIGHT MOON, the originality and joyfulness of DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS, the irrepressible child-friendliness of POO BUM. We hope to find a new picture book writer who has a fresh and fun series character, or a magic stand-alone.”
Julia Churchill, Literary Agent at A.M. Heath & Co.

Top Tips: Five elements

There are five key elements to bear in mind when writing picture books:

1)      Plot

  • Picture books are written for children up to about six years old .
  • Younger children have a shorter attention span, so it’s important to create a story which keeps moving and doesn’t feel stagnant.
  • A page-turning plot helps keeps the child’s interest.
  • Stories still need to have a beginning, a middle and satisfying ending, whether this is an emotional tug or a humorous twist.

2)      Characters

  • It’s important that young children can relate to the characters in the story, especially the main character.
  • Young children and young animals work well, because children can relate to their position. However, this is commonplace, and thinking outside the box may help produce a more outstanding character.
  • Always keep diversity in mind.

3)      Topic/Theme

  • The topic of your picture book also has to be relevant to young children – things like friendship, family dynamics, first experiences, bedtime, magic, or toilet humour.
  • The book doesn’t have to convey a message, but if it does, it’s important not to ‘preach’ it.
  • It is also perfectly fine to have a book which, quite simply, makes someone laugh. We all need a giggle!

4)      Language

  • Language needs to be simple but interesting.
  • You can use onomatopoeia, beautiful language, fun rhymes or nonsense words – anything which you feel engages the young listener and helps them develop a love and appreciation for stories and words.

5)     Pictures

  • The book is designed to be illustrated and pictures help tell the stories.
  • You don’t need to include every description of a character in your writing, unless it is vital to the story.
  • Pictures can also convey humour in the background, or help move the story on by revealing information to the reader.
  • You can include illustration suggestions if it is essential to explain what you imagine happening in the pictures. Keep the information separate from the text to avoid confusion and to prevent it slowing down the pace of the actual story text.

General tips

  • Most picture books have 12 spreads (double-pages). Try planning out your story first and work out what would go on each spread.
  • Keep the first page brief but draw the reader into your created world.
  • Give your character an interesting quirk – what makes him/her/it stand out from all the other picture book characters?
  • Keep an eye on the word count. Most picture books are around 500 words.
  • Read as many different picture books as you can.

For more ideas, check out my #WednesdayWritingTips on Twitter (@AmySparkes) which includes many tips for writing picture books.