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Writing Picture Books

If there was a formula for creating magic picture books, there’d be no such thing as a best seller - everyone’s book would sell more or less the same number of copies. The best ones are both simple and profound, a work of both inspiration and usually several years of refining the concept.


A picture book is not an illustrated short story - both text and illustrations merge into something different.  (Illustrated short stories are good things, too.)


But there are some elements they have in common:

  • About 24-26 double page spreads, though some will be single page

  • They will need to be pitched at a target age range. This can be a wide range - Diary of a Wombat is about two to adult - but you still need to know who your audience is. Diary of a Wombat appeals to different age groups in different ways.

But as you’ll find out once you start looking at the range of picture books, the genre is elastic. Have a look at least 100, not just in airport shops, where the books appeal to very young kids, but in specialist book shops and libraries where you’ll find the greatest range.


If you can, attend Writer’s Centre workshops on creating picture books, but check that the person giving them has either been an editor or created at least one best seller/award winning picture book.


What elements are required to produce an effective storyline/ plot?


Originality, knowledge of your audience.

What language techniques generally heighten the effect of this story line when writing for children?


This depends on the book- it’s too broad to really be able to answer. Some books need poetic prose, others rhyme, others story; some need simple words if they are, ‘learning to read,’ texts; others, like most of mine, can use sophisticated language as kids learn to understand the words from the text. Most of all, a good picture book is not a short story- every page must be an adventure, unpredictable as you turn the page.


How do I convey a strong message based around political and social issues without the picture book becoming too confusing, gruesome or confronting?


Again, there’s no recipe for this. You pick your subject and work out different techniques. You might make it about animals not humans - or humans not animals - or put it in the past to be less confronting.  But be wary of using the book to convey a message: the message may be implicit in the story, but the story still needs to stand on its own, message or not.

How do I appeal to children under five when writing a picture book?


Simplicity, bright colours; or complexity and wonder; make it about the world as they see it…or about the world as others see it so they understand…you see, again there is no recipe. If there was a recipe for best-selling picture books you could programme it into a computer, or every student of creative writing would be able to produce a best seller. There are only perhaps a dozen really superb picture books in the world each year.  A recipe can make a good fruit cake- but it can’t make a   brilliant picture book. For every example I give you, or advice, you could find a dozen best-selling picture books that break that rule.


How do I ensure that the book explores important moral, intellectual and social issues, but is also understandable for children?


You take your topic, think about it for a decade, then spend three years - at least - working on the text, over and over, to simplify it and make it relevant but also fun, then have an experienced editorial team match the text to an illustrator and spend a year working on it together. Every book is different.


What do parents look for in a picture book?


A price they can afford. A book that is available when and where they want to buy it.  A book they can read 50 times without feeling so desperate they hide it on top of the wardrobe so they never have to see it again. A book they think they’ll enjoy and their kids will enjoy.


How important is the underlining moral in create a picture book that appeals to parents?


I doubt many parents look for a moral in picture books - they are more interested in satisfying their child and making them happy. Grandparents are more likely to look for a moral, or aunts or uncles who feel strongly about an issue. But they’ll need to feel strongly about the issue before they buy a book that portrays it. Look at the bestselling picture books - they are not moral based. My personal view is that kids need to learn to think about issues, and learn how to question and deduce logically from accurate data. A picture book with a moral doesn’t do this: it may proselytize, but doesn’t teach them to think.

Most ‘moral’ picture books are for older readers, adolescents or more likely teenagers, where the visual impact engaged them as well as the text.


Getting a picture book published


I'm afraid my advice is the simplest: have a look at picture books like yours, look in the imprint for the publisher's name and address, and send it there. I have only ever submitted one book, and that was about 20 years ago; I've more or less stayed with that publisher, except for a few books done on request elsewhere. But that was how I did it.

But I have to be honest: if a picture book costs a great deal to print, as the paper and reproduction must be good, so very, very few are accepted, and about 20,000 a year submitted to Australian publishers, as so many people, at some stage, have a picture book they'd like to create, and it takes less time than writing a larger book. Every creative writing student will send in anywhere from one to fifty....


Ask your local Writer’s Centre for a list of publishers, then proceed as recommended in ‘getting published.’

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