If you’ve been around kids much, you’re familiar with picture books. These favorite books tell a story with words and also pictures. They’re the books little guys come lugging in when you’re sitting on the couch and say, “Read.” What is the magic that keeps them coming back for more and still more? Let’s analyze that magic.
How Do I Know?
I’ve had six picture books printed by Island Heritage, a royalty-paying publisher. I was regional director for a couple of years for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and went to many of their national and local conferences, sitting at the feet of successful (much loved) writers and illustrators of children’s books. I still don’t know everything, but I’ll pass along what I have learned.
- 1) Write short:
If you are writing for the 3-to-8 year olds, accept that they have short attention spans. A manuscript of 1500 words or less is the absolute maximum that will keep their attention. Also, this may be one of the bedtime story books tired parents will be reading aloud, so do them a favor and keep it short. I discovered that it’s easier to write long than short. My first drafts were always “wordy” and I had to ruthlessly tap the delete key on my computer to cut them down to size.
- 2) Thirty pages
Standard picture books have 30 pages (15 sheets, front and back) of story, with just a few words or sentences on each page along with a picture. A couple more pages, front and back, give info about publisher, copyright, etc. I found that tentatively laying out the story in a storyboard (print it out, then cut it up and lay it out across the floor) helped me focus on story arcs and action.
- 3) Tell a story.
These kids are beyond the “concept” books that tell colors, actions, and numbers. They want something to happen to a character to which they can relate, and they want that character to solve a problem. If the main character is a puppy, they will sympathize if the puppy has the same problem that they might be having such as getting lost or needing a friend. As a teacher, I often used picture books to build empathy if classmates were bullying a physically challenged student or if a new student needed help making friends. This reinforced class discussions about the situations.
- 4) Be informative
3-to-8-year-olds also like to learn from books. Trucks. Whales. Astronauts. Just don’t get too technical. You want to pique their imaginations, not put them to sleep (unless it’s a bedtime book!)
- 5) Help your artist
Illustrators like to portray an action on each page, so make your story lively. You’ll be pleased to discover that you don’t have to be an artist. Unless you are self-publishing, the publisher will prefer to find her own artist. Often publishers like to pair a newbie author with a well-known artist to help sell the book.
- 6) Read
Check out a bunch of picture books from the library. If you’re not sure which books are really “good,” ask the librarian which books kids are enjoying the most. Read them aloud. You will notice that most of them have a cadence, a rhythm. Not exactly poetry, but poetic. Children enjoy the sound of words. Dr. Seuss was a master of cadence and rhyming. Sometimes his stories didn’t really make sense, but children loved them for the sound of the language. Children like new words such as in the “Fancy Nancy” books, and funny situations like in “Officer Buckle and Gloria.”
So do you think you know what makes the magic in writing picture books? Are you ready to try it?