How to Write a Children’s Picture Book
I can’t begin to tell you how often, upon finding out what I do for a living, people say, ‘I’ve been thinking about writing a children’s book. What should I do?’ Unfortunately the answer is not as simple as you may think.
Most successful children’s picture books are simply told and have a low word count, which has led to a bit of a misconception that writing children’s books is easy, when the opposite is in fact true. Within each page of text, which is generally only a sentence or two long, you need to be able to move the plot along and create excitement as well as capture the thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams of your characters. You can’t simply think up a story, bung it on a page and call it a children’s book – but with some insight, inspiration and planning you can create a work to be truly proud of.
Once you have a story idea, follow these four steps to create a successful children’s picture book manuscript.
1. Flat plan your book
A flat plan is a quick tool that you can use to see how your story is going to play out over the available space in your book. I highly recommend completing this step, as is it is very easy to just begin writing in a meandering kind of way, whereas a flat plan will help to keep you on track and can be a great help when you are experiencing writer’s block. It will also ensure that you are writing to a format that will be acceptable to publishers.
One really important thing to know about children’s picture books is that the vast majority are 32 pages long, so you should plan for your book to be that length.
To create a flat plan, sketch out 18 book spreads on a piece of paper (or create them in a word processing document if you prefer to work on-screen) and draw a faint line down the centre of each to divide each spread into two separate pages. Block out the first box in the first spread and the last box in the last spread, as these will be the insides of the front and back covers.
Underneath each remaining box, number the pages from 1 to 32. Inside the boxes for pages 1, 2 and 3, write ‘Half title page’, ‘Imprint page’ and ‘Full title page’. Your story should start at page 4. Use a grey lead pencil to write what will happen on each page of your book. Use your eraser, move things around and keep reworking until you have a plan that works.
2. Choose your writing style
Next you need to make a conscious decision about the style of writing you will use. Most children’s books are aimed at children between 3 and 7 years old, though most will skew either to the younger or older end of this range. Take the intended age of your readership into consideration when making the following style decisions. Most of all, once you have picked a style, make sure it is consistent!
- Decide whether to rhyme or not to rhyme. Most publishers tend to prefer standard prose over rhyme, but some stories just tend to lend themselves to one form or the other. If you are going to rhyme, it needs to keep excellent rhythm without feeling forced. I highly recommend you read rhyming stories out loud to another person, as I find that this almost always helps to catch any awkward lines.
- Decide whether you will tell your story in first, second or third person. First person can help make your characters more engaging as you can communicate more of their thought processes and give them a strong voice, but third person is ideal if you are focusing on more than one character.
- Decide whether to write in past or present tense. Both can work equally well, but if writing in past tense, be careful not to fall into the trap of old-fashioned storytelling and talking down to children.
- Consider the language you will use. In a children’s picture book, each word needs to be chosen carefully. I like to use really simple language that children will easily understand, but with the occasional tricky or interesting word thrown in, or sometimes even a made-up word, that will catch their attention and possibly make them ask questions.
3. Ensure your characters are engaging
The main characters in your book should be strong-minded, proactive and engaging. Children love characters that they can identify with or aspire to, so creating characters that are the same age or just slightly older than your target audience is ideal. Ensure that your characters speak in a way that children speak in real life.
4. Workshop your writing
It’s all well and good to ask your partner, best friend or even your mum to read what you’ve written and give you some feedback, but people who know and love you will often not be able to give you an honest or impartial response.
I highly recommend taking a short course in writing for children, as this will not only arm you with plenty of industry knowledge, but will give you the opportunity to have your work critiqued by an experienced writer or editor as well as being able to workshop your story with your classmates. Another great idea is to join either an in-person or online writers’ group. The main aim of these groups is to workshop each other’s work in a supportive environment.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to take on board all of the feedback that you receive – after all, everyone has an opinion! – but keep an open mind and use workshopping as an opportunity to help you make your work the best it can be.
Katie Hewat is an Australian children’s book author who lives on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. Katie’s younger years were filled with a love of reading and writing. This led her to complete her undergraduate studies in Professional Writing and Editing, followed by postgraduate studies in Publishing and Editing. Since 2005, Katie has penned more than 70 published books across many children’s genres, including educational, craft, licensed and early childhood, but her real passion lies in writing children’s picture books and junior fiction.