A picture book is very different from other kinds of books. They are my favorite kind of book to read, write, and design and my goal in my business, this blog, and my social posts are to help picture book authors produce better books. A picture book is a unique opportunity to touch the life of a small child in a way that is impossible to do under other circumstances. A beloved character, a humorous illustration, and a relatable story all work to embed life lessons into the minds of young readers. Books that are produced with attention to detail will only enhance the message they are trying to send.
There are several notable differences between picture books and other types of books. One big difference is the way the story itself is set up. In a novel or other type of chapter book, there is an arc to the plot. You meet the character, suffer with them all the ups and downs that make the story interesting until you reach the end. With a picture book, the story arc tends to be much simpler. A story that ideally needs to be well under 1,000 words is not one that can have multiple plots or too many villains or problems to tackle. There is simply not enough space. A picture book needs to be relatively straightforward – one or two main characters, one thorny problem to overcome, and a resolution. And all this must be done in as few words as possible.
Picture books can also be without any clear plot arc – think, alphabet and number books, many bedtime stories (Goodnight Moon is one famous example), and other types of learning books like dictionaries and encyclopedias, and these can be very engaging for kids when done properly. But what all these books have in common is their overabundance of pictures, their spare word counts, and their engaging tone. When writing and producing a picture book, never forget your audience – the children. You don’t write for yourself, you write for them. So every word and image needs to be with the little people in mind.
Along that same vein, another thing that makes picture books different is the cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell.” In a novel, or even in a children’s chapter book, there are a few to no pictures. Every scene and action must be described in such a way that it builds a picture in the reader’s mind. In picture books, the image is right there before them. Ideally, the words and images should work together to tell one cohesive story. This means that the pictures should not be a straightforward retelling of the words. You don’t need to say, “She hung up her hat,” if the illustration clearly shows her hanging up her hat. You could say instead, “She got home and wondered where everybody was.” Pictures are a great opportunity to tell more of the story. Don’t be afraid to add details to the story that are never mentioned at all. There is a book my kids used to love called Something From Nothing, by Phoebe Gilman, where there is an entire subplot never once mentioned in the text. The story follows a young boy who receives a blanket as a gift. Through the years, he tries to make the well-loved and abused blanket last. Every time his grandfather snips off some of the material, a little mouse comes and takes it. Throughout the story, the mouse meets his bride, they build a home and have kids, and not a word of this is ever mentioned, but it is a delight to behold, not only because it reinforces the message of no wasting, but also because it is simply so much fun. You can look at the book again and again, and even young kids who can’t yet read learn something from the story, just by following the little mice.
Are you writing a picture book? Go back and reread it. Are there places where you can remove text and show it in the pictures instead? What else can you take out to make your story tighter? Is it compelling? Is it relatable to little people? Looking at your story with a critical eye can really improve both your writing and the reader’s experience. Let me know how it goes in the comments!
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