(Last updated July 28, 2023)
Welcome to my resource for those who are interested in writing or illustrating picture books! Please note that this info is based on my own experience working with traditional publishing houses, not self-publishing. I will be adding more resources over time, including resources for more advanced picture book creators. Also see my Picture Book 101 posts on Substack. Topics so far include Getting Started, Beginner Tips For Illustrators, Understanding Picture Book Format and Construction, and To Rhyme Or Not To Rhyme?
SOME BASICS FOR BEGINNING PICTURE BOOK CREATORS:
I strongly advise reading many picture books before trying to write or illustrate one yourself. Just because you are a brilliant MG or YA writer does not mean you can write brilliant picture books. Same advice applies to experienced artists. Familiarize yourself with what’s being published recently, not just the classics that you read when you were a child.
Familiarize yourself with the format. A standard picture book is 32 pages; this is because of how the physical book is constructed. It does not mean that all 32 pages are available for your story. There are many exceptions, but be aware that exceptions often cost a publisher more money. Tara Lazar has a great post about picture book construction, and so does John Shelley at Words & Pictures and Joyce Audy Zarins at WritersRumpus. Feel free to check out the 32-page thumbnail layout guide in my Templates For Book Creators.
Make every word count. Justin Chanda, my editor at Simon & Schuster Children’s, said that one of the biggest mistakes he sees aspiring picture book writers make is not taking the time to really hone their project. “Writers have so many ideas they want to work on one, move on to the next, flood an editor with a bunch of projects… Thing is, picture books take time. There is craft, there is fine tuning, there is CUTTING OF TEXT. All of this takes time. A book needs to be read aloud. It needs to be tweaked and made sure that every word is there for a reason — a good reason. Rushing to get through, or assuming that short = easy or quick is a recipe for disaster.”
If you decide to use rhyming text, make sure you know how to do it well. Many new picture book writers assume that they need to use rhyming text. The challenge is to do it WELL. If you find yourself changing the story or forcing certain things to happen just to make a rhyme work, rethink whether you should be using rhyme. One good exercise (suggested by my friend Heidi Stemple): write your mss in plain prose, without any rhyme, to see if it still holds up. Be aware that many editors have a knee-jerk negative reaction when they find out a mss uses rhyming text because of this tendency to use rhyming as a crutch. Do check out Josh Funk’s posts about the do’s and don’ts of rhyming picture books.
Read your text out loud. Picture books are often read aloud by parents, caregivers, educators, older siblings, the young reader themselves. Reading your own text out loud can help pinpoint problem areas. Are there places where you keep stumbling? Where your wording sounds awkward? If so, then you need to revise.
Avoid overtly pushing a “message” or “lesson.” Even if your book does have an underlying message, put reader experience first and foremost. Kids are smart and will likely be turned off if they feel they’re being lectured. Picture books are often rejected for being “overly didactic,” though it’s true that some stories are meant to teach lessons, like fables and nursery stories. Jennifer Laughran has a great post about this topic on her blog.
If you are writing a picture book manuscript and are not an illustrator, you do NOT need to find an illustrator before you send out your query. Most publishing houses prefer to find an illustrator themselves. There are many factors that go into this decision. Just a few: Is the illustrator’s style a good match for the text? Is the illustrator’s background a good match? Often an experienced and/or higher profile illustrator will be chosen for a debut picture book writer, because the illustrator’s name will help the book get more attention.
If you are an illustrator hoping to get work as a children’s book illustrator, you need to show agents, editors and art directors that you understand picture books and picture book illustration. In your portfolio, show that you are able to draw a character consistently through a sequence of several images. Have the character doing things, not just staring at the “camera” and smiling. Have the character interacting with other characters. Show different emotions, not just happy. Show that you can draw backgrounds. Show that you can draw children, not just adults. Show that you can draw a scene from different perspectives, not just from ground level. Vary lighting and mood. Make it easy for people to find your contact info.
Some other useful resources:
SCBWI’s The Book: The Essential Guide To Publishing For Children (updated regularly)
Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Creating Books For Kids and Teens (updated regularly)
Josh Funk’s Guide To Writing Picture Books: Includes special advice about RHYMING text.
Harold Underdown’s The Purple Crayon resource about writing, illustrating, and publishing children’s books
The Basics Of Picture Book Format:
Picture Book Dummy, Picture Book Construction: Know Your Layout – by Tara Lazar
Picture Book Basics – Sketches and Layout – by John Shelley
Picture Book Basics – Understanding Format – by John Shelly