How To Write Children’s Picture Books, by Tara Lazar
“Anyone can write a children’s book!”
Yep, that’s the response I get when I tell people I write for kids.
“After all, they’re just kids,” they say with a flick of the wrist.
As if kids are simpletons. As if kids don’t care what they read. As if kidlit publishers will buy any drivel.
We know this is not true.
Kids are smart, and picky about what they read. Publishers are inundated with so many children’s book manuscripts (because ‘anyone’ can write for kids, ‘everyone’ does) that they have to be extremely discerning.
As a child, I adored Roald Dahl’s fantastical tales, devoured the “Fudge” series by Judy Blume, and discovered a bookish best friend forever in Ramona. So I decided to write a book.
I wrote my first fractured fairy tale at age 8, and boasted that a publisher would snatch it up soon. My grandparents, misunderstanding, revved up the Chrysler and high-tailed it to Walden’s, searching in vain for my book.
Fast forward 30 years. I now have one picture book in print and four more on the way. Grandma and Grandpa would be proud (and would find my book on the store shelves).
Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about how to write children’s picture books that I wish I’d known early on. Here are my six top tips.
#1. Concept sells.
Write about a subject that excites kids—robots, ballerinas, dump trucks, aliens, princesses, super heroes, and so on.
Imagine your cover on bookstore shelves. Ask yourself: will kids make a beeline for that image?
Stay away from overdone topics like getting a pet, having a new baby in the family, moving to a new home, or meeting the tooth fairy.
Holiday books have a limited sales window and a lot of competition, so it’s wise to avoid Christmas stories, too. Break in with something unique.
#2. Be aware of page breaks.
Most picture books have 32 pages, but not all pages are for story; some are used for end papers, the title page and copyright details.
Typically, there are 24 pages for story, which works out to twelve double-page spreads.
Take advantage of page turns – make them surprising and fun. Change your scene.
It helps to plug your story into a dummy when revising. Does your story fit the format?
#3. Rhyme only if you can rhyme well.
Editors see a lot of bad rhyme, mostly in the form of common rhyme, forced rhyme and inconsistent meter.
Couplets like fun / run / sun and do / too / you are not original. It’s obvious when a writer gets locked into a rhyme scheme that dictates the story and sends it on an unbelievable path.
Examine the work of rhyming masters like Jane Yolen, Jack Prelutsky, Karma Wilson, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Corey Rosen Schwartz.
#4. Keep it under 500 words.
The current “sweet spot” for picture book manuscripts is 500 words. Sometimes even fewer words are preferred. (My friend’s new book is only 20 words!)
Manuscripts with 800-1000 words don’t sell as well, so write tight to improve your odds of being published.
Remember that illustrations will tell half your tale, so you don’t need to be overly descriptive.
#5. Don’t be preachy.
Many children’s writers feel the need to teach kids a lesson.
“Message-driven” stories aren’t popular with children (or editors). It’s not fun to be lectured.
While every picture book should have an underlying emotional theme – like the love of family, friendship, or fitting in – it should avoid being didactic.
These five tips will give you a head start on how to write picture books. A great way to begin is my November writing challenge, PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month).
For a picture book, writing well is not enough – you must have a unique hook that jumps out and grabs the reader. They say that for every twenty ideas you have, you get one great idea, which is why I created PiBoIdMo.
The challenge is to jot down one picture book concept daily through November. At the end of the month, you should have thirty or more bright and shiny ideas from which to choose. At least one is sure to be a winner.
I promised six tips, so I owe you one.
#6. Read picture books.
Read a lot of them. Picture books have a unique rhythm and cadence, a certain subtlety that can only be understood by reading and absorbing them.
Examine how the art and text work together to form the whole. Don’t just look at what’s being said – see what’s left unsaid.
I suggest reading 500 picture books before you sit down to write your first manuscript. You’ll be far ahead of the competition.
So are you ready? Start writing!
If you’re seeking a literary agent, have 3-5 manuscripts ready to go. Agents rarely sign picture book authors on one book alone, because it’s not lucrative enough.
I assure you that with every picture book manuscript you write, your ability to write tight and clever will improve.
Tara Lazar writes picture books and witty blog posts. Her debut book, The Monstore, is available now from Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, with several more titles forthcoming. If you want to write for kids, join the kidlit party at taralazar.com.