Sunday, 30 May 2010

When is a picture book NOT a picture book?

I am reminded of the old joke. When is a door not a door?  When it's ajar!
Okay, so not the funniest joke ever but it is simple and for children of a certain age it is mildly amusing. Recognising what is appropriate and interesting to children, and at what age, is one of the first and potentially most important considerations when writing a picture book.

Picture books are delightful, bright and full of fun.  They also come in various shapes and sizes, some wordy and others with few if any words at all. So I can understand the confusion that can cause if you are new to writing them.   But at the heart of it all has to be the child it is intended for and as a writer you have to keep that child at the front of your mind.

I sometimes (although rarely) agree to read someone's picture book text before they send it to a publisher or agent.  I rarely accept partly because the time spent doing this is time I am not spending writing, but also because it will only be MY OPINION.  There is no guarantee - even if I love it- that it will find a publisher or an agent prepared to submit it to a publisher. It is their opinion that matters, not mine.

What I can often tell, almost at first glance, is whether it is actually a picture book text and not better suited to a slightly older age group or a book with few if any pictures.

 So how do I know?

It takes more than the space and time allotted here to tell you in detail but there are certain things that stand out.

1- A picture book is basically exactly that.  A book where a minimum of 50% and more often much more is picture.  The text can be minimal and often it is better if it is.  A guide (not a rule!) is that it should be no more than 1000 words but often the wordy-ness  (if that is a word) can be cut out to great effect.  Remember it is a book of two parts. Two creative skills working together the author and the illustrator. Both together makes a picture book so much more.

2-  The pictures carry some of the story - this means that the text does not describe everything that is going on or even what the characters look like or what they are doing.  This is a common mistake and it is obvious that the author has not been thinking visually.  It doesn't mean you have to draw anything  but as the story is forming in your head you need to be thinking of it as if you could imagine the pictures.  Often this makes it a little difficult when you eventually see what the illustrator draws because it can  end up nothing like you had imagined- that is not necessarily bad, in fact it is a plus.

3- The text needs to be readable.  A picture book is normally a book that is read aloud to children and for that reason it should be easy to read out loud and even better if it has a good rhythm.  Many people think it should be in rhyme but I would say little or no rhyme with a strong rhythm is much better. One main reason, to be honest, is that good interesting rhyme is incredibly difficult to do well. Publishers will also tell you that it is more difficult to get the all important translation deals if it is in rhyme.  One great test of readability is to read it out loud yourself, or even better get someone else to read it to you.  Then you will see the cumbersome parts!

4- Appropriate subject matter. By this I mean writing about things that are not right for the age group, either too complicated or not something that small children are interested in.  Something that might be appealing to an older child or something that as an adult you recall being interested in when you were young.  Ways to make sure it is right for the age  group (generally picture books are aimed  at children of 5 or under) are to spend time with small children if you can, listen to what they talk about,  read to them to see what they enjoy, or at the very least spend time in a good children's bookshop or the library and read lots of picture books.

5- Keep it simple!  The very best books are simple but that can be deceiving - make no mistake - that is where the real 'craft' is.  


  1. I wanted to share my list of Favorite Picture Books You've Never Heard of at

    Pragmatic Mom
    Type A Parenting for the Modern World
    I blog on children's lit, parenting and education

  2. Interesting list, thanks for sharing it.