Updated: Jul 25, 2019
By Brenda Gurr
Writing a picture book is easy … isn’t it?
What characterises a typical picture book? It is short. It has most likely been created with small children in mind, many of whom may not be able to read yet. It has a simple storyline and few characters. And, of course, it relies heavily on pictures for appeal. No wonder many aspiring writers decide to have a go at writing their own. Couldn’t be that hard to write … right?
Well, great picture books—the ones that become our favourites—are far more difficult to write than it might seem at first glance. Here’s a few reasons why.
Picture books rely on careful word choice
Think about it—picture book writers have (typically) 32 pages of scant text to tell an engaging story. It’s like decorating your house on a miniscule budget and making it look like a Hollywood mansion. Every single word has to earn its place and be fabulous. An author will mostly use simple words but they might also throw in some well-chosen and challenging words from time to time. The English language is rich and colourful and it’s a wonderful privilege to introduce children to that world.
Picture book authors need to keep up with modern publishing trends
Picture book content and themes have changed over time—and will keep on changing. Some of the modern trends are for shorter books (fewer than 500 words) and stories that are simple on the surface while subtly teaching children about bigger issues and ideas. Modern publishers are also keen on characters that dig deep to solve their own problems. At Red Paper Kite, we value quirkiness, diversity and beauty in our stories and we love to share this with our readers.
Picture book authors need to get out of the way
… of the illustrator, that is. It’s often hard for word nerds (like me!) to think visually, but that’s precisely what good picture book writers need to do. They must resist the temptation to tell the reader everything—the illustrator must be given space to show details about the story, setting and characters in their pictures. After all, part of the joy of reading a picture book is getting lost in the illustrations.
Picture books need to portray strong characters
Readers of fiction always identify with well-crafted, empathetic characters, and those represented in picture books are no exception. With so few words at their disposal, picture book authors need to make characters come alive on the page almost instantly. Make no mistake, experienced picture book authors spend many hours crafting their characters so they have an impact on readers and, hopefully, become memorable favourites.
Picture books have to be suitable for reading aloud
Picture book authors need to be mindful of the classic picture book experience—of an adult reading to a child. A good picture book is easy and interesting to read aloud, with words that weave pleasing rhythms and don’t cause stumbles and stutters for tired parents who are embarking on reading the fourth picture book in a row to a demanding toddler (yep, I’ve certainly been there).
So next time you read a picture book you love, please, please don’t think it was easy to write. Or that anyone could do it.
Like any wonderful piece of literature, you can be sure it has been created with an abundance of skill, care and hard work—especially any published by us!