Writing for children: Picture books

Who are picture books for? In Britain, North America and Australasia, books with pictures are still largely for children. In the Far East where ‘comics’ are for adults as well as children, the graphic novel is a respectable art form. Thankfully, Western readers and publishers are finally coming around to see the value of illustrated stories for adults and the graphic novel is taking on a more literary slant. For an excellent discussion of this read Sunday Times Online. But as this is a series on writing for children, we will focus on what are commonly known as ‘picture books’.

Books for babies and toddlers

mick-inkpen-kippers-balloonBooks for 0 – 3s are often written in-house or commissioned from early learning specialists so there’s little scope for the hopeful writer here. It’s not impossible, however, although ‘big names’ such as Mick Inkpen (Kipper’s Balloon), Rod Campbell (Dear Zoo) and Allan and Janet Ahlberg (Peepo!) already dominate the market. Books for the youngest children in this category are sometimes known as ‘board books’ and are resistant to all but the most persistent gummers! Another feature of this range is the ‘touchy feely’ book, (a good example being That’s Not My Dinosaur by Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells) with fabric and textured paper to make reading a sensually interactive process. ‘Lift the flap’ books are also popular, although best kept for children over 12 months as ‘lift the flap’ may be understood as ‘rip the flap!. A perennial favourite is Where’s Spot? by Eric Hall, where children can help look for a missing puppy. The most eye-catching in this range, although potentially the most ‘destroyable’, are the pop-up books where paper ‘engineers’ are employed to design intricate 3D fold-up models. My daughter loves The Very Busy Bee by Jack Tickle. But for the first-time writer this age group offers little scope.

Rhyme and Verse

Since Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, lilting rhythms and funny rhymes have long been associated with children’s books. Alas, even though every parent knows that rhymes are one of the best ways to teach children to read, publishers are now reluctant to produce books with verse. This is because they make their money by selling translation rights into foreign languages and rhyme doesn’t translate well. However, this does not mean that no rhyming books are published and Julia Donaldson and Nick Sharratt have produced a delightful collection in Wriggle and Roar!. Another original is Down in the Daisies by Lucy Coats and Emily Bolam.

Books for 4 – 7s

ian-whybrow-harry-and-the-robotsThis is the classic age of picture books. The intricate details and sumptuous colours of illustrations in these books take one’s breath away. But this is a danger. For a more in-depth discussion of the lure of pretty pictures, see my article on what makes a good children’s book? Some of my favourite books for this age group include The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, Harry and the Robots by Ian Whybrow and Adrian Reynolds, Where’s Your Smile, Crocodile? by Claire Freedman and Sean Julian, and of course my very own David and the Hairy Beast. The Gruffalo and Where’s Your Smile? are pure whimsy, but books such as Harry and the Robots (and the whole Harry series) are designed to help children come to terms with stressful events such as a family illness or going to the dentist.

For first-time writers, this is the category in which you are most likely to get published. Publishers accept text only (for the younger age range, text and pictures are usually provided by a writer/illustrator). For this age group, publishers prefer to match writers and illustrators themselves. When you write, make sure that your subject matter, actions and choice of words give the illustrator plenty of scope. The illustrations will carry 50 – 75% of the story, so don’t be tempted to over describe. In a recent book I ghostwrote I said that an aeroplane ‘wrote goodbye in the sky’; after the illustrator did her sketches, I took out that line as readers could see it in the illustration so there was no need to repeat it in the text.

Stories range from 250 – 1000 words, spread over 32 pages, including titles and credits (on average you will have 27 -29 pages for text). A good rule of thumb is to write one paragraph with one action per page. Paragraphs should be no longer than 50 words; a single line can be a paragraph. Make yourself a dummy book of 16 folded A4 pages and see how your story fits in – you may have to write more or less to fit the layout better. Most books have actions spread over two pages (known as a double-page spread), with a few singles thrown in here or there. Page through a few books yourself to get an idea of layout before trying your own. When sending your text off to a publisher or agent however, do not send a dummy book unless you are also an illustrator. For writers, the convention is to send continuous text with page layout suggestions. For example:

(p 5 – [first text page]) Sophie has been sick for a long time. The doctor told her she would have to stay at home until she got better. How long will that take?” asked Sophie
“I don’t know,” said the doctor. “At least a few weeks.”

(p 6) Sophie is bored. She’s read every book on her shelf.

(p7) She’s watched every DVD in the house.

(pp 8 – 9) And she’s counted the stars on her wallpaper until her fingers and toes ran out.

[and so on until page 32)

Chapter Books

Donovon's Rainbow - children's novelI mention these only to show you what a picture book isn’t. ‘Chapter books’ are books for early readers from, on average, seven upwards. They still have illustrations, but not on every page. This is to encourage children to become less dependent on graphic props while reading. If your picture book text is struggling to fit under 1000 words then perhaps your plot is too complex for the younger age group and you should consider a chapter book. Text ranges from 1000 to 15000 words. Roald Dahl (The BFG) and Anne Fine (The Diary of a Killer Cat) are good examples of authors writing for this age group. My own book, Donovon’s Rainbow falls into the chapter book category.

General tips for writing picture books:

  • The story should deal with a disruption in a child / childlike character’s world and how order is restored.
  • Make sure the child is the main problem solver.
  • Adults may be present to bring reassurance, but should never take over.
  • Focus on one plot line with a small cast of characters.
  • Use rhythm, repetition, alliteration and assonance.
  • Reflect all five senses in your writing. Don’t be scared to make up onomatopoeic words eg shlunk.
  • Approach your writing with a ‘child’s eye view’. Pretend you are five years old and write the story of your day. How does your ‘child’ writing voice differ from your adult one? If there’s no difference, perhaps this age group isn’t for you.

Next time I’ll be dealing with how to approach a publisher or agent, so make sure you check back soon!

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6 comments on “Writing for children: Picture books

  1. Pingback: Anonymous

  2. Hi there,
    Great to read about the picture books bit. I have written a picture book (well, I think it is complete) but it is not up to 32 pages. The age range is 4 -6 years.
    It is only 8 pages and 132 words!
    Pray tell me, does this mean it does not qualify?
    Thank you.

  3. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Ekwy, 8 pages and 132 words is perfectly acceptable for a picture book, but it’s usually for under 4s. 4-6s want a bit of a longer read. So either lower your age group (simpler plot line, easier words) or increase the length. Or have another look and see whether or not your text really is for 4-6s. Good luck with it and thanks for visiting.

  4. Hello Fiona,

    I have a 3 and a half year old and it seems to me that there is a blurred line between what she is reading now and what 4 year olds read. I am not sure about the reworking of the text; how to make words easy per se or if words I have used are slightly hard.
    The aim of the book is to encourage older siblings that is why I am positioning it for 4 – 6s.
    I will work on increasing the length as that definitely makes sense.
    Thank you for your help and insight.

  5. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Ekwy. The distinction between the two age groups is artificial. It’s more of a guide for publishers than an accurate reflection of reading age. My daughter is two and a half, and although she can’t read, is still bored with the stories aimed at the under 4s. Of course, we could just have child geniuses on our hands! I think you’re right to keep it for the older age group and extend to length. If you would like me to have a look at it when you’ve finished I do offer a critiqueing service . Contact me privately if you’d like to pursue this option. Good luck with it whatever you decide.

  6. Pingback: David and the Kingmaker is going to press : Fiona Veitch Smith

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