When I am at book signings or doing school visits, I often hear the question, “What advice do you have for someone writing their first picture book?” People are eager to learn the “secret” to writing a runaway best-selling picture book.
There IS a definite art to writing a picture book. For me, a perfect picture book is a seamless integration of pictures and words. They fit together like peanut butter and jelly. The words and the pictures might be good alone but they are GREAT together.
1. A Universal Theme
Contrary to popular belief, picture books do not have to have a message although they often do. If there is a message in a picture book, it should be subtle and left for the reader to decipher. What is important is a universal theme, a theme that readers can relate to: love, bedtime, friendship, teamwork, etc. Even humor can work as a theme. THE DOT by Peter Reynolds landed in USA Today’s Top 100 Children’s Books because of the book’s universal theme of creativity.
2. The Page Turn
Never underestimate the power of the page turn. Every good story needs to take a breath or have a moment of suspense. The page turn can be that quiet pause or that dramatic reveal. New York Times Bestselling book PETE THE CAT by Eric Litwin has an extremely successful use of the page turn, building the readers’ anticipation for the next moment in the story.
3. Think Visually
If you are not the illustrator, think (don’t write) visually. The story can be rich and full but there must still be room for the illustrator to work, stretching the confines of the story. Often, the subtext of the story can be found in the illustrations. Tell your story adroitly with an economy of words. Leslie Helakoski and Henry Cole demonstrate this perfectly with their book, BIG CHICKENS GO TO TOWN.
4. The Read-Aloud
Picture books are meant to be read aloud… in classrooms, in library story times, and at bedtime. Read your story aloud. Have others read your story aloud. Does the rhythm work? Is the story too long? Too short? How do others react to the read-aloud? Remember that you are writing for children and their keepers (parents, teachers, and librarians).
Your book must sound good to everyone hearing it. Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is one of the greatest children’s books of all time. Read it out loud and you’ll know why.
5. Jacket Flap Copy
Finally, write your jacket flap copy, that brief synopsis inside the dust jacket of the book. Even picture books, as short as they are, need to be summarized. Can you sum up your book in 1-2 sentences? Every author needs to be able to tell people what their book is about.
Okay, here’s a bonus tip. Have fun! Play with your words and have a ball. Remember that once in print, your picture book is forever. You are leaving a legacy. If even one reader is touched by your message, you are making a difference.