The Picture Book: Why they’re so hard to write, and steps to your best book

“I want to write a picture book.” How many times have we heard (or said) those words? Each year, thousands of aspiring writers set out to create the next Goodnight Moon or Where the Wild Things Are, but only a handful succeed in getting published, let alone making it to the top of the lists. Why is writing a picture book so hard? 

First, let’s talk about the obvious. A picture book requires both words and pictures (unless you’re B.J. Novak), which automatically makes it doubly hard to be successful. And, unlike with novels or nonfiction, you can’t waste a single sentence. A 400-page book can have multiple skim-worthy paragraphs and still be a bestseller, but a picture book has to be held to a higher standard. Your words are limited, and you have to make every one of them funny or moving or rhyming or clever. But the hardest part of all is that you’re catering to two totally different audiences.

On the one hand, you need to draw in the adults. Booksellers and librarians have to carry (and sell) your title, and adults have to want to buy it. Beyond that, they then have to be willing to read it over and over and over again.

On the other hand, your book has to appeal to young children. That means that all those funny or moving or rhyming or clever words need to speak to kids on their level, and the pictures have to capture their increasingly stretched attentions.

Alas, there is no one formula for creating a smash hit picture book. Just look at the New York Times Bestseller List this past week. We have crayons that won’t color (or maybe they will), a book with no pictures at all, a charming story of dreaming big, the true story of a bear, taco-eating dragons, a tale of a boy and his grandmother, pages of bright dots, a bunch of sleepy trucks, and impatient toys.

So while many great picture books have nothing in common, there are still plenty of things you can do, learn, and try to get your book into the hands of readers. Here are some short and sweet tips to help in the picture book process.

  • Go to your bookstore or library and read as many picture books as you can. Cute ones, hilarious ones, and even weird ones. Get inspired by other authors and see what readers are connecting to in your genre.
  • That being said, be original. There’s nothing wrong with following a trend or targeting a niche, but don’t try to copy Eric Carle’s collage art style or Dr. Seuss’s whimsical rhymes. You don’t want your book to feel like a knockoff.
  • Try to keep your picture book text under 1,000 words. Why? Picture books are generally read out loud, and often at bedtime. Shorter texts make reading (and paying attention) easier for both parents and kids.
  • Product test. Before going to a publisher or literary agent, read your book to kids in your target age range. Get their reactions, and get the reactions of their parents.
  • Make sure your story matches your art, and that both flow well together. The experience should be seamless, and in a perfect world, the art and the text are equals.
  • Not everyone is born to be an author-illustrator. If you can’t draw or writing isn’t your thing, don’t try to force it. A book with great text and bad art (or vice versa) will be probably be rejected. Stick with your strengths. Publishers can find you your other half.
  • Expect challenges. The picture book market is notoriously difficult—you’re creating books that are expensive to make, selling books that are at some of the industry’s highest price points, and to top it off, you’re entering some stiff competition. Classic picture books can have an incredibly long life, leaving even less room for newcomers to the game.
  • Practice patience. If your book does get picked up by a publisher, the publishing process is lengthy. The back and forth with an artist (even if the artist is you!) can take several months, and then most likely the book will be printed overseas, adding another three to four months before the book is even ready.
  • Think print and digital. Although 81% of parents say print is the best format to read with a child, digital has its benefits. Think about whether your picture book could benefit from becoming an e-book with audio or interactive features to make reading more fun.

Writing a picture book is no small task, but it’s not impossible either. Check out the links below for more words of wisdom when it comes to the children’s book world. And good luck!

The Three Commandments of Writing a Picture Book

How to Write a Picture Book

How to Write Children’s Picture Books

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Children’s Book

How to Create a Fantastic Picture Book

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