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How to Write the Perfect Picture Book by Sarah Webb

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Writing for Children & YA
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Sarah Webb

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Writing picture books has been described as writing ‘haiku for aliens’. It’s definitely closer to writing poetry than anything else.

A lot of people think ‘Hey, I could write a picture book. Bang out a story about a teddy bear or a talking rabbit, get my mate to draw some pictures and bingo!’ But they are wrong. Picture books are the hardest books of all to write.

Every word matters. Every single line has to move the story along. Every page turn has to be a cliff hanger. Easy? No way, José!

lost and found coverWhat is a picture book?

A picture book is an illustrated book for young children of age 18 months to about 5 or 6 (or 44 – I love picture books!). There are usually colour illustrations on every page and the story is told through both the words and the pictures.

Why do they have to be brilliant?

Unlike novels for older children, picture books are read over and over again. Not only do you have to appeal to children, you also have to appeal to adults – parents, teachers, librarians. They are the ones reading Owl Babies or Where The Wild Things Are hundreds of times!

shaun tanHow long should a picture book be?

Between 150 and 600 words. Ideally 400 to 500 words. Of course, if you’re the next Shaun Tan or Lauren Child, a publisher may make an exception.

How many pages?

The average picture book has 32 pages – count them.

This is broken down into 24 pages of text and illustration or 12 double page spreads (sometimes slightly more if the end papers are used).

Again, if you are Oliver Jeffers, you may get away with a longer or shorter story, but if it’s your first book, it’s best to stick to the norm.

heart_in_the_bottle_oliver_jeffers_bigDo I need to be an artist too?

No. Publishers have plenty of great illustrators on their books. They are looking for strong, original picture book texts. Unless you are a professional artist of course.

Where do I start?

I would suggest starting with your own childhood – as this is what will make your story different. For example:

Is there a favourite toy you had as a child? Did it ever get lost? (Dogger by Shirley Hughes is a great example of a lost toy story)

Was there a favourite place you loved to go as a child?

Did you have a tree house?

A Wendy house? A special dressing up box?

Don’t be afraid of using strong emotion in your text – Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is about loneliness and friendship; The Heart and the Bottle is about love and loss.

Sarah Webb reading 'Sally Go Round the Stars'
Sarah Webb reading ‘Sally Go Round the Stars’

What about universal stories?

You could write about one of the following in a new or original way:

Overcoming the Monster – Little Red Riding Hood

Rags to Riches – Cinderella

Rebirth – The Very Hungry Caterpillar

The Quest – Lost and Found

You could rewrite a traditional fairy tale in a clever way or an Irish myth or legend.

Think warmth, humour, family, love and universal themes.

 

And good luck with your mini masterpieces!

 

Some Recommended Picture Books

where the wild things areLost and Found by Oliver Jeffers

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

Clarice Bean, That’s Me by Lauren Child

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

 

If you’d like more information on writing picture books try: How To Write a Children’s Picture Book by Andrea Shavick or Writing with Pictures by Uri Shelevitz

(c) Sarah Webb

About the author

Sarah Webb is from Dublin and writes for both children and adults. A former children’s bookseller, her Ask Amy Green series for age 10+ (Walker Books) has been shortlisted for the Queen of Teen Awards in the UK (twice) and the Irish Book Awards. The latest book in the series is Ask Amy Green: Wedding Belles. She also recently contributed a short story to the teen collection, And Then He Kissed Me (Walker Books).

Sarah combines writing with visiting schools, volunteering at Fighting Words (the creative writing centre in Dublin), reading at festivals, and teaching writing to both children and adults. She currently teaches Writing for Children at the Irish Writers’ Centre.

Her websites are www.sarahwebb.ie and www.askamygreen.com and you can find her on Facebook www.facebook.com/sarahwebbwriter or Twitter

Read Sarah’s 10 Tips on Writing Dialogue here, her ideas on How to Write for Children & Adults here, Sarah Webb & Martina O’Reilly on Plotting & Planning

Sarah explains about her Amy Green series here, and her adult books The Memory Box and The Shoestring Club

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