Picture Book Writing: A Different Kind of Dos and Don'ts List

Thursday, May 06, 2021
There are a lot of posts and articles, conference talks and YouTube videos and classes, that tell you the dos and don'ts of picture book writing. (Click the link for one by our very own Sue Bradford Edwards!) There are a lot of rules and best practices for picture book writers, and so when I said a couple of weeks ago that I was writing about the dos and don'ts of picture book writing--you probably rolled your eyes. 

But bear with me. I want to present a different kind of dos and don'ts list--one that reaches into your writer's soul and grabs on. One that allows you to write the best book you can for our youngest readers. 

The only "rule" I'll mention before I go on to the Dos and Don'ts is this: a picture book is a story that we should be telling with pictures and words--it's so different than any of the other books we can write because we have to think about the illustrations as we write. What part of the story can the illustrations tell? 

For example, in Maggie Mae, Detective Extraordinaire: The Case of the Missing Cookies, I didn't have to describe what Maggie or Grandma look like or the kitchen or even the detective's notebook. Jack Foster did it brillantly for me with his super cute illustrations. And that's just one example of thousands I could share with you. 

Study picture books--from the bestseller lists to the new, independently-published ones, from books published fifty years ago to one published yesterday. How did the artist and the writer work together to tell the story? Figure that out. Look for patterns. Work these into your own stories.


The biggest thing I think you can do for your young readers is to work even harder than you would on a novel for adults when writing picture book text. Kids are TOUGH critics. I've talked about this before. When my daughter said that she wanted to read Finding My Place, I was terrified. (And she liked it--whew!) But besides children being tough critics and brutally honest, they deserve good literature read to them and to read themselves. As a writer for this audience, read a lot of picture books--good and bad--and get a feel for the way the words work and flow and are begging to be read aloud. Make your manuscript sing and dance. I know picture book writers who take a year to write a book (under 1000 words) because they want to get the perfect word into each and every sentence.


Don't think you're "less" of a writer because you're a picture book writer. Don't think everyone can do it because they can't. You have 1000 words or less with some illustrations to tell a complete story with action rising to a climax, with characters whom kids can relate to, with a situation that is "picture book material," with a resolution and satisfying ending. What I like to do when I'm writing picture books is to have my young reader front and center in my mind--don't picture the parents and grandparents buying the books or the teachers reading it to their classes. While you're writing, think of a child you know who is picture book age, and write the book for her or him.


Share your stories with the world. Once you've perfected it, once you've worked hard on it, once you've workshopped it or had it critiqued or professionally edited, don't let illustrations or fear (or any of the other million excuses) stop you from getting the book out there. If you can't find an agent or a publisher, then do it yourself. The publishing world is wide open right now, waiting for your well-crafted, funny or lovely, sassy or witty, cute or serious picture book. 

If you have questions about picture book writing, I'm happy to answer them in the comments below!  Or leave a couple titles of some of your favorite picture books for us to check out. And I'll be back with post 3 of this 4 post series in a few weeks. 

Until then...happy writing! 

Margo L. Dill is a published author of two picture books, Maggie Mae, Detective Extraordinaire: The Case of the Missing Cookies, and That's the Way It Always Happened (which is a story that takes place during Red Ribbon Week). She offers a picture book editing package on her editor website here. To find out more about Margo and her writing, check out her website here


Jeanine DeHoney said...

Once again Margo, these are great picture book writing tips. Thanks.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--I love Cynthia Rylant's picture books. I also love Lester Laminack's "Saturdays and Teacakes" among many other picture books.

Picture books ARE tough to write. However, when they're written well, they're powerful, because in a small amount of words, they're able to convey a message, share a feeling or recreate an era.

Margo Dill said...

Thanks, Jeanine.

Yes, Sioux, I completely agree. They are some of our most powerful books and ones that stick with us our whole lives. My favorite is probably Patricia Polacco. But when I was young, I loved that Grover book about the Monster at the end of the book. I thought that was so funny!

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