You might think children’s picture books are easier to write since there aren’t many words. But at Writer’s Relief, we know it can be harder to write a picture book than a novel, especially if you’ve written mostly for adult or young adult readers. An engaging children’s picture book is not merely the result of simplifying content for younger readers. Here’s how to write a children’s picture book that will enthrall readers of all ages with words as well as images.
Tips And Advice On How To Write A Children’s Picture Book
Planning Your Picture Book: The Topic
- Decide if your picture book will be fiction or nonfiction. While fiction picture books have long been popular, nonfiction picture books have an ever-growing space in the market. Teachers and parents alike appreciate a picture book with a curriculum tie-in, but a picture book doesn’t have to be educational to be beloved by children.
- Choose kid-friendly subject matter. From silly to profound, make sure your picture book topic will resonate with its main audience: children! This can be particularly tricky for nonfiction. Educational books that teach about grammar, emotional literacy, or STEM topics can also be big hits—but remember to keep these lessons approachable, and write at a grade level appropriate for your child readers! If you’re going to write a biography, choose someone a younger audience would be interested in or can relate to.
- Use a child narrator. This tip makes practical sense: Children will relate best to books that feature other children. Many picture books also feature animals or mythical creatures like unicorns and mermaids—but these narrators are also usually childlike characters, not adults. The one exception to this rule would be picture book biographies.
- Consider that picture books featuring relationships are popular. Learning to build healthy relationships is one of the most important aspects of childhood, so relationships are an incredibly popular picture book topic. Your picture book might feature siblings, classmates, friends, or parents and children. These might be happy relationships or instances used to teach children how to work through conflict.
- Package your message effectively. Even the youngest children are smarter than many adults give them credit for. So, while picture books that teach lessons or feature messages can be a great way to get a point across to a young audience, make sure your book doesn’t feel didactic or preachy. It’s often better for a child to watch a character learn a lesson in the context of a story than to have that lesson lectured to them without a framework. Even with picture books, the golden rule of writing still applies: show, don’t tell!
- Don’t be afraid to tackle “hard” topics. While some writers think only sunshiny, “fun” topics will sell picture books, children have to face difficult times in life just like adults do—grief, financial insecurity, mental health struggles, moving, to name a few—and books can offer guidance during these tough times. Books on difficult topics can also help children build empathy for others facing those issues.
Planning Your Picture Book: The Mechanics
Word count: Fiction picture books can have no words, as few as 50 or 100 words, or go up to about 1,000 words. Your word count will depend largely on the age range you’re targeting (more on that later), the complexity of your subject matter, and your writing style. These days, picture books are trending shorter, with an average length for fiction at around 500 words. (Some fiction picture books about serious social/emotional topics typically have word counts closer to 1,000.)
Nonfiction picture books tend to be longer, ranging from 500 to 1,500 words—but you should still try to stay around 1,000 words, and never go over 2,000.
Page count: Fun fact: Picture books are usually published in multiples of eight pages. Thirty-two pages and 40 pages are common lengths for fiction picture books, while most nonfiction picture books are 40 pages.
Rhyming or not rhyming: There’s no rule that picture books must rhyme; in fact, the market for rhyming picture books is tight. Agents and editors often feel that rhyming picture books are stiff, and that the writer is manipulating their story to fit the rhyme scheme, rather than letting the story unfold organically. Prose or free verse will give you a lot more freedom! And using subtle rhythm, plus figurative devices like alliteration, can still give your picture book that classic, lyrical feel kids love—without the forced rhyme.
Age range and target market: Picture books are typically marketed for an age range of 4-8, sometimes focusing on a narrower or slightly younger range (for example, ages 3-6). Nonfiction picture books might target readers up to age 10. Both fiction and nonfiction picture books tend to find the most readers not only through trade channels (meaning traditional direct-to-consumer sales, like bookstores and websites), but also in classrooms and libraries (and school libraries too!).
Back matter: Included at the end of the book after the main text of the story, back matter can feature elements like references or an author’s note. The back matter might include background historical information, or further actions to take for topics like climate change, or fun ideas like crafts or recipes related to the book. Back matter is often attractive to the grown-ups reading the book, since it gives them further activity ideas. But keep in mind, this is a children’s book, so make sure any back matter is aimed at the right target audience!
Images: Unless you’re also artistically talented, you’ll need to collaborate with an illustrator or choose photographic images. Please note: If you’re not using photos you’ve taken, you’ll need to be sure you have the rights to use the images. You can’t take random images from the Internet and put them into your book!
And Our Best Advice For Writing Picture Books…
Read, read, read! Picture books aren’t throwaway, first draft texts—they take lots of careful research, just like adult books. While this includes research on the subject matter, you’ll also want to research the type of language and narrative “voice” used in picture books. The best way to do that is to read other popular children’s picture books! Make sure to read a mix of “classics” and current picture books that are selling well—you may remember your favorite picture books from when you were a child, but the market and styles have changed drastically.
By following these tips, you’ll be ready to write a children’s picture book that will have your readers eagerly turning the pages! And once you’ve written your children’s picture book and are ready to publish, contact our self-publishing division, Self-Publishing Relief, for a free consultation. We may be able to help you navigate every step of the self-publishing process—and you’ll have a finished book you’ll be proud to put your name on.
Question: What is the title of your favorite children’s picture book?